How America Could Change, Along With the Climate

Recognizing that our climate is really changing is only half the battle. There's what to do about it.

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There is something we can do.

Climate change is one of our most contentious public topics, especially under a president who denies science as a Chinese conspiracy. Let’s start with something the president isn’t able to understand: facts.

Climate change is accelerating because of nature. It is also caused by human activity. This conclusion has been immensely criticized by the right-wing media, but at least 80% of climate-science experts agree with this conclusion.

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Even if we stop all the causes of climate change today — which we won’t — the climate will continue to change. These changes will almost certainly devastate many species on earth, including our own. Sea level rise, arguably the most obvious threat posed by climate change and its effects, could flood most, if not all, the coastal cities on the planet within the lifetime of a child born in 2018. Climate change will not “go back” on any time scale meaningful to human beings.

Not only is humankind incapable of reversing the worst effects of climate change, we have not found a way as yet to engineer our way out of it. Some places are certainly trying, such as NYC, which is considering the construction of seawalls to safeguard against rising tides. Yet, how serious of a solution can that be? NYC sits barely above the existing sea level. It’s built between a major river and an estuary. Most of its critical infrastructure lies well below ground.

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So there are no plausible solutions or approaches? Not any? Not one?

Allow me to suggest that one approach is to elect people to public office who acknowledge the facts and are willing to lead the country not only toward the necessities of our survival but toward pulling our collective foot off the accelerator of change and toward any opportunities that these changes may present. Let’s elect people to public office who will refute the often-repeated lie that we must have a “mix” of power sources, including fossil fuels, into the indefinite future; we should bequeath that lie to history alongside sails, steam engines and oxcarts. A petroleum-free society is possible in the near-immediate future, and the transition to such an economy would represent an untold number of jobs. There is a future in wind power, solar power, thermoacoustic refrigeration, hydrogen fuel cells and decentralized systems of generation. No big, vulnerable power grid required.

Just as this change, alone, will make us cleaner and wealthier, it will also extricate us from the endless, unpredictable vicissitudes of Middle East politics and violence. Imagine that.

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But, to be clear, such a change still won’t take care of a retreat from the coasts, where almost 40% of Americans live. Indeed, we are likely face a massive population migration inward from the coasts — as city by city, region by region, person by person, are killed in large numbers and as the survivors, earthly possessions gone, look desperately for shelter where they can find it, welcome or not.

And such a change won’t move any of the hundreds of billions of dollars worth of coastal infrastructure, encompassing ports, roads, railroads, warehouses, water and sewer plants, factories, refineries and power plants, that will follow this inward migration. (The last two, of course, could and should be dismantled carefully and recycled, not moved.)

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Imagine if we’d had a nation planner — not necessarily a James Madison or an Alexander Hamilton, but someone educated, like a city planner, to lay out a more sensible country. We’d have done a good many things quite differently from how things have turned out. We’d have put all the farms in the east, where it rains, and all the cities in the west, where the weather’s good and most of the ore used to be. Cities would have been constructed with plenty of room for infrastructure growth, and with minimal disruption of existing patterns. Cities would all have lots more green space, superb public transportation, and economically integrated neighborhoods. Cities would be ringed with enough farmland to be nearly self sufficient. Cities would have reliable water supplies for 200 years of growth, and minimal needs for landfill, and recycling built into all their operations. Our predecessors, of course, did none of this.

But then again, this generation could. This generation could spend many billions of dollars building cities of the future, attracting companies there, and filling them with people whose moves could be subsidized before emergencies make them expensive. Where’s the money? ExxonMobil has it, along with British Petroleum and Royal Dutch Shell. The greenhouse effect has been understood since the 1950s, and the executives of these and other big oil companies have understood what they were doing to the global environment for at least half a century. They used the same researchers, in some cases, as Big Tobacco, to cover up the same sorts of lethal lies to the general public, their victims.

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In the case of Big Tobacco, much of the huge settlement of combined lawsuits against the companies wound up — in one of the most exasperating ironies of legal history — back in the hands of tobacco companies. Some , did go to tobacco cessation programs, and those have been phenomenally successful.

Similar judgments against Big Oil could be used to build new cities on two or three different models, and to move people into them with incentives to come in from the coasts before they pay penalties for staying. My guess is the effort would be phenomenally successful.

You don’t have to destroy capitalism to do this. You just have to show capitalists the way. They’re slow.