As global society begins to come to grips with the reality of climate change underway, and the James Inhofes of the world fade into obscurity or historical curiosity, the focus is turning slowly to the real work of figuring out how to deal with it.
A major concern is sea level rise. More than half the American population (not to mention the millions in places like Bangladesh) lives in the coastal fringe that makes up only 17% of the country’s land area. In 2003, 23 of the 25 most densely populated U.S. counties were in the coastal zone.
Last week’s issue of Science features a special section on “Reimagining Cities” (including, among other things, a brief but fascinating piece on the prospects for “vertical farms” that grow crops within urbanized city limits). One of the articles focuses on the special threats to coastal cities and populations stemming from climate change, starting with a central problem in human nature, exemplified by the psychological inability of New Orleans residents to give up even the flooded low-lying areas that are clearly already lost to Hurricane Katrina:
“Residents of New Orleans are not alone in their dogged determination to place themselves in harm’s way. According to a report last August from the Government Accountability Office (GAO), nearly half the U.S. population lived in counties that had declared flood disasters at least six times between 1980 and 2005, and 29% made their home in a county hit by at least one hurricane in that time. Large swaths of the western United States are at risk of wildfires, such as those that emptied parts of southern California last October. People are willing to gamble by building homes on earthquake fault lines, in landslide zones, and along tornado alleys. ‘Population trends are increasing the nation’s vulnerability to these risks,’ the GAO report noted dryly.”
Hope springs eternal, which is generally inspiring of course, but sometimes blinds us. Urban planners have made little headway in convincing people or local governments that some of their policies place people and property in serious danger. But economic forces (take note, skeptical conservatives) are beginning to respond, in the form of jittery insurance companies:
“Allstate Insurance let 120,000 policies lapse in Florida in 2006, after canceling 95,000 the year before. Another major insurer, State Farm, declined to renew 39,000 windstorm policies in 2006. In a sign of how dire the situation has become, the Citizens Property Insurance Corp., set up by Florida legislators in 2002 as the insurer of last resort, is now the state’s biggest property insurer. It has raised premiums by as much as 150% in the last 2 years. Rising premiums may price some residents out of hurricane zones”.
It will be fascinating, albeit unnerving, to see whether we as a society (or societies) can rise above our inherited emotional attachments and act on the rational knowledge we have to make the coming transition without catatsrophe. Surely we’re smart and resourceful enough to do that . . .?