The coast ain’t clear

trouble_in_new_orleans.jpgAs 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 . . .?

About Emmett Duffy

I am a Natural Patriot and an ecologist with expertise in biodiversity and its importance to human society. My day job is Professor of Marine Science at the College of William and Mary in Virginia.
This entry was posted in Oceans, Politics, Sustainability and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

7 Responses to The coast ain’t clear

  1. The water crisis here in southern California is another disaster waiting to happen. I will be quite interested to see whether 24 million people can come to terms with living in the desert, not an irrigated jungle. (But I’m not sticking around to see it – living in a desert makes me nervous.

  2. Tripp says:

    Actually, we are smart and resourceful enough to know that we don’t need insurance, we have a wonderful government that will take care of our irresponsible selves when we lose our newly rebuilt houses to the next flood/storm/wildfire, because politics always comes first, and heartlessness is political death.

  3. Emmett Duffy says:

    Miriam, you’ve hit the nail on the head. Oil we will eventually be able to do without — but water is another matter. That will be the start of the next world war. Not to get too pessimistic . . .

    Now, Tripp, surely I don’t detect sarcasm from you! Unfortunately, I think you’re very close to the truth. On the other hand, the right wing has been phenomenally successful over the last decade or so in promoting heartless policies while cleverly convincing a majority of voters that they are actually “Christian” values.

  4. Tripp says:

    You are right Emmett. It isn’t the heartlessness that is political death, it is the appearance of heartlessness. But, I guess that’s a universal political truth: appearances are most important.

  5. Pingback: A Blog Around The Clock

  6. Pingback: » The coast ain’t clear Building Societies on The Finance World For News and Information Around The World On Finance: Find Info, News and More on Building Societies

  7. “can rise above our inherited emotional attachments and act on the rational knowledge we have to make the coming transition without catatsrophe” – I don’t think so, people live their lives in a day to day way, look at the people around the world living on the side of volcanos. So it is down to governments, but again how can they instruct whole populations to relocate…