If climate change happens gradually—over a century, say, or even a few decades—then civilization might have time to adjust.
As the sea rises, we might act as we do after major disasters like Hurricane Katrina by pooling resources and rushing aid to the victims. Those countries less acutely affected by the swelling ocean might donate hundreds of billions of dollars to help the teeming coastal populations of low-lying countries like Bangladesh, Indonesia, Viet Nam, and the Philippines relocate inland, build shelters for them, help them establish new cities with new buildings and new infrastructure, and provide food, water, medicine, and security amid the transition.
We might be able to do this even as we pour resources into our own cities like New York and Miami as the ocean creeps inland. If we have a few decades, we might find the collective inner resolve and fellowship to adapt to the changes we’re now setting into inexorable motion. We might muster the collective responsibility to work against the common threat, just as we did in World War Two.
It’s Not About Sea Level, It’s About Agriculture
But what if climate change is more abrupt? What if it’s not the gradual creep of the sea that is the planetary disaster, but the rapid collapse of agriculture?
The easiest way to deal with this idea is to dismiss it. That isn’t going to happen, so why worry about it? It’s a crackpot notion. Let’s move on.
But if you think there’s a chance that the ice cap could disappear soon, permanently altering the jet stream and the seasonal highs and lows that drive weather patterns, then it’s worth considering.
In that case, which of these phenomena will not increase and impair our willingness (let alone ability) to cooperate and respond?
- Income disparity
- Tax shortfalls
- Gated communities
- Election irregularities
- Surveillance by camera
- Surveillance by drone
- Data mining
- Cavity searches
- Armed militias
- Accusations of treachery
- Arrest and indefinite detention without charge or access to counsel
- Extra-judicial summary executions
Just to establish a sense of scale: The U.S. appropriated at least $62 billion to respond to Katrina—and that’s not counting private donations. (How much of that was actually spent on recovery is another issue.) I wonder how much permanent GHG reduction we could do for $62 billion. Quite a lot, I’m sure.
I also wonder how much it will cost to “save” New York and Miami from sea level rise. One way to think of it: how much did it cost to build New York and Miami? Alternatively, how much would it cost to encircle each of them with a sea wall, and sacrifice the surrounding towns to the Atlantic? I wonder how that border would be determined, and how access would be maintained as Newark and Fort Lauderdale went under.
But we don’t do ounces of prevention, especially when the risk is highly uncertain. We prefer pounds of cure, when the certainty has been realized, and we can ride to the rescue. In a perverse way, disasters allow us to feel noble, even heroic.
There’s no emotional payoff in prevention, no drama, no resolution. It’s too abstract. Uncertainty persists. Did we in fact reduce the risk, or did we just drop $62 billion into the pockets of alarmists and con artists? The absence of disaster is not proof that the risk was averted, but that the mitigation was a waste.
We’ve all seen a house fire. That’s a concrete risk, so we buy fire insurance—although I’m sure many people wouldn’t, if the requirement weren’t enforced. But we’ve never seen an abrupt climate change. We have no frame of reference.
The Ice Is Still Here—For Now
By the way, we’ve skated through another summer. Here’s a graph of Arctic ice volume as of the September minimum: