The First Climate Decade

In response to Fred Wilson‘s 2021 predictions post – which is as clear a sign as any how decisively climate crisis has moved to center stage of our public discourse, and in which Fred Writes: “If, because of what we learned in the Covid Pandemic, a good job no longer requires someone to live in a low lying flood-prone city like Miami or NYC or a city that is burning like SF or LA, we will see many people in the US choose to leave those places and adopt new homes that are less impacted by the climate crisis” – I have a question/challenge: Where are those places in the US “that are less impacted by the climate crisis,” other than perhaps certain parts of the Upper Midwest?

Much of the West is now menaced by fires and water shortages (not to mention the climate-unrelated threat of catastrophic seismic activity). California, as we dreamt it, is over.

The Southwest faces extreme heat and looming drought which are likely to drive a sharp reversal of population growth in the cities of the aridlands, while the scourge of vector-borne and fungal disease will only intensify across the entire Sunbelt (and especially in the Southeast).

Meanwhile, the Southeast also faces the combined threats of extreme heat (wet heat, at that), tropical storms, and sea-level rise.

Much of the Midwest will continue to experience floods, extreme heat, and extreme weather (tornadoes, derechos, deadly hail storms) that harms people and damages crops, and states as disparate as Colorado, Texas, the Dakotas, Pennsylvania, and Ohio face the lasting ecological devastation of the fracking boom across the Bakken, Permian, and Marcellus which will resonate for generations to come.

(Incidentally, at least one major nuclear accident in the US in the 2020s would not be surprise. Not to be glib, but Turkey Point is a leading contender.)

That leaves Appalachia, the mid-Atlantic, and the Northeast, all of which face some threats from extreme weather (in particularly, rain-driven flooding) and extreme heat, but generally not to the same extent that these threats menace other regions. Coastal parts of the Northeast and mid-Atlantic, of course, face risks from sea-level rise and tropical storms, though, again, the further north one goes, the less intense the tropical storm risk grows. Lyme disease is a challenge – characteristic of our era, and evocative of the toll that malaria took on the Imperial Roman elite – for the Northeast, while aging infrastructure is a problem shared across all three of these regions.

Where, then, will all these eager voluntary internal climate migrants go? Duluth, as the New York Times has foretold? (I’ve partially side-stepped the Intermountain West and the High Plains, so perhaps these will be the destinations of choice.)

Contrarian though the position sounds – barring a not-unforeseeable rapid ice-sheet collapse scenario – NYC is relatively well-positioned among major US cities from a climate standpoint, at least for ~the rest of this century. Its temperate weather is, if anything, improving by most people’s standards. Although certain of its geographies (the Rockaways, the South Shore of Staten Island, many of the neighborhoods on the north side of Jamaica Bay) face existential risk from sea-level rise as Superstorm Sandy demonstrated, much of the city sits relatively high above sea level. Unlike Miami, NYC is not doomed by porous geology. Unlike Houston, it is not subject to routine tropical storms. Unlike Phoenix, its day-time temperatures are unlikely to be routinely outside the range survivable for many humans. Unlike the cities of California, it is unlikely to be at the mercy of routine, devastating forest fires and smoke until all the surrounding forests burn. Unlike a great many cities, it has a secure, unusually well-protected water supply and access to diverse regional food supply.

We, of course, face the immense challenge in NYC that much of our essential infrastructure lies in the floodplain (the Hunts Point food distribution center, much of our municipal solid waste apparatus, all 13 of our wastewater treatment plants, the Port of NY/NJ, all three major airports) and/or is menaced by flooding (as in the case of the subway, many hospitals, many highways, much of our energy infrastructure). Immense, expensive, sometimes ill-conceived plans are in motion to protect against many of these risks, at least based upon mid-century climate predictions, but there is, of course, a significant stochastic element at play here. Where will the big storms hit when and at what cost in lives and damage?

I agree with Fred that climate adaptation will be “a huge investable trend for many years to come,” but many investments insufficiently-steeped in complexity thinking are likely to end badly, and either way, the focus in this climate decade, and those to follow it, should be on mitigation before adaptation (even as adaptation will be necessary) and people over profits (even as the profit motive isn’t going anywhere, and may, at times, be bent to serve human needs).

2 thoughts on “The First Climate Decade

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