Why are coastal communities politically colorblind to climate change?

Earlier this week I attended Massachusetts’ state Senator Marc Pacheco's Clean Energy Futures "listening session" in Winthrop, a very vulnerable coastal community next to Boston’s Logan Airport.  It became clear from the discussion that it really doesn’t matter whether or not you believe that climate change is human-caused, or what your political stripes are.  The seas are already rising and basic community infrastructure – such as hospitals, schools, roads – will therefore not be available when needed in the absence of a plan on how to adapt.  This will happen not just in far away arctic places or in 50 years, but to our neighbors, friends and relatives within the lifetimes of many alive right now.

Have a look at Climate Central's risk finder and enter your zip code or community’s name and see where things stand for you.  If you’re near a coast – as we here in the Boston region are – chances are good that to remain a viable community, adapting needs to start now.  Have a closer look at places like Dade County, Florida, where “conservative” politicians are listening closely to their constituents demanding action – for example, on “sunny day flooding” – and don’t pay a lot of attention to their party’s state level or national politicians’ denial of climate change.  The disconnects are deafening. 

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Curt Newton's picture

I think you're right on, Dave

I think you're right on, Dave.  Coastal communities are definitely waking up and making plans to take this on, but so much more needs to be done.

I find the Climate Central Risk Finder really compelling, the sort of tool we need to galvanize action in our communities. Nothing like seeing where you live, love, work and play disappear under water. And be sure to check out their overlay maps of social vulnerability, population, etc. to understand what your neighbors may be facing.

Adaptation and resiliency plans from a few years ago tended to use sea level rise estimates that now appear too optimistic. Recent observations of accelerating rise in many communities, and new research into polar ice sheet melt dynamics are pushing the old 2100 benchmarks of 2-3 feet of rise (bad enough) to 10-20 feet (DeConto et al, 2016 ; Hansen et all, 2016). Play around in Risk Finder with the amount of sea level rise, and you’ll find a dramatic difference in impacts between 3 feet and 10 feet of rise.

So that high end of rise is far from out of the question, and deciding how well to prepare for it will be a huge and messy process - how to prioritize the different investments that would be needed?  Who makes the calls? It's a vital space for citizen engagement and action.

Another point: communities that aren’t on the coast will still face many impacts of rising seas. The sheer magnitude of financial losses and required infrastructure investment will hit budgets all over the world, and from the halls of power to the kitchen table to the mud hut. Those people and institutions retreating from the coast need to go somewhere, leading to conflicts over interior arable land, water supplies and growing population.  All together, according to a widely-cited report from Cornell University out this week, the planet could see 1.4 billion “climate refugees” in 2060, and two billion by 2100.  With hundreds of millions to billions of people facing permanent dislocation and resettlement, some are saying we need a new term and way of thinking. “Refugee” seems inappropriate to situations of this scale.