Some friendly readers have asked me to blog about how self interested individuals will respond to abrupt climate change. We could produce so much greenhouse gas such that we exceed an unknown threshold and trigger some irreversible nastiness. What happens next as we scramble to protect ourselves? Can we build new cities overnight? We know that in China, a hotel can be built in less than a week. In 1980, 500,000 people lived in Las Vegas while in 2007 roughly 1.8 million people lived there. Our construction industry has proved before that they can build and in a hurry. Frank Lloyd Wright might not be impressed with the designs but the housing would be new.
In the face of abrupt climate change, would any geographical location be “safe”? You have to live somewhere. I believe that climate change scientists and geographers would stare at Google Earth and pinpoint areas that are relatively safe. The land owners in such areas would grow rich as the demand to live there would soar. If these locations are to the North and in Canada, then we could see significant international migration. Where would we grow our food? Again, in a globalized world economy — there are many possible locations to grow food. Is it likely that every square inch of the world will be inhospitable to food growth? Even ignoring GMO and other “human tricks”, there may be new areas where we can grow food and then export. If this is not true, then we can ramp up our investments in “Archer Daniels Midland” and other for profit companies and rely on human ingenuity to figure out how to grow food under duress.
Within coastal cities, it is certainly possible that we would retreat from areas at extreme risk of sea level rise. After World War II, there was a housing shortage as service men returned home. People lived at higher density and doubled up. In an extreme case, I could imagine new housing arrangements such that the existing housing stock was utilized in arrangements through subrentals. Capitalism offers numerous examples like this. Why do I raise this mundane issue? Adaptation pessimists are right to say that we can’t build whole new homes overnight but if we can better utilize the “safe” existing homes, then at least in the short run we have adaptation strategies at our disposal. In terms of extreme heat wave events, we have some strategies for coping. We will need more electricity to adapt.
I acknowledge that in this long winded example — I am assuming that abrupt climate change is not a Tsunami. We see the “abrupt” sea level rise, extra heat, extreme weather events, and rainfall volatility and we start to take action as we experience these events. Surely, many households will suffer short run dislocation from being surprised by the shock but the degree of their suffering is determined by what they do next. What strategies can they access?
Do you really believe that we could wake up tomorrow (say on April 12th 2034) and the world is a completely different place than the day before? Do you believe that shocks can be that abrupt that we have no time to react to the “attack of the space aliens”? Even in the face of the most extreme forms of abrupt climate change (and even if we do not anticipate it), we will have a variety of strategies — both migration and innovation to protect ourselves. The good ideas that are discovered can diffuse around the world and protect many. I wrote Climatopolis to stimulate this debate. I want us to reduce GHG now but I’m a realist. It’s not going to happen. We need to have a clear vision of how adaptation will take place as this threat plays out and foresee our potential adaptation pathways under worst case scenarios.