Adapting to Abrupt Climate Change

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.

Author: Matthew E. Kahn

Professor of Economics at UCLA.

21 thoughts on “Adapting to Abrupt Climate Change”

  1. Economists and Republicans know the price of practically everything and the value of precisely nothing.

  2. Apocalyptic scenarios that a Hollywood screenwriter could love are not usually very realistic. I especially dislike the a high-oil-price scenarios, beloved by doom-sayers like James Howard Kunstler, because a high-oil-price would be our salvation, but imagining it to be our hell prevents us from realizing that that is the better path forward.

    Kahn, with his sunny optimism (about the prospects of the upper-middle-class at least), is kind of the anti-Kunstler, reminding the powers-that-be that they don’t have to worry about the probable consequences of their own irresponsibility. We’ve adapted before, and we’ll do it again.

    What Kahn’s economics covers up is how we adapted before, what the great rise of the industrial revolution(s) was based on. Sure, there was at its core a gain in technical efficiency from better control (and, relatedly greater specialization and scale) of production processes, through capitalist innovation. That was part of it. The other parts? Well, there was democratic politics overthrowing the European system of government by an hereditary landed aristocracy of vicious stupid kleptocrats. There was world conquest, including the settlement and development of vast virgin lands, in North America. There was the extraction of fossil fuels as an energy source. Enormous gains in productivity came, but at the expense of unaccounted for costs in depletion of natural resources and pollution, and a temporary lifting of congestion costs.

    Malthus, I think, largely missed congestion costs, which is somewhat odd. The productivity of a constrained resource, like farmland or a fishery, can be diminished by devoting too much labor and capital to its exploitation. An urban civilization requires that agricultural resources throw off a huge, tradeable surplus to feed the cities, but to do that, it is necessary to limit the population on the farm. The industrial revolution in Britain rested on an agricultural revolution, which followed and accompanied the practice of enclosure, driving surplus population off the farm and into the cities, or to unpopulated, virgin farmlands in North America, Argentina, Australia, South Africa. Technical progress in agriculture was part of the story from the beginning (Jethro Tull was a farmer before rock legend), but global conquest was a bigger part, until technical progress caught up in the 20th century.

    My general point is that the great achievements of capitalism rested on the freedom to waste a great deal, which freedom we no longer have, in a finite world, growing ever more crowded with a huge human population. Climate change is happening coincident with these other trends: population growth (approaching an apparent peak of 9 billion in 2050), peak oil (peak farmland, peak mineral resources), collapse of the ocean ecology. Depletion costs, pollution costs, and congestion costs weigh ever more heavily.

    Just as the freedom to waste a lot of the virgin topsoil of North America, before beginning to adopt more conservative farming techniques (a process as political as it is capitalist, and which continues, haltingly) was key to accelerating the industrial revolution, we and our descendants will face the opposite problem: our ability to adapt will be undermined by the decelerating effects of depletion, diminished natural resources, ecological collapse, and the congestion costs of a human population that may be 10x what the earth can support in the manner to which the industrial revolution has accustomed us.

    I’m not optimistic. I see American politics hurtling toward a neo-feudalist plutocracy, in which spokesmodel-politicians and celebrity-millionaire-journamalists will drown rational democracy in entertainment values. Kahn’s fantasy economics and faux optimism may feed some part of the remnant demand for a substantive political discourse, among those, who constitutionally don’t want to believe we are dooming ourselves, just as James Howard Kunstler feeds those who want a lurid vision of just how we are dooming ourselves. I’m not sure either vision is really helpful in motivating or shaping sensible adaptation, but the plutocratic Masters of the Universe, who gave us the abandonment of Detroit and global financial crisis no doubt have things well in hand, and soylent green is people.

  3. “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.” Matthew, I feel like this sort of issue *isn’t* well-dealt-with by capitalism (or isn’t any more) because of local zoning laws. It’s already the case that developers want to, but can’t, satisfy housing demand in many cities, because residents like the density they have. It’s already the case that people want to, but can’t, rent out “granny flats” that would increase suburban density. Do you see this changing if demand goes up to crisis levels? Does local control change on its own, or does change get impose from above—or does it not need to change at all?

  4. BM, I’m quite certain that after numerous ecosystems flip and we realize how powerful Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs describes…well…what we need, we won’t be thinking about zoning laws. We’ll be thinking about how to move water to crops, how to fertilize them, and how to transport them during a time of widespread, acute, and vast civil unrest. During and after this time, we won’t see any more folks driving around in city trucks, counting cars in driveways to determine illegal uses in archaic Euclidean zoning land uses.

    That said, again I return to this happy conclusion that people will just move and everything will be ducky. What happens today when large numbers of people move from impoverished areas where sytsems can no longer support them? Right! Here in America we demonize them and attribute all kinds of things to these people.

    Why all of a sudden will a basic human emotion disappear after ecosystems change state and societies must quickly adapt?

  5. “Economists and Republicans know the price of practically everything and the value of precisely nothing.”

    Progressives and Democrats know the value of practically everything and the cost of precisely nothing.

  6. “It’s already the case that developers want to, but can’t, satisfy housing demand in many cities, because residents like the density they have.”

    I’m not at all certain it’s so much a matter of the residents preferring low density, as of the local government, funded by property taxes, trying to maximize the cost of housing, and thus the property taxes per resident. An awful lot of zoning and building codes make sense only if they are driven by such calculations.

    Reliance on property taxes makes local governments the enemy of affordable housing.

  7. The land owners in such areas would grow rich as the demand to live there would soar.

    That’s an easy one to solve: institute extremely high land value taxes. Which we should be doing anyway.

  8. Brett Bellmore wrote, Reliance on property taxes makes local governments the enemy of affordable housing.


    Only to the extent that the taxes fall on improvements. To the extent that they fall on land, they don’t make housing any more expensive; in fact, if anything they make it cheaper, since it increases the penalty for holding land idle for speculative gain. And no, the tax can’t be passed on because the supply of land is fixed.

  9. Doesn’t even make sense in terms of buildings–an apartment block will pay more property taxes than a mansion on the same lot.

  10. Brett –

    I think your premise is laughable. First, have you ever seen the reactions of a neighborhood to a proposed high development? Especially one on a zoning edge, where the regulations might allow multistory development that abuts a more “typical” residential district? I have observed this phenomenon over and over in the city in which I live. There is always a public outcry. But who knows, perhaps those vocal folks are clandestinely being compensated by the City Council or the Building Department as a way to assure to furtive execution nefarious goals for lower density?

    Also, as two others have commented, higher density development typically yields more in property taxes (perhaps not maximized per taxpaying entity, but with a whole lot more taxpaying entities to be, um, paying).

    Notwithstanding your claims, a lot of zoning laws actually make sense if one examines the history of the country, it’s development patterns and the unpleasant footprint of a lot of industries, historically speaking. If one thinks back to a hundred or so years ago, when there was a lot less concern about the environmental/social impacts of commercial/industrial activities and virtually no regulation as regards dumping of whatever, wherever, it makes perfect sense that the public would begin to enact laws to distance slaughterhouses from schools, machine shops from residences, etc. It’s really as simple as people don’t want to live next to what they don’t want to live next to. Now one might argue that things are much different now and perhaps our zoning regulations ought to be reconsidered in that light. I would even be sympathetic to that argument.

    But your fanciful implication that planners, legislators, et. al., somehow have a secret, decades-long scheme to “maximize the cost of housing” I think fails to pass Occam’s muster.

    Speaking of building codes, as someone whose work involves dealing with them every day, it’s clear you don’t know what the hell you’re talking about with that swipe (tic?). Please Google the Winecoff Hotel or read a bit about the 1999 Kocaeli earthquake in Turkey where all those shoddily-constructed concrete buildings collapsed due to lack of sufficient reinforcement (aka rebar). Maybe then you’ll begin to understand how we got to where we’re at. And I say this as someone with deep frustration at how building codes often drive projects in functional & aesthetically unsatisfactory ways.

  11. In Texas, as long as land is kept in agricultural production, the production is taxed, not the value of the land. Consequently, instead of wall-to-wall suburbs, suburbs have large, open areas that have been there for decades.

  12. Ok, explain to me, then, why when I built my house back in the ’90s, the building code required all new housing to be at least 1600 square feet. Because smaller homes tend to catch fire spontaneously?

  13. Matthew, your post is basically a rehash of your previous ‘what me worry?’ post, which was ripped to shreds before.

    Even on a strict economic basis, your posts are very bad; you blithely hand-wave away vast costs, on the order of $trillions in the US alone.

  14. “Also, as two others have commented, higher density development typically yields more in property taxes (perhaps not maximized per taxpaying entity, but with a whole lot more taxpaying entities to be, um, paying).”

    Public services for higher density developments cost a lot more too. The question is what residential density maximizes the difference between tax revenues and public service cost.

  15. Here it is in simple technical terms:

    Brett, if governments wanted maximum taxes they would increase the number of dwelling units per acre (DU/ac). If they wanted to keep a certain sort of person from consuming a housing good in a particular area, they would make a minimum requirements, such as minimum lot size, floor area, etc. Glaeser explained this to the libertarians years ago. Trouble is, their pundits took Glaeser’s work and made it appear as if zoning alone drove housing prices.

    Koch’s Private Property Rights movement has flummoxed our dialog on land use. Fortunately it has been defeated so maybe we can get back to work in another decade or so.

  16. Brett: because the local zoning board consists of upper-middle-class suburbanites who *currently* live in 1600 sq ft houses. The presence of a solid plane of 1600sqt houses means that “poor people”—the sort of people who might move into a small house, townhouse, or God forbid an apartment block, should such a monstrosity occur—are kept far away. Thus, the 1600-footers show up at zoning board meetings and argue passionately that small houses would “change the character of the neighborhood”. Have you ever been to a zoning board meeting? City planners try to increase development and residents shoot it down.

  17. Yeah, I’ve been to a zoning board meeting, rural, and my distinct impression was that the zoning board were living off in their own world, and didn’t give a fig what the people living under them wanted.

  18. Brett –

    Way late too reply (attribute that to far too heavy a workload the last week), but are you sure the 1600 s.f. minimum you cite is actually a building code requirement? If so I’d be interested in knowing which model code your jurisdiction has adopted, because it sounds as if you are conflating zoning code (most often local, i.e., per incorporated area) and building code (most often instituted at state-level). All subsequent replies to your question make this error, though also perfectly explain why such measures are enacted: barrier to entry. In this regard, these regulations mirror the congruent phenomenon of CC&Rs by which private individuals encumber land titles.

    This said, once more color me unconvinced by your skills in persuasion. Pulling one isolated & out-of-context rule out of (more than likely your local zoning) code is not sufficient to convince me to damn the whole regulatory enterprise. I’m reminded of nothing so much as people who play “Bible Gotcha” by citing the prohibitions in Leviticus regarding the wearing of garment woven from mixed threads.

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