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Pickin’ and Choosin’ the Winners and Losers of Climate Change

Photograph Source: NASA Scientific Visualization Studio – Public Domain

The official government pickin’and choosin’ of the winners and losers of climate change already has begun.

If you’re still in the tribe that thinks climate change is maybe not a thing, or a thing that might happen a hundred years from now, perhaps you might like to consider this: everyone else is already moving beyond that debate and starting to pick and choose who’s gonna be saved and who’s not, who’s gonna be a winner and who’s gonna be a loser. If you want to have anything to say about which of those two camps you get slotted into, maybe it’s time to reconsider your position.

The New York Times reported (June 19) that two federal government agencies are now developing rules for giving out billions of dollars in grants to help cities and states defend themselves from the destructive effects of climate change.

Since we live in nonsense times, of course this is happening while the Republican President and his minions are denying that climate change is even happening, and the leadership of the Democratic Party is refusing to allow its leading presidential candidates to engage in public debate about it so it won’t become a major issue in the 2020 campaign. Tra lala lala lala

And now the bad news. The experts say that there won’t possibly be enough money to defend all the places that need defending. That’s where the pickin’ and choosin’ comes in.

The NYT reports that one environmental advocacy group estimates that it’s going to take at least $42 billion to build sea walls to protect only those threatened coastal cities with more than 25,000 residents against a typical annual storm by 2040. Protecting all coastal communities (less than 25,000 pop.) would cost north of $400 billion. And that’s just for the sea walls to try to hold back the storm surge. That doesn’t include the cost of shoring up water and sewage systems and other vital infrastructure. Can you spell trillions? And I haven’t said anything about relocation and re-settlement costs yet.

The experts already are saying it just won’t make sense to spend the money to protect everyplace that needs it. That’s where the rule-making comes in. The rules are the criteria for deciding who gets the money and who doesn’t. Some communities will survive and many will be abandoned.

HUD (Housing and Urban Development) is working on the rules for $16 billion worth of grants, and FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency) is working on its own rules for an as yet unspecified amount of grants.

In the end, will they decide to spend money mostly on the sites where it will most reduce the cost of future damages? In other words, spend most of the money where most of the money is already concentrated, benefitting disproportionately the already wealthy. What factors other than the price tag will they consider, if any?

It’s entirely possible that the money we spend at these early stages of this crisis gets spent on the basis of short term considerations, like avoiding high cost damages for the typical storm of 2040, when maybe the ocean will be one to two feet higher than it is today. And maybe that happens because it’s more politically feasible to get done at this stage of lingering denial. Maybe we’re not ready to give up on Miami yet, even if we know it’s going under eventually, or that even if we “save” it, the only way to get there will be on a jet-ski.

What happens when your multi-billion dollar sea wall that holds back the ocean in 2040 is overwhelmed 20 years later when the ocean is another three feet higher? Then your initial investment would have been wasted money, ultimately. Doesn’t this situation cry out for a bigger and better plan? Like maybe we plan for the worst-case scenario, or the one we know is most likely to occur – not 2040 levels but 2100 levels, when the oceans may be up anywhere from 6 to 60 feet. Maybe the best plan is to move everyone at the outset to those places where life will be sustainable for the long term.

The point is that these decisions are beginning to be made now, and this should be THE issue of the 2020 campaign, and every one after that.

The NYT has done its job of bringing these ongoing developments to our attention. But what their reporting did not emphasize strongly enough is that this is not a problem that we should be addressing piece meal at this late date in the history of humanity. We don’t need various agencies independently adopting different sets of rules with different priorities. We need a serious and far reaching plan that governs all of our activities intended to re-make our society. Anything else will result in the wasting of precious resources that will only become more scarce over time.

It’s like the NYT and most of the rest of us are still dancing around the urgency of the moment. It’s still a form of denial. We talk about it but we don’t really take it seriously yet. It’s like saying, it’s OK, we can take this approach now because we still have time and we can correct our mistakes later. But maybe we’re already at the point where we will not be able to recover from more major blunders. Maybe we’re already so far behind the eight ball in dealing with this crisis that we’re going to have to do just about everything right to have any chance of keeping a reasonable facsimile of our civilization around.

The NYT reports this just like any other story, like it’s just another isolated event in time, with no connection to the bigger ongoing train wreck we are living through. This is where the media is still failing. This is where our public discourse is still failing, with our two main political parties both pretending that this is not the major issue of our time. Anybody still pushing that idea is either thinking they can still hustle out some kind of edge in the short term, or maybe they’re just plain blinded by denial and habituated ways of doing things that worked last century but don’t anymore, and they haven’t gotten the memo yet.

Time to get wise people. The decisions about your future are being made now. Don’t let them hold an election and pretend that this is not the biggest issue of our time. The pickin’ and choosin’ of the winners and losers has begun. Which do you want to be?

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Jeff Sher is a journalist specializing in the health care industry. He lives in San Francisco.

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