100,000 people are drowning

Keith Gaby

Sometimes talking about global warming can make you sound like an “alarmist.” The impacts are likely to be so wide-spread, dangerous and expensive that it seems to like you’re claiming the sky is falling (rather than just that it’s filling up with pollution). It is hard to process such daunting information, even when it’s based on hard science, so we often just choose not to think about it.

And then, once in a while, we’re reminded that climate change really is a big deal – like when you read that it’s about to swallow up a whole country.

This week’s issue of Bloomberg Businessweek leads with the dramatic story of Kiribati, a nation of 100,000 people that will soon be under the ocean. Because it is so low-lying, it will be the first country to be wiped out by rising sea levels. If that were happening because of the natural evolution of our eco-system, it would simply be sad. The fact that it is happening because of the actions of mankind makes it an emergency.

The government of Kiribati is literally in the market for new land on which to resettle its people. But in the larger sense, there is nowhere for them – or anyone else – to move that’s out of the way of climate change. The climate system is global, and this is the only planet we’ve got. (The people of Kiribati, though, are understandably focused on some place that’s not under water.)

Beyond the humanitarian issues, the larger question raised by the Businessweek story is whether the fate of this canary will get us miners to save ourselves. We all have the ability to live with tragedies that happen to other people far away. When there’s a typhoon or famine on a distant continent we’ll likely feel bad for the people there, send some money, and go on with our daily lives. If that pattern holds, we’ll do what we can to help the citizens of Kiribati and not much else.

But a moment’s reflection may cause people to realize that what’s happening in Kiribati now will happen next in Miami and Boston and Mumbai. According to the World Bank, the cities at highest risk for flood damage from climate change (based on overall cost) are:

  1. Guangzhou
  2. Miami
  3. New York
  4. New Orleans
  5. Mumbai
  6. Nagoya
  7. Tampa
  8. Boston
  9. Shenzen
  10. Osaka

So the reaction to the tragedy in Kiribati doesn’t need to be an outpouring of humanitarian compassion. It needs only to be an outpouring of self-interest. Not only should the residents of those cities care, but so should the people of those countries who will have to bear the cost of disruption and recovery. If you’re a taxpayer, an insurance customer, or have a job that depends on the global system of finance, agriculture or trade, you’re going to suffer economically when these changes accelerate.

There’s still time to shift the world to clean energy and avoid much of this devastation. We’d get a lot of other benefits, too. But we have to act quickly. The joke used to be that the future is “plastics”. Now the future is Kiribati. And it’s not a joke.

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