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Americans Have Never Been Known to Run Away From a Battle. Until Climate Change

Earlier this week Emma Howard Boyd, chair of the UK’s Environment Agency, warned that the UK needs to prepare for catastrophic flooding caused by climate change, and it is likely that entire communities will have to relocate. Because of our ongoing addiction to fossil fuels, coastal residents will be forced to move out of their homes. It is fitting that last week the UK parliament officially declared a “climate emergency”. Ireland has now followed suit (and no, not just because of Donald Trump’s golf course.)

It’s good to see the UK (and Ireland) confronting head-on the impacts of climate change, because they’re only growing more severe. Recent studies have shown that the Arctic is warming faster than we had previously thought. As a consequence, Arctic sea ice is disappearing more rapidly than predicted (April saw its lowest levels ever measured.) Despite what our Secretary of State Mike Pompeo recently asserted, the national security threat associated with defending a new Arctic coastline will almost certainly outweighany hypothetical shipping route benefits.

More ominous still, the disintegration of the Greenland ice sheet is already underway. Combined with that of the west Antarctic ice sheet, it may yield meters, not feet, of sea level rise by the end of the century. While the UK seems determined to act, across the pond, Americans aren’t quite there yet. One ocean, two different approaches to the rising coastal threat.

Last month, a reporter went undercover to talk to real estate agents in Miami about buying beachfront property. When the reporter asked about sea-level rise, sunny day flooding, and the spectre of more intense hurricanes, her climate concerns were consistently brushed aside. One realtor even explained that you needn’t worry, “unless you have a family, and you’re planning on staying here.” In other words, the coast might be a nice place to visit, but you won’t want to live there…very long, anyway.

Eleven percent of the world’s population is currently vulnerable to climate change impacts such as droughts, floods, heat waves, extreme weather events and sea-level rise.

For the wealthy, it's easy enough to up and move when the combined threat of rising seas and superstorms forces the steady retreat from our coastlines. But working class communities in Miami and elsewhere don’t have that luxury. Even those not immediately threatened by sea level rise are being pushed out of their communities to accommodate the relocation of those with means.

And even the mega-wealthy would balk at the expected costs of climate change, as rising seas alone could cost the US several trillion dollars by 2100. Perhaps with that cost in mind, conservatives in some coastal areas are bucking the party orthodoxy and finally and begrudgingly beginning to admit we need to plan for climate change impacts.

When Florida’s Republican Governor Rob DeSantis was running for office, he avoided talking about climate change, and at one point all but dismissed climate concerns, insisting “I am not in the pew of the global warming leftist”. But at the same time, he conceded that we must deal with the threat of sea-level rise. And more recently now, the Florida state government has posted a job notice for a Chief Resilience Officer, whose duties will include preparing the state for the impacts of climate change with a focus on sea-level rise.

It is great that Republicans are increasingly getting on board with the need to address climate change impacts, but that’s not enough. As Boyd put it, “We can’t win a war against water by building away climate change with infinitely high flood defences.”

Hurricanes and other storms are likely to become stronger. Floods and droughts will become more common. Large parts of the U.S., for example, face a higher risk of decades-long "megadroughts" by 2100.

Without action to address the root cause of sea level rise—that is, the warming of the planet caused by our continued burning of fossil fuels--resiliency plans are futile. New Orleans, for example, just completed a $14 billion dollar levee project. But less than a year later, the Army Corps of Engineers says sea level rise could render the system useless by 2023.

Much as Boyd describes in the UK, American communities in low-lying areas are struggling with the decision to relocate. Some communities in Alaska and Louisiana have already begun moving. But given that close to half the global population is vulnerable to sea level rise, it's simply not feasible to relocate everyone to higher ground.

Climate resilience and adaptation efforts are important to keep people safe for now. But in the long run, we can either fight to replace fossil fuels with renewables and ramp down carbon emissions, or we can surrender, and retreat from our coastlines.

Americans have never been known to run away from a worthy battle. Why start now?

Michael E. Mann is Distinguished Professor of Atmospheric Science at Pennsylvania State University. His most recent book, with Tom Toles, is The Madhouse Effect: How Climate Change Denial Is Threatening Our Planet, Destroying Our Politics, and Driving Us Crazy (Columbia University Press, 2016.)

The views expressed in this article are the author's own.​​​​​