With Global Warming the World Will Be a Much Poorer Place

Houses are seen hanging over a cliff in Pacifica, California on January 27, 2016.
Storms and powerful waves caused by El Nin
Houses are seen hanging over a cliff in Pacifica, California on January 27, 2016. Storms and powerful waves caused by El Nino have been intensifying erosion along nearby coastal bluffs and beaches in the area. / AFP / JOSH EDELSON (Photo credit should read JOSH EDELSON/AFP/Getty Images)

A recent article in the Londonist caught my attention: "In pictures, is this what the future of London looks like?"

It's London but not as we know it. These artist's impressions of future Londons are the winners of a competition launched by estate agent Cluttons and Estate Gazette. Will the metropolis of tomorrow be a land of aquacities, sky gardens and huge alien-looking domes?

Sky Garden Cities, The Dome, AquaCities: these fanciful names are attached to renderings of cities that will optimistically tower above threatening seas.

Getting to the business of climate adaptation should be on everyone's mind. Recently German climate scientists estimated that sea levels are rising faster than the most conservative estimates. The bright fact: climate change is an uncontrolled experiment we triggered on the planetary systems on which our species depend for survival.

To be sure, in the context of an individual lifetime that experiment may perceived as unfolding rather slowly. In geologic time, it is happening in the blink of an eye. As one long-time observer of the clash between politics and the environment said to me recently: "The systems civil society requires are in the process of delamination."

The problem with the cheery scenarios of future cities is that climate chaos is not a static event we can marshall in our time scale for wealth creation. Steam engine = textile machinery. Computer chips = cell phones. The impacts of global warming are moving targets. Unfortunately, taxpayers and voters, at least in the U.S., have not yet connected all the dots. Put another way, the planet will be a much poorer place under conditions of global warming.

Today, the rapidly eroding coastline in Pacifica, California has provided graphic images for television news of clifftop residences on the verge of falling into the sea. The media is attributing the problem to El Nino. None so far have mentioned the role of climate change in super-sizing this event, piling on the back of the worst drought in California since record keeping began. Accompanying these images: homeowners calling for federal emergency relief.

When sea level rise ramps up, who is going to pay for all the claims? Insurance companies? No. Taxpayers? Definitely not. In Florida, one federally funded taxpayer agency, the US Army Corps of Engineers, is working day and night, up and down the coastline, with bulldozers, tractors, and sand from the Bahamas and Mexico to reinforce tourist-friendly beaches against sea level rise. How long will Americans fund beach protection once sea level rise infiltrates trillions of dollars of urban infrastructure in coastal cities?

Dr. Harold Wanless, chair of the Department of Geological Sciences at the University of Miami and respected spokesperson on sea level rise, says taxpayers should be funding, now, for a rainy day when property owners will have to abandon coastal real estate in a mass migration from the coastlines. At least in the U.S., there is no indication that such common sense measures will materialize any time soon: nearly every member of the Republican controlled US Senate voted last week against acknowledging global warming is caused by humans.

I am beginning to believe that science fiction movie scenarios of the future are not so far off: some amalgam of Hunger Games, Sector 9, and Mad Max but with low-rent production values. As for gorgeous, highly-engineered futuristic cities deploying costly technologies to elevate taxpayers above rising seas? Methinks, not so much.