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We all have to go sooner or later

04 Sep 2019 | OP ED Watch

An article in Science says we should start planning now for mass evacuation from coastal areas because the seas may rise. In summarizing the piece, the Australian Broadcasting Corporation says we better make a bunch of stubborn peasants flee now because the IPCC thinks sea levels might rise 77 centimetres by 2100 if warming is held to 1.5˚C, or a further 10 cm if it gets to 2˚. It’s not obvious that extra 10 cm is worth a whole lot of sacrifice. Or why it would be easier to move tens of millions of people against their will now, rather than build resilient decentralized dyke systems as and if the need arises over eight decades. At any rate, Barack Obama seems not to be convinced, having just negotiated to purchase a lavish oceanfront mansion in doomed Martha’s Vineyard.

The Science piece betrays an unmistakable enthusiasm for collectivist social engineering, contrasting desirable “Shared strategic vision” that “involves societal rather than purely individual goals” with the bad old system of “individual households who relocate for their own benefit.” It says “planning for changes in demand for housing, schools, and health services—is complicated but critical… Planning at national or regional scales, such as in Fiji and the United Kingdom, identifies candidate areas for retreat, enabling prioritization of resources and ensuring that neighboring communities pursue complementary responses.” What could possibly go wrong?

Well, any number of things. Central planning has a terrible track record because in economics, as in engineering, systems need to be resilient rather than brittle. If everybody who actually experiences a rise in water levels either moves or, through local government, builds seawalls or raises the land (as in the Netherlands over centuries), the system is not prone to the sort of drastic failure New Orleans experienced when a single big government wall around the entire city collapsed. It’s also a better approach because it gives time for economic growth to increase the wealth available for infrastructure improvements.

Also, because governments have coercive power, they can force a lot of people to go places that don’t make sense and live in housing that isn’t suitable in neighbourhoods that don’t work. And based on history, they’re quite likely to. Certainly the past record of urban planning does not inspire confidence, particularly when undertaken on a mass scale without consulting local wishes.

Finally, the seas might not rise much. The IPCC relies on computer models whose predictions even of short-term temperature rise have proven to be systematically exaggerated, while the actual increase in sea levels over the 20th century has been mild and essentially constant. What if we forced millions of poor people out of their homes and jobs for nothing?

Still, in the spirit of reasonable accommodation, we’re willing to say that once eviction notices are served on all the wealthy Western celebrities with waterfront properties, we’ll consider telling Bangladeshis to start packing.

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