CLEVELAND — Consider the possibility that climate change will alter the way America works — for the better. The power of what is happening seems so great.
By 2050, sea levels are expected to rise one foot and more than another foot by 2100. The streets of Miami Beach already are raised two feet. Half of the country is seriously threatened one or more threats, including drought, floods, extreme heat, wildfires. Florida, Mississippi, Louisiana, Texas and Arkansas are the most vulnerable; the Great Lakes region, the least. Add to these threats more frequent and violent storms.
As impacts occur and worsen, the role of the federal government in efforts to cope and adapt will inevitably expand through comprehensive assessments of risks and priorities, coordination and funding.
Limited funds and growing needs will confront officials with hellish decisions. Which agricultural areas and cities will get the water they need and which will struggle? (In Arizona today, such a choice is not far off.) Which places will be protected from rising waters and which will not? Is Miami Beach more “dignified” than New Orleans? And the Jersey Shore? Should assistance, if any, be given to households and businesses that need to move?
Climate change will emphasize the central role of the federal government in shaping the geographic and economic future of the nation to an extent perhaps beyond what the first railroads and highway system inter- states have done. But improved transportation has expanded freedom; climate change creates dependency.
Some degree of dependence on the federal government will be inevitable. It is unlikely, for example, that Florida residents (current and future) will be able to fully fund their protection needs. For openers, Miami alone look at a bill of 4 billion dollars. And it won’t cover every neighborhood.
As threats and damage increase, the most vulnerable states will need support from other states, channeled through Washington.
Federal prominence will be a hard pill to swallow for those who espouse our guiding ideology with intense passion: Independence! Individualism! Rights of States! House rule! Ironically, most of the most vulnerable states, led by Florida, are in the southeast and west, where the anti-government attitude is fierce.
The consequences of what has changed the climate – too much air pollution too fast – will expose, more than COVID-19 has, the reality of mutual dependence and the shortcomings of a supercharged ideology.
Independence! Individualism! Rights of States! House rule! – Yes of course. But not so fervently that societal needs for joint responsibility and common good are dismissed and derided as un-American.
The exaggerated individualism rooted in our DNA will have to calm down a bit to allow for effective and cooperative management of what is to come. At some point, the conditions will force a moment of truth: Are we in this together as a nation or are we not?
Limited funds will raise the question of “fairness”. The competition for aid will intensify as the theoretical threats of damage and loss become real. When this happens, the political dynamics will be unsurprising: the economically powerful (many of whom own prime coastal residences or have friends who own them) will seek government actions that minimize their losses and maximize their gains.
But as the non-powerful face serious upheaval, the demand for equity will grow. And just as the practice of gerrymandering creates pressure to move the setting of electoral boundaries from elected officials to independent commissions, the push for fairness in climate aid decisions will require a structure that limits partisan influence.
The power of climate change will in all likelihood weaken the grip of economic powers on the levers of government.
This scenario does not happen in a hurry, although in ten years the drama of it all could be decidedly brutal. Nature can humiliate America and advance what “We the People” for over 200 years have been unwilling and unable to do: effectively reconcile freedom and government.
Thomas Bier is a University Fellow at Cleveland State University where, until his retirement in 2003, he was Director of the Housing Policy Research Program at the Maxine Goodman Levin College of Urban Affairs. He is also a frequent contributor of opinion pieces; this op-ed marks his 100th opinion piece published for The Plain Dealer.
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