Climate change preparedness could leave the poor out in the rain

Updated
Vehicles are submerged on 14th Street near the Consolidated Edison power plant, Monday, Oct. 29, 2012, in New York.
Vehicles are submerged on 14th Street near the Consolidated Edison power plant, Monday, Oct. 29, 2012, in New York.
AP Photo/ John Minchillo

When the next Hurricane Sandy hits New York City, Wall Street will be prepared. According to a Monday report in The New York Times, the landlords for some of the city’s ritziest office spaces have shelled out millions of dollars to upgrade electrical systems, install floodgates, and generally make their buildings resilient to what have become annual climate catastrophes.

But there are no million-dollar floodgates in the Rockaways, the coastal neighborhood which still bears visible wounds from a storm which blighted the landscape more than three months ago. Thousands of families across the tri-state area remain homeless as well—more than 1,000 in New Jersey alone. While the Financial District inoculates itself to the next superstorm, many working-class and lower-income residents of the tri-state area are still reeling from the last one.

If Hurricane Sandy threw New York class divisions into stark relief, successive climate catastrophes will only make them starker. As historian Jacob Remes said in a November interview with Salon, ”What makes something a disaster, as opposed to just a hazard, is the way it interacts with society, with the built environment.”

“People in the evacuation zone were about twice as likely to live in public housing as the rest of the city,” when Sandy struck, said Remes. “That’s not natural; that’s about how we organize society.”

If that’s the case, then there can be no equitable climate change mitigation without greater economic equality overall. The super-wealthy will hold the means to shield themselves against climate change, while everyone else will be left to fend for themselves. Any attempt to extend that shield to everyone is a fundamentally redistributive project.

White House adviser John Holdren distinguishes between three possible responses to climate change: Adaptation, mitigation, and suffering.

Mitigation means reducing carbon emissions and relying on alternative sources of energy, which runs directly counter to the interests of the powerful fossil fuels lobby, and those who derive their wealth from it.

For adaptation to benefit everyone equally, the government needs to invest massive amounts of public capital into social goods which the wealthy do not need—such as resilient, flood-proof public transportation and low-income housing. The only alternative is a vastly unequal distribution of suffering.

Climate change preparedness could leave the poor out in the rain

Updated