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Climate Adaptation Needs to Put Human Rights Above Property Values

Every dollar spent on sea walls is a dollar not invested into actual carbon reduction.

A man walks up stairs at Pier 15 along the East River at South Street Seaport, March 14, 2019, in New York City. Mayor Bill de Blasio has unveiled a $10 billion plan to extend the Lower Manhattan coastline by up to two city blocks to guard against rising sea levels and other effects of climate change.

We may have elected an administration that deliberately refuses to address climate change, but the moneyed elite (including President Trump) are already adapting, and they’re doing so on their own terms. The question isn’t whether people are going to have to adapt, because the superrich already are: building rockets to Mars and hunkering down behind giant sea walls. The question is how to ensure that the rest of us get to survive, too.

The philosophy behind ethical adaptation is that people and areas most vulnerable, with the least adaptive capacity to respond, should be financially prioritized. But when propertied interests talk about adaptation, they aren’t talking about equity or about undergoing the necessary restructuring to ensure a sustainable future and avert the greatest catastrophe of all time. They’re talking about property taxes. They’re talking about walls.

In a recent interview with The New York Times, Obama-era community planning and development official Harriet Tregoning outlined the neoliberal paradigm for adaptation: distribute grant money according to city property values, “historical and cultural importance” and economic contributions. As another Obama-era official put it, “The way I would do it is, how much risk avoidance do I get for every dollar I invest?”

In other words, public funding for adaptation should be funneled into the sections of the economy that not only got us into this mess and will continue to profit from it until their very last breath, but that can most afford to get themselves out of it. Whether hiding behind the language of property values, “history” or “culture,” Tregoning’s vocabulary is that of a society still prepared to put property ahead of people. We’re not protecting vulnerable populations — the communities already struggling to put food on the table and for whom climate change is a “threat multiplier.” We’re protecting at-risk assets.

It’s already happening across the U.S. Outside of Silicon Valley, doomsday preppers, with their private islands and personal armies, and cities on both coasts are concentrating their adaptation efforts not necessarily around high-risk areas, but around high-value areas, and spending a fortune to do so.

Miami Beach has spent half-a-billion dollars so far attempting to elevate itself out of the sea’s rising path, and proposed spending more to help owners protect individual projects with subsidized sea walls. In Southern California, like in the San Diego-area suburb of Solana Beach (now jokingly called “Solana Wall”), barriers can be as big as 40 feet tall and 200 feet wide, costing up to half-a-million dollars per home.

Meanwhile, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio has announced another $10 billion plan to protect lower Manhattan, six years after former Mayor Michael Bloomberg pledged almost twice that to build “adaptable floodwalls,” “storm-surge barriers” and to “revise building codes.”

“We don’t debate global warming in New York City. Not anymore,” Mayor de Blasio wrote for New York Magazine. “The only question is where to build the barriers to protect us from rising seas and the inevitable next storm, and how fast we can build them.”

But is that really the only question left for the people of New York?

Mayor de Blasio’s barriers — those ubiquitous, medieval sea walls that dominate the public imaginary — are shortsighted and elitist, designed to ensure that private investments don’t go wasted. They undermine public assets and disrupt common spaces for short-term private gain, which is only possible in the first place by displacing the water and redirecting it around the wall — making other locations, like those unable to build their own bigger, better wall, all the more vulnerable.

A sea wall is as reactionary as a border wall, and they represent the worst impulses of climate resiliency under a capitalist regime, the most symptomatic response to a deeply causal relationship with the problem.

By prioritizing the coastal elite cities, officials are deepening the greatest inequality gap in history, no matter how unreasonable those priorities are. The very conditions that made coastal cities desirable in the past are what now make them so exposed, and that isn’t going to improve.

Cities are inherently non-resilient and extractive — especially those centers of “historical and cultural importance” — and rely on rural communities for basic goods like food and water. Yet, we’re unwilling to invest in those communities that actually support life: communities that will be destroyed by climate change and without which cities would collapse.

After all, what do the superrich think will happen when they force everything into cities simply because that’s where the most capital is already concentrated? Without arable farmland — and the exploitative carbon-based supply chains that presently sustain us — how do these walled-in cities of the future plan to otherwise survive? Every billion dollars spent on sea walls is a billion dollars not invested into actual carbon reduction.

If adaptation means simply spending a portion of the profits from the financial exploitation of our climate on ever-bigger sea walls around Manhattan, then capitalism has already lost the battle against climate change, and the 21st century promises to see cascading human rights failures of unimaginable scope and consequences.

Because adaptation is already happening, it can only go one of two ways from here. Either the propertied interests continue to rage against Neptune like Caligula while the rest of us starve, further concentrating capital and increasing inequality until there’s nothing left; or humanity will take this opportunity for what it really is, a chance — perhaps the last we’ll ever get again — to radically reorder the way we think about property values vs. human values.

Otherwise, when the time comes, the rich will need bigger walls than ever — and not just for the sea.

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