Are Major U.S. Cities Doomed by Rising Sea Levels?

by Pushan Hinduja

As climate change becomes more and more of a threat, people around the world worry about the fate of US coastal cities that might one day be entirely submerged. Matthew E. Kahn, a visiting professor of economics and spatial science at the University of Southern California argues that these cities shouldn’t worry, as they will adapt and rise above the effects of climate change. Khan begins by citing a Rolling Stone article published in 2013 that predicted Miami, “the nation’s urban fantasy land” turning into an “American Atlantis.” Interestingly enough, this threat is not unique to Miami: the majority of Americans live within 50 miles of an ocean, whether that be in New York, Seattle, San Francisco, or Los Angeles, among many more. An economist by training, Khan argues that based on his understanding of how people invest their money during times of crisis and uncertainty, US coastal cities will successfully adapt to climate change and thus be “just fine.”

To be more specific, coastal city residents and firms are currently all aware that the dangers of rising sea levels are imminent. As a result, there is a huge market incentive for adaptation and the development of innovative solutions to these problems. Additionally, thanks to the “invisible hand,” homeowners will feel the pressure to take self-interest and protect their properties as best as they can to try to maintain value. Khan compares this to the increase in research in the pharmaceutical industry when there is expected demand for a certain drug.

In terms of actual adaptation to the rising sea levels, cities around the US will employ a variety of different tactics, ranging from the upgrading of existing structures to construction of new climate change-resilient structures using modular materials. Khan argues that the rising demand for these new developments will recruit young and new talent into the field, which will lower overhead costs for adaptation, ultimately making the whole system even more sustainable. Another key component of adaptation to climate change is the ability to move to “higher ground.” Khan argues that loss of land due to rising sea levels will not reduce the population in an urban area, because of the ability to retreat and develop on lower risk high ground.

Coastal cities as America’s economic hubs won’t be affected either, as the “physical place” is not what defines an economic hub; instead it is the human capital that clusters in any specific location that makes that place an economic hub. Thus rising sea levels may cause the economic hubs to change locations, perhaps only slightly, but will not negatively harm the U.S. economy.

Ultimately, Khan argues that although rising sea levels due to climate change will play an important role in defining coastal cities in the future, it will not render them underwater wastelands. In fact, US coastal cities will undergo a renaissance of “market-driven adaptation” that will cause both the economy and the population that currently resides in these ‘high threat’ areas to thrive.

Kahn, Matthew E., 2016. Rising Sea Levels Won’t Doom U.S. Coastal Cities. Harvard Business Review.

https://hbr.org/2016/01/rising-sea-levels-wont-doom-u-s-coastal-cities

 

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