From RSF Executive Director Josie Faass
It feels like every time I sit down to write one of these monthly updates, our world has taken any number of strange, disconcerting turns. This month is no different. But rather than get caught up in the dizzying array of social, public health, and political upheavals that currently confront us as a nation, today I’m thinking of an impending upheaval that will ultimately trump (lowercase t) pretty much everything else we’ve got going on: climate change. Specifically, the effects a changing climate – and all of the corollary conditions, like more frequent and severe weather-related natural disasters, desertification, subsidence, and sea level rise – will have on the topic Georgists know and care most about: land value.
As Georgists, we often focus on the portion of land value resulting from human investments. Of course, land’s natural characteristics are important, but the most livable places are typically those where people have made consistent investments in things like public safety and education; where jobs are plentiful and entertainment opportunities abound. We talk about the collection of natural resource rents in general, and land value tax in particular, as mechanisms for preventing the value of those community-provided benefits from falling into private hands, instead making them available for public use and creating a virtuous cycle that raises overall quality of life.
But climate change changes the rules of the game. Can land really be thought of as constant if vast regions of the country – in fact, the regions that are among the most populous and popular today – are becoming less and less habitable? As smoke obscures the skies of the northwest and the southeast is buffeted again and again by name-worthy storms, we are finally being forced to confront the fact that anthropogenic solutions, like insurance and creative engineering, can only go so far. In fact, these supports arguably created the illusion of more habitable land than was ever actually there to begin with.
And how can we expect a society that has failed to embrace the most fundamental of our principles – that every human has the right to a basic, decent existence – to respond to the value reshuffling we will see, in fact are already seeing, as flood insurance becomes unavailable in some places and others are deemed too fire damaged to rebuild?
These are big questions and I don’t have answers. What I do have is a disabled brother in California who has been unable to take his daily walks because of poor air quality. I do have parents in the Florida panhandle who are constantly bracing for the next big storm. And videos on my social media feeds of Islamorada, my hometown, whose neighborhood streets now flood at high tide.
So, what are the answers? The ideal ones? The more realistic ones? The politically-palatable ones? I ask because right now we’re largely choosing piecemeal solutions. We’re taking it one fire, one hurricane, one lost species, once melted glacier, one pandemic at a time. But, in the same way that Henry George could look beyond his time and predict what a world of private ownership of land and improper taxation would produce, we can look (not very far) ahead to where our current path will lead, and know that it will be characterized by greater inequality and poorer quality of life for many.
Georgists believe that we are one fundamentally no better than another, that nature’s bounty can provide for everyone, and that technology can reduce disparities. I can think of no better principles than these to shape our fight against climate change. Now, where do we go from here?
I share your concerns, Josie, for the increasing frequency and intensity of disasters occurring around the globe. Our footprint as a species is heavy, indeed, and we are building and living in regions that involve relatively high risk. Of all of the risks we face none is more serious than the rising sea levels that threaten the many cities and communities located at sea level on every continent. Two-thirds of the planet’s human population cannot be moved to higher ground, and the cost of constructing seawalls and other forms of protective infrastructure is almost incalculable.
Certainly, reducing our carbon footprint is crucial, but this is not likely to occur soon enough to prevent the melting of the polar ice caps and the rise in sea levels. Therefore, we need an interim strategy that capitalizes on one of the things we do well. And, what we do well is dig canals. Many parts of the earth are low lying and dry, yet were once covered by ocean water. We need to identify those areas where excess water can be channeled and begin digging canals from the coasts to pull the water inland. Scientists can surely calculate the amount of water that must be redirected in order to protect our existing coasts and geographers can identify the regions where the water can most effectively be directed. This is not a perfect solution; but, perhaps, just perhaps, it will give us time to remove the excess carbon dioxide from the air, lower the temperature of the oceans, and come up with comprehensive strategies for sustainable use of the planet.
I suggest that the Robert Schalkenbach Foundation consider organizing a roundtable with those having the scientific expertise to examine this strategy for its practicality.