Our Eroding Borders

Along with usual traffic warnings, such as “expect delays” or “construction ahead”, a sign in the New-England vernacular, reading “wicked high tides”, has become a frequent sight on Boston highways.  To most people, the sign signifies nothing more that a slow-down on their evening commute, but to climate scientists these “wicked high tides” are indicative of a far more sinister change to the landscapes of coastal cities around the United States. Already, the coastal regions of Louisiana have been inundate inundated with flooding over the past century, leading to the loss of 2000 square miles of land.

In more recent times, Hurricanes Irene and Sandy flooded New York City in succession, giving New Yorkers a taste of the surging seas to come. Global warming is no longer a distant threat; it has reared its ugly head and left us trembling in fear of what may follow. Current projections for sea level rise across the northeast show nothing less dire than what is already occurring farther south; estimates for end of century sea levels in New York would see a huge expanse of the city swallowed whole, with the attendant increase in risk of calamitous flooding and storm surges to contend with in the process. Yet, due to political and economic reasons, relatively little has been done to combat these rising threats.

20th Century LA coastal erosion [Louisiana Office of Coastal Activities]

20th Century LA coastal erosion [Louisiana Office of Coastal Activities]

At a time when our physical borders are literally being washed away, our political borders are even more insurmountable than ever.  On one side of the divide, scientists, activists and environmentalists preach the environmental apocalypse, urging reform and regulatory action.  On the other side, corporations cry market ruin if we were to let our economy be regulated by a nebulous threat. In North Carolina this debate came to a head in 2012, when the state legislature passed a law forbidding North Carolinian policy­makers from using sea ­level rise projections to create policies and protection for their coastal communities. Under this regulation, builders, businesses and residents blindly tied their economic future to land at risk of flooding and erosion.  Paradoxically, this law, which was designed to promote economic growth by reducing regulations, would have inevitably caused economic chaos in the long term.  Fortunately, the law expired in July 2016, but the spirit in which it was made is indicative of a larger problem: environmental protection seems to be at odds with short term economic opportunities.

Can the economy grow while the environment flourishes? Yes.  Will the economy grow while the environment flourishes? Most likely not; in fact, the incentives for those lawmakers and CEOs who have the power to act in favour of the environment are largely skewed towards short-term economic potential at apparently any environmental costs.  The converse is also true: those with no power to enact changes to protect the environment are also those with the most need for environmental protection. The boundaries between the powerful and the disenfranchised will only be exacerbated as the global climate crisis intensifies.

Already, communities which skew poor nonwhite are disproportionately affected by air pollution are.  In fact, a study by the University of Minnesota found an especially pronounced “pollution gap” in the concentrations of the noxious chemical nitrogen dioxide, which has been linked to increased risk of ailments such as asthma or heart attacks.  As white-collar workers zip along freeways during their morning commutes, low-income communities clustered along those same highways breathe exhaust fumes and inhale tainted air from nearby factories.  The implications of this “pollution gap” are indicative of a terrifying trend:  those who are most disenfranchised among us, will only become more marginalised as the environment continues to degrade.  Yet still pitifully little has been done to stop the progression of global climate change and pollution.

Because of this inaction, several chilling inevitabilities will come to pass in the next century:  our seas will continue to rise, threatening coastal communities around the globe;wickedhightides-700x523  our cars and factories will continue to emit fossil fuels, propagating the greenhouse effect and intensifying the concentration of noxious pollutants; and our lawmakers will continue to promote the profits of special interests in the short term, even when it spells disaster in the long. But when it comes to climate change, governments cannot afford to bury their heads in the sand for much longer- not as its swept away by the coming tides.





Featured Image: LSU Campus after recent flooding [Patrick Dennis/The Advocate via AP]