Transcribed from the 14 October 2017 episode of This is Hell! Radio (Chicago) and printed with permission. Edited for space and readability. Listen to the whole interview:
If particular places are threatened by climate change, and in the next generation or two are going to be even more threatened, should we consider moving people away from those places or implementing some policy that encourages people to move to parts of the country that are more sustainable long-term?
Chuck Mertz: Neoliberalism has created greater disparity, furthered inequality, and destroyed our sense of community—and all just in time for the destructive effects of climate change. Here to explain how unprepared we are for its worst effects, Ashley Dawson returns to This is Hell!. He is author of the new book Extreme Cities: The Peril and Promise of Urban Life in the Age of Climate Change.
Welcome back to This is Hell!, Ashley.
Ashley Dawson: Thanks so much, Chuck, good to be with you again.
CM: Great to have you on the show.
You tell your readers about living in Jackson Heights, Queens, during hurricane Sandy, the deadliest and most destructive hurricane of the 2012 hurricane season. You write, “When the full force of the storm hit that night, the intensifying winds drove rain into the bricks and mortar of my building, which age had rendered all too permeable to such a sustained onslaught, producing a threatening bulge in the paint of my bedroom wall.”
How much are places like New York City threatened by the effects of climate change because of our aging or faltering infrastructure? More to the point, how much are cities like New York City threatened by less maintenance and less reinvestment due to lower tax revenue caused by both the anti-tax movement and the tax subsidies and benefits that are given to attract businesses to move in?
AD: It’s a combination of those things. We have been having less support for infrastructures and more privatization of infrastructures in the developed world. And in developing countries, many people can’t even rely on infrastructure. They have rolling brownouts in many cities in the Global South. Many of the things we take for granted which disappear in a climate crisis are not even a regular feature of everyday life for the vast majority of people living in cities around the planet.
Those economic and infrastructural challenges are colliding with a world in flames, a world of rising oceans and increasingly ferocious hurricanes and tsunamis. It’s a really toxic and deadly brew for many people.
CM: President Trump said this week, after two hurricanes hit Puerto Rico, that the damage had “thrown our budget out of whack.” How much of a threat is climate change damage to the US economy? How much will climate change “throw our economy out of whack?”
AD: The National Flood Insurance Program was already $25 billion in the hole before the whole series of hurricanes that hit the United States. But those kinds of financial calculations are always political, at the end of the day. There is massive amounts of money to be found for the military—which is one of the main contributors to climate change on the planet.
There are serious financial challenges to confront, but they have to do with what our priorities are, and Puerto Rico is a great example of that. Puerto Rico has a huge debt, but it didn’t come out of nowhere. It was engineered by tax breaks for hedge funds that parked their cash there, and the government issued more and more bonds, got more and more into debt, and now the bondholders are insisting on collecting even while the island has been absolutely smashed, its infrastructures already dismantled by the authority congress put in place to get some money out of Puerto Rico.
These kinds of financial issues are political all the way down, and our response needs to be political as well. We need to push back against the idea that there’s an economic crisis and we need to get money out of vulnerable people.
CM: You mentioned the contributions to climate change caused by the military, and I’ve heard this argument made before. What is the military’s impact on urban planning that can lead to contributions to climate change?
AD: The military, just in terms of its footprint of carbon emissions, is massive. The United States has over 800 bases all around the planet, and the military, of course, is constantly flying missions and sending ships out, all of which are contributing to carbon emissions. But in terms of what’s happening with the military and cities specifically, there has been a trend in military planning over the last decade and a half to argue that battles are increasingly going to be fought in urban terrain, whereas a lot of the planning for fighting during the Cold War era used to be about planning to fight battles on open plains in Eastern Europe.
We saw the acme of the power which the US military developed during the first Gulf War, where (I’m sure you’ll remember this) there were horrifying pictures of Saddam Hussein’s army trying to flee north on a highway towards Baghdad, and the US military raining bombs down on the fleeing forces and completely decimating them. There was this feeling that the US military was completely omnipotent, and we should start using it more often. We had gotten over the idea, coming out of Vietnam, that our military wasn’t up to engagement with serious foes.
But what started happening was that more and more battles were being fought in cities, so the military began planning for how to fight in cities, and there’s an increasing awareness on the part of the military that people are urbanizing, and that climate change is going to be affecting people in cities increasingly, and that it needs to engage in extremely violent ways in those kinds of environments.
There is a lot of planning going on by the military, a lot of development of hardware and forms of surveillance. Much of that is then bleeding into domestic forms of control and surveillance of populations—undocumented people first and foremost—in urban sites in general, as we also know from Ferguson and Black Lives Matter protests and the increasing militarization of domestic police forces.
CM: You also point out that congressional military spending leads to areas having more military bases, and areas that were not populated in the past to have more population, leading to more air conditioning, say, in the Southwest.
How much does that strategy contribute to climate change and when it comes to urban planning effects here in the United States?
AD: There is a history of population planning in the United States. It may not be overt. We might not say we decided to move people from the Rust Belt to the Sunshine States of the southwest roundabout 1970 or so. There wasn’t some conscious Chinese-style urban planning blueprint that was ever articulated by the US government. But there was a de facto policy, pork-barrel placement of military facilities in the South and the Southwest, and that meant that there was a big shift of population to those states.
If we acknowledge, even if we haven’t talked about it overtly, that we have a program of shifting populations around, that raises the question: if those states are now particularly threatened by climate change and in the next generation or two are going to be even more threatened (California is burning and Florida is constantly threatened—and Texas as well—by these megastorms), should we consider moving people away from those places or implementing some policy that encourages people to move to parts of the country that are more sustainable long-term?
That’s the point of looking at that history of military spending: to say that we have had plans in the past; maybe we should talk more explicitly about them in the future.
It came out after hurricane Harvey that Houston has been chopping down wetlands in order to develop a suburban sprawl complex that is radically unsustainable and also highly racially stratified and geographically unequal.
CM: You lived through hurricane Sandy. How much has New York City addressed the impact that climate change may have on it in the future?
AD: One of the the things I talk about in the book is that the city became very fragmented. The famous subway system that knits the five boroughs of New York together was not working for quite some time, and everything from Fourteenth Street down to Battery Park at the bottom of Manhattan, was without power; when darkness fell there were no lights and it was a very spooky effect. It put a lot of stress on people, particularly people living in some of Manhattan’s highrises. Many people don’t know, but in New York City if you live above the fifth floor and the electricity goes out, you don’t have any running water either. You don’t have anything to drink and you can’t flush your toilet. So this has a pretty grave impact on people.
If you go down to the South Ferry now, you’ll see that the subway entrance has big doors that have been put in place that can be closed in the event of another big storm surge, to protect the subway just near the Staten Island ferry terminal. However, if you would about two hundred feet north of there, you’ll find that there are gratings in the pavement that let air down into the subway, and that those gratings are not covered over. So a storm surge coming in might not go straight into the entrances of the subway, but it will still go into the subway system and flood it again.
All of that is to say that there has been a significant amount of work done to climate-proof New York City, but it’s such a huge infrastructure and it’s been chronically underfunded. The New York subway today has constant shutdowns and trains not running because it’s just freaking, financially. So despite the climate-proofing work that’s being done it’s still quite vulnerable.
And that’s not even to address the bigger issue: that we have a city which is basically governed by real estate and big capital. There is constant building going on in flood zones. This policy of building in vulnerable areas is just nonsensical in climate terms, but if you’re a real estate developer and you want to make a quick buck, it makes lots of sense.
There’s a glaring contradiction between the short term interests of capital to make money and to find sinks to put over-accumulated capital into, and the interests of people and more long term interests for survival in the face of climate change. Those two things are butting heads increasingly. We see in Puerto Rico the horrendous effects of this kind of contradiction right now.
CM: But you also point to the dependence that we have, in particular in the wake of the recession of 2008, in making the economy bounce back through real estate development.
How much are we threatening the way we have recovered from economic disaster in the past by threatening redevelopment when we are talking about the ways we should be preparing ourselves for climate change?
AD: It depends on who the “we” is. Wall Street is doing just fine and has recovered a great deal from the great recession, but the average person in New York City hasn’t. In terms of economic conditions—by unemployment and many other indices—people are struggling in New York City, and struggling even more every day.
The question would be how to make a recovery that really works for everyone—and there have been strong social movements pushing back around those kinds of issues. One of the things I talk about in the book is the election of Bill DeBlasio and the plan he put on the table to replace mayor Bloomberg’s “PlaNYC,” which was his climate-proofing plan. This plan led to some very important innovations: planting a million trees, and putting down hundreds of miles worth of bike lanes. But at the same time Bloomberg was the mayor of real estate development.
We had all these buildings going in right along the waterfront in places like Williamsburg and Long Island City, and now the far West Side and Midtown. And they’re all in flood zones. So there are real contradictions there. Another element of Bloomberg’s plan is was to include affordable housing, he said. However, this was a few apartments in every luxury condo being set aside for affordable housing, pegged to area median income—which you can imagine, in a city like New York with many millionaires, was extremely high. It really was not affordable for the average person. So we’re building these luxury condos in areas that were often in flood zones, and we weren’t really addressing the grave housing crisis in New York City.
The election of Bill DeBlasio led to a shift in rhetoric and efforts to ramp up policies to help the majority of New Yorkers. He’s near the end of his first term now, and things could certainly be better, but he was elected by a really significant push from social movements reacting to some of the failures of post-Sandy reconstruction efforts in New York City. Obviously those social movements have to keep pushing, and we have to keep making the links between economic justice and environmental justice very clear—particularly fighting the xenophobic, racist discourse that we see in the national sphere far too much with the election of Trump.
CM: You write, “The predominant outlook on urbanization remains surprisingly sunny, even utoptian. Numerous paeans have been devoted to the economic and civic benefit of urban development, characterized cities as the breeding grounds for new entrepreneurship that will provide solutions to the challenge of poverty; their smart, technologically enhanced forms of urbanism will usher capitalism into a new era of green urban growth and produce a city fix for climate change.”
How much is capitalism’s role in creating climate change ignored because those who are writing about climate change are enthralled with cities? Because as city dwellers and lovers of urban life, they cannot blame the engine that drives cities, that is, capitalism?
That’s climate apartheid. It’s about wanting to keep people away rather than acknowledging the historical responsibility that people in the developed world have for displaced people and thinking about ways to help those people out and provide harbors to them.
AD: You put your finger on it. If there is any kind of allusion to capitalism, it’s with the clichéd notion that the market has this magic hand that is going to solve all the problems that we face. One of the people I write about is Matthew Kahn. He is a columnist who actually does talk about cities and climate change quite explicitly, but his argument is that free market entrepreneurialism is going to mean that people who are threatened by climate change in cities are going to come up with all these brilliant solutions, and cities are going innovate their way out of this problem through capitalist markets.
While we should certainly think about innovation and embrace it as much as we can, it’s not necessarily going to come through the market, and the idea that the market is going to be the solution just doesn’t make any sense if we look at how the market is driving unsustainable forms of urbanization.
I want to criticize Kahn and a whole other group of people who are writing about cities as if they are the solutions to all the crises we face. And New York City is particularly important there, because it’s often seen as a paradigm of urban living for many of these writers, because people live in quite tall buildings here, and they take the subways, and so the average New Yorker’s carbon emissions are quite low in comparison with most Americans. But that ignores that there are many people in this city who have huge amounts of money, who have houses in other places, who fly all over the world, and who have very high emissions. So to fetishize urban space per se and not think about issues of inequality and issues of planning to make things work for everybody in an egalitarian fashion is hugely problematic.
And that’s just to talk about New York City. Of course, urbanization around the rest of the United States is often highly unsustainable. We saw that with Hurricane Harvey in Houston: it came out after the hurricane that the city has been chopping down wetlands in order to develop this suburban sprawl. They’ve gotten a suburban sprawl complex that is radically unsustainable and also highly racially stratified and geographically unequal.
That’s where we are with cities in the United States, and that’s not even to start talking about cities in other parts of the world where there’s even more rampant inequality. There are cities that are increasingly being buffeted by extreme forms of weather related to climate change, but they are also extreme in terms of their economic inequalities, and that creates huge vulnerabilities when natural disasters happen. It’s this interaction with those too different forms of extreme that I’m trying to alert people to, and both of those things need to be dealt with.
CM: We’ve talked about environmental racism in the past, in particular with The Intercept’s Sharon Lerner who has been on twice this year to discuss the impact of an Exxon-Mobil plant on a predominately black and poor neighborhood in Beaumont, Texas, as well as in the St. John the Baptist parish in Louisiana which is situated next to a neoprene plant that, like the Exxon-Mobil facility in Texas, has been linked to various illnesses among their predominantly impoverished and African-American neighbors.
That would suggest that not only is there environmental racism but, beyond that, there is geographic racism. That is, not only are racial minorities living near polluting facilities, but they are also living in areas that are the most vulnerable to climate change.
You also mentioned “climate apartheid.” Is that the combination of environmental racism, geographic racism, and the class distinctions that you were just talking about that are happening in extreme cities?
AD: I talk about climate apartheid in terms of the responsibility which the industrialized world holds for carbon emissions, with countries like the United States and the countries of the European Union having emitted by far the vast majority of carbon over the last two hundred years. And yet because they are relatively wealthy countries, they are able to insulate themselves from the most dramatic effects of climate change. Also by geographical circumstance they are relatively insulated.
It’s formerly-colonized countries in what we could call the Global South (or in what Christian Parenti calls the “Tropic of Chaos,” the tropical band going around the middle of the planet) that are most vulnerable to forms of climate change, both because of their geography and because that’s where some of the most dramatic impacts like these hurricanes are playing out. And of course people living in those places are the ones who are least responsible for climate change. They emit virtually no carbon, on average.
What we’re seeing now is an increasingly xenophobic discourse about climate migrants, people who have been displaced either by the direct impact of climate change or civil conflict like the one in Syria that resulted from a drought which was connected to climate change. We get people in the European Union electing extreme rightwing governments, neofascist governments, or at least (as in the recent German election) admitting parties which are pretty explicitly neofascist into the parliament, as the result of hostility towards migrants or potential migrants.
That’s climate apartheid. It’s about wanting to keep people away rather than acknowledging the historical responsibility that people in the developed world have for displaced people and thinking about ways to help those people out and provide harbors to them.
All that should also be kept in the context that the vast majority of people who are displaced by climate change don’t actually come to rich countries; they end up displaced within their own countries, going to cities within their own countries, or going to nearby countries. Lebanon accepted over a million Syrian refugees even though it only has a population of about five million.
There’s a lot of hypocrisy around this climate apartheid discourse and around the xenophobia that we see circulating so much in places like the United States today.
CM: It seems like the challenges are nearly insurmountable. You write, “In today’s neoliberal world system, gaping inequalities open up within and between countries. Hurricane Sandy, from Haiti to New York, rendered national boundaries nonsensical, although they continue to structure how we think about weather.”
How much then, in order to fight climate change and its worst effects, do we not only have to question and reconsider capitalism, but also have to question and reconsider the idea of nations? In order to fight climate change, do we not only have to challenge the economic system that’s driving our world but also acknowledge the borders that delineate it have to be changed? And will anything short of that fail?
The point is to take proactive steps in order to address these challenges before people are faced with climate catastrophe, and before they are faced with social abandonment by the rich and the forces of repression that will result as populations are left behind.
AD: The borders that we have are going to be placed under increasing stress, and in some ways they are already changing. The military and border control apparatuses in the United States and in the European Union are increasingly shifting their borders away from the geographical borders of the nation itself and into places that might be sending refugees towards them—in the case of the European Union, into North African countries. A lot of border checking and control is being done by European Union forces, or by local states delegated by the European Union, to try and stop refugees from coming.
We’re already seeing borders changing in some ways; we have this idea of building higher walls in order to secure ourselves. It’s a fiction which is useful maybe in political terms but doesn’t make sense if we look at what’s happening on the ground. What we’ve got coming at us in this century in terms of climate impact is going to radically reconfigure things and lead to significant population movements. We’re already seeing that in Puerto Rico, with tens of thousands of people leaving the island. Much of California is burning. The coasts around the United States and in many other parts of the world are increasingly being buffeted by these savage storms. Are we going to keep rebuilding there, or are we going to shift people away from those places and come up with some kind of plan that makes sense?
I don’t want to say that the nation-state is no longer valuable at all. In fact, a lot of the left infatuation with horizontalist, stateless forms of localization—and I talk about that in the context of Occupy Sandy—doesn’t really give us a way to come up with rational plans. Bill McKibben has talked about the need for a World War Two style mitigation plan, a mobilization for rapid and massive mitigation. It’s only going to be through powerful states that we can shift from burning fossil fuels, as we’re doing now, to renewable energy. It needs to be planned; it needs to be something pushed by social movements. We need a state to make all of this happen.
I don’t want to suggest we should just abandon states, but what I do want to be critical of is the kind of jingoistic, xenophobic climate apartheid that is part of a certain kind of nationalism. A role for states to play on an international plane is reaching an agreement about a fair and just transition that involves mitigation and adaptation that really honors people who are the most vulnerable and gives them access to resources where they have to move, and that gives them the ability to move.
CM: You write, “Planning for a just retreat [from coastal cities] and transition should be seen as an opportunity to rekindle our sense of collective purpose and potential. Time is of the essence. The further we slide into climate chaos without establishing a democratic and socially just response, the more likely we are to be forced to adapt under the sway not simply of disasters but of the authoritarian and inegalitarian powers to which emergency conditions often give rise.”
Why do you believe an unplanned response to climate change can lead to authoritarianism, and to what degree—when you consider that—should the antifascist movement, those from the movement of people who fear fascism’s rise here in the United States, be focusing on climate change?
AD: It’s absolutely key to think about climate change and climate justice as part of an antifascist movement, because otherwise what we have is the rich pulling up stakes and moving when they decide they are threatened by forms of climate disaster (either dramatic ones like hurricanes or the more slow-onset ones like gradual sea level rise or increasing heat in cities), and they leave behind vulnerable populations. And what happens when we have a vulnerable population that is threatened, and their livelihoods and their lives themselves are no longer tenable, is uprisings.
The way we deal with that in the United States and much of the rest of the world is to send the military in. There is a danger of increasing militarization in these kinds of conflicts that result from climate change. We need to have a shift in perspective. But there’s a lot of hopeful energy around these kinds of questions. One of the things I talk about in my book is landscape architecture, and specifically some of the plans for rebuilding New York City in a way that doesn’t just put up huge flood walls and dikes but works with nature through the creation of wetlands, through growing oyster reefs that can also function as barriers to storm surges, to adopt a different perspective towards the natural world.
That’s very exciting, and there’s a lot of intellectual energy and also hope going towards imagining these forms of adaptation. We need to marry that kind of perspective to a perspective that thinks about how we we’re going to help the most vulnerable people, how we can have people whose neighborhoods are low-lying in places like Miami move to higher ground, how we can make sure they have access to affordable housing which is sufficiently raised so if there is a storm they won’t be flooded out. One could carry on with these kinds of examples. But the point is to take proactive steps in order to address these challenges before people are faced with climate catastrophe, and before they are faced with social abandonment by the rich and the forces of repression that will result as populations are left behind.
CM: There are the climate change deniers on the far right who suggest that people who are trying to fight climate change just want a more egalitarian, less racist and sexist society—in other words they think this is all some sort of big communist plot.
On the other hand, if we ignore climate change then we also get to ignore all of the disparity and all of the inequality, all that racism and all that sexism. So is climate change a communist plot, and climate change denial an authoritarian plot?
AD: Climate change is a feature of Earth systems. There’s been a significant human input into those Earth systems, of course, so it’s anthropogenic climate change. You’re right that climate change denial is increasingly deeply woven into neofascist and rightwing thinking in the United States and in other parts of the world. That’s true. But sticking our heads in the sand is not going to make climate change stop happening.
What we’re really talking about here is the survival of humanity and of many of the other life forms on the planet as we know it, and we have a relatively short window to ensure that survival. The way that we’re going to do it is through solidarity with one another and with all the other life forms on the planet, not through an armed-lifeboat attempt to fight for survival by ourselves. That’s just going to lead to social dysfunction and violence and breakdown.
CM: Ashley, I really appreciate you being back here on This is Hell!. Thank you so much.
AD: Thanks, Chuck, it’s been great speaking with you.
Featured image: photo tweeted by the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change on 15 October 2017 with the caption, “Sky blackened by smoke from fires in Vieira de Leiria, Portugal today, stoked by unseasonable heat.”