How far should we go in climate proofing inhospitable lands?

For centuries, the Dutch has been taming nature – fending off ongoing waves of water threats posed by its low sea level.  For the past couple of decades, it’s been exporting its variety of water-treatment expertise, and the construction of dams and dykes technologies abroad.

The idea of “climate proofing” our living environment is not a difficult concept to embrace.  Yet it shows how far we had come since our ancestors roamed the earth, leaving behind hostile environments and settling in more benevolent spaces.  Instead, our more recent ancestors have increasingly decided to stay and fight – to acclimatize themselves to averse surroundings, and in the process of doing so, butt heads with nature more frequently.

Is there a limit to what technology and human ingenuity can accomplish? As the effects of climate change lead to more extreme weather patterns, how far will we go to defend our ways of living on those increasingly inhospitable lands?

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  • http://blog.thisyoungeconomist.com/ This Young Economist

    I think you ask some great questions, but I wonder if you undervalue the role of government in pushing individuals to live in averse conditions. Here's what I have in mind:

    People who live in hurricane country get hit by hurricanes with regularity. Yet, they receive federal aid to rebuild on that same location. Similarly, people live in wildfire prone areas. Every year the wildfires come, and the onus is on the government to protect those houses from wildfires.

    In both of these cases, the government support individuals implicit insurance (sometimes explicit with programs that funnel disaster relief money to rebuild damaged houses) for a very risky developments. What's worse is that individuals don't pay for this insurance one bit. Hence, we have this equilibrium where people overdevelop in beautiful, but risky, areas. When development is ravaged by nature (a likely event), we all chip in for them to rebuild. And, the process repeats.

    As you mention, climate change is making some lands increasingly inhospitable. At an individual level, we have little control over that, but we can control where we build houses. Plus, we can anticipate the places that will be most affected by climate change — hurricane country, anywhere near mature and drying forests, etc. At an individual level, the solution is to not build in those places. Unfortunately, that's not what our incentives tell us to do because we're protected by our government if something goes wrong. And, our rebuilding on those same risky locations is — to some degree — subsidized.

    Something about that seems wrong to me.

  • investoralist

    Hi there,

    Thank you for the comment. I would agree that governments have a huge part to play in terms of aiding or rejecting these subsidized efforts. For every land filling project that takes place in low sea areas, there's probably a Three Gorges getting flooded somewhere, paid for by the government.

    Although in democratic communities in the west, I wonder if the gov't merely carries out the popular wishes of the public. Afterall, if you live in a country in the Netherlands – where should nature had its way, would be halfway underwater centuries ago, what would you do as a community/political system? You would attempt to tame nature, almost at all cost, should you not want to let your land/clan/race disappear.

  • investoralist

    Hi there,

    Thank you for the comment. I would agree that governments have a huge part to play in terms of aiding or rejecting these subsidized efforts. For every land filling project that takes place in low sea areas, there's probably a Three Gorges getting flooded somewhere, paid for by the government.

    Although in democratic communities in the west, I wonder if the gov't merely carries out the popular wishes of the public. Afterall, if you live in a country in the Netherlands – where should nature had its way, would be halfway underwater centuries ago, what would you do as a community/political system? You would attempt to tame nature, almost at all cost, should you not want to let your land/clan/race disappear.