Swimming over the future

This “vision” is the first in 33 (or more!) that we’ll be publishing on this site over the next few months. Most of them will go into Life Plus 2 Meters, Volume 2 (expected publication: Dec 2017). Please do comment with your thoughts on the message, how to sharpen the narrative, and/or how you feel/think about adapting to climate change (we’re not very subtle 😉

So, please put yourself into some of these visions, and — seriously — we hope you enjoy them 🙂  — David Zetland (editor) and the authors


Nathan Scott slid into his lightweight dive gear and prepared to explore a new site in the sunken city. His father was a photojournalist and his mother an archeologist, so this work came naturally to him. He had been diving and exploring ancient ruins since he was a boy. Now, he was the archeologist and was leading his own team.

For this dive, Nathan wanted to see how things had changed since the sea had taken over and an earthquake had further dropped the ground below. They used cutting-edge laser mapping gear to map the location. Simply swimming over the dive site would give them a 3-D model of the entire area.

With a nod from the members of his team, each diver

backrolled into the warm saltwater and descended to the bottom. The site was relatively shallow – only 30 feet deep. Just a few miles away, the bottom dropped off quickly, with depths measured in miles, but that was a dead zone.

Swimming nearly unencumbered by his dive gear, Nathan thought back to his dad’s gear and laughed to himself. That stuff was ancient. It all belonged to museums now. Nathan’s dad had died a few years before, but his mom was still alive. At 100-years-old, she loved to tell stories of their adventures together and relive them like it was yesterday.

Nathan caught sight of the building he planned to survey. The architecture was considered “space-age” at the time. That brought another laugh. Now that space travel was common, he realized the science fiction writers and architectural dreamers had it pretty close. The buildings on Mars looked like what he saw in front of him. Minus the corals, of course.

The main structure had looked like an ancient satellite with four long legs coming down at angles and crossing at the top in two massive bows. The central structure rose from the ground as a single pedestal and then flared out, connecting to the legs. Storms had knocked the structure sideways and dropped the main building to the sea floor now, though.

Approaching the remnants of the building, Nathan could tell a few glass windows had survived the fall, but other than that it was completely open to the sea. In the shadow of the building, Nathan turned on his underwater light to get a look inside.

The water had risen slowly, but inexorably, so the people who worked in the building had time to remove everything. All that was left was furniture that couldn’t be moved easily and the walls of the building itself. He knew there was nothing of value there, which is probably why it had been left alone all these years.

Sweeping his light to the side, Nathan saw a shadow move. There was something there. But what? There were no sharks left in this part of the ocean. Whatever it was, it was big, though. Bigger than him, big.

Nathan moved inside the building. He needed to see what was there. Whatever it was, the thing kept moving just out of his vision. He kicked further inside. The odd angles of the floor and the walls, with the structure lying on its side, were disorienting.

What was in there? Was it just his imagination?

Moving into the cavernous room, Nathan stayed away from the walls. He didn’t want to get backed into a corner. Swinging his light to his right to look around a partition, his heart almost stopped. He had heard stories, but he almost didn’t believe what he saw. The flowing fins and spines radiating from the fish’s body identified it immediately. A lionfish. But this one was as big as a lion. It had to weigh 400 pounds.

The fish advanced toward him, stalking him like prey, and Nathan backpedaled quickly. The fish’s flowing spines were as long as he was tall and could deliver enough ichthyotoxic venom to paralyze him on the spot. Lionfish were known to be fearless and aggressive hunters. There wasn’t much left in the ocean that could challenge them these days.

Lionfish hunted by moving close to their prey and then darting forward, lowering their flat lower jaws, and sucking prey into their mouths. If this lionfish got too close, Nathan wasn’t sure there was much he could do.

Swimming backward, Nathan crashed into something hard. He managed to run into one of the few remaining glass windows. His reflection in the glass showed him that the huge fish had closed on him.

Nathan raised his light and smashed the window, diving through the falling shards of glass. As he did, he felt a pull against his legs. He grabbed the window frame and pulled himself the rest of the way through the opening just in time. The lionfish’s mouth clamped down on his foot and pulled one of his fins loose. Fortunately, it was too big to fit through the window opening.

He was safe.

Making his way back to the boat was slow going with only one fin, but that was fine. He needed time to reflect on what he saw. On the way, he swam over the most famous landmark from the area they were surveying. The A and the X in the famous sign nearly reached the surface, but the L had fallen. All three statues were completely covered in coral growth.

LAX.

He remembered catching a flight there with his dad as they were headed off on some adventure when he was just a kid.


Eric Douglas is a diver who writes both fiction and nonfiction. His Mike Scott series of adventure novels are all set in dive locations around the world. They all involve action, adventure, history and the environment. This story features Mike Scott’s son Nathan, many years in the future. You can find out more about the Mike Scott series or Douglas’ other books at www.booksbyeric.com.

Social capital as adaptation capital

Daniel Hall says social capital can help make up for damaged natural capital.

Current climate change policy is aimed primarily at mitigation, to reduce the greenhouse gases causing it. Environmentalists use a sustainability argument that we should not further deplete earth’s ability to assimilate carbon capacity to the point of damaging future generations. Yet efforts have not been significant enough to come even close to sustainability in this sense.

Economics Nobel Laureate Robert Solow gives a broader definition of “sustainability” in his article, “Sustainability: An Economist’s Perspective” [pdf]. He argued that sustainability does not necessarily involve protecting a particular resource or natural way of life and that sustainability can mean not leaving future generations with a lower capacity to meet their general needs. This opens a role for adaptation in addressing climate change. People often think of the greenhouse gas problem as a pollution problem, but it can also be thought of as an extraction of the atmospheric and oceanic carbon-absorbing services of the earth. We are depleting this ‘natural capital’ to extract profits (“rents”) via market goods today. Solow said that sustainability can also be applied to the depletion of a nonrenewable resource if we properly invest the resource rents in activities conducive to economic growth and finding substitute resources.

Responsible policy involves accepting that we have already caused significant climate change and start using the rents from our depleted natural capital (the assimilative capacity) to invest in adaptation capital. We will need physical capital to rebuild and repurpose our infrastructure in adaptation to climate change. We will need human capital to solve challenges we will fail to anticipate. Finally, we will need social capital to collectively meet the challenges climate change will bring us.

Social capital is a measure of trust, cooperation, and participation in community and society. What if climate change makes where you live undesirable? If you had to relocate, who could help you move? Who would give you a place to stay outside your family when they have to move too? Who will bring you food and other necessities when the supply chains running to your house are temporarily broken? Will we engage in conflict over our reduced resources, or will we cooperate in the management of their scarcity? With rising temperatures, rising sea levels, and rising frequency and severity of disasters, our public and private sector support systems will be overwhelmed. We will need social capital to address these problems in a quick and decentralized manner.

Unfortunately, there is already insufficient investment in social capital today. People are joining organizations less and volunteering with groups less (Putnam 1995). When a large disaster like Hurricane Katrina or more recently Hurricane Matthew hits and captures media attention, we manage to pool our resources and find a way to help those most damaged. With extreme climate change these disasters will happen so frequently that we will become desensitized, then disaffected, then overwhelmed, and finally too busy saving ourselves to help others. We cannot wait to build social capital when cooperation becomes more challenging after climate change happens.

How can we reinvest in social capital? First, communities must commit to do so, and if viewing social capital as a form of adaptation capital serves as a catalyst, great. Businesses need to encourage employees to join organizations and participate in community activities. Government can provide incentives for donating time and talent as they do for charitable donations. Volunteer associations and non-profits must modernize and equip their organizations to anticipate and handle the future needs. Everyone can get to know their neighbor and help each other address problems.

Adaptation will require cooperation, and by building our cooperative capacities today, perhaps we can get closer to sustainability after severe climate change.


Daniel Hall is an Assistant Professor of Economics at High Point University in North Carolina. He serves HPU and community at large as the advisor to the Civitan Club on campus, a group known for the good works and civic duties. The Civitan Club has won many awards for service and Dr. Hall was awarded Outstanding Faculty Advisor by his students. Dr. Hall also incorporates Civitan into his research and into his teaching of a service learning course in microeconomics. He was honored as Service Learning Professor of the Year for the 2013-2014 academic year.

Two meters of migration

Binayak Das follows the trail of migrants to drier land.

Aminul stares at the vast land, no water, no rivers, and no boats. This is unlike his home of water and water. He has just landed in a resettlement colony stretching across arid land. He is a migrant, pushed away from his home on the southern fringes of Bangladesh by the encroaching sea. Aminul is not alone, thousands of people have turned climate migrants over the last five years. He is in Kazakhstan, a land he has never heard of.

He is in Kazakhstan because the 9th largest country in the world opened its borders to allow climate migrants to join its 20 million citizens. Some of Bangladesh’s 130 million citizens saw the need to leave their disappearing land for a safer and less-crowded space. Bangladesh’s population density of 1,120 people per km2 is far greater than Kazakhstan’s 6 people per km2. Kazakhstan welcomed those who could support its growing agricultural and energy sectors.

Aminul’s journey was quick. His degree and knowledge of the gas industry made it easy to get a visa and job.

Others were not so lucky.

Shahid, a fisherman from the Chittagong region, was also suffering climate change pangs. He didn’t have education, so he had to fight his way to higher elevations. Aminul flew to Kazakhstan in a day. Shahid turned to the trafficking networks set up 20 years earlier (during the Syrian war), trudging via boat, foot, and bus for two years to Kazakhstan.

Kazakhstan’s new residents escaped the first threat of climate change.

Kazakhstan didn’t open its gates willingly. With the onslaught of climate change submerging low-lying countries and small islands, people tried to escape by any possible means. Voices across the globe screamed for measures to avoid catastrophe. Europe, China, India and the US worried that their densely populated countries would be overwhelmed. Other countries with conflict, economic and political migrants said they could take no more.

Under pressure from all sides, the UN launched negotiations 10 years ago to cope with climate crisis migrants. Many proposals were put forward, but most were denied by “already burdened” countries. There was a risk that migrants without options would turn borders into bloodbaths.

And then came a shocking proposal from a tiny Pacific island: “land rich” countries such as Russia, Canada, Australia, and Kazakhstan could open their borders.

The first reactions from these countries was a big NO, but global and local protests made politicians reconsider. Trade-offs started to emerge as businesses and governments looked at migrants as a boon to their ailing economies and falling fertilities. Soon, they were joined by other countries seeking to combine labour and capital.

Within five years, people were moving ahead of climate change. Now Aminul and Sahidul stand, staring at a vast land without water, rivers and  boats, looking to a different future.

And then they understood the second threat of climate change.


Binayak Das started this piece in a Dhaka hotel room, finished it in Amsterdam airport, and sent it from Malang. All these places will experience life plus two meters before others. He has about 16 years experience working on water, environment, climate change and sustainable development. Binayak is a Panos journalist fellow and author of numerous books, papers and articles. His wide travels and field visits to remotest regions gives him insight into development challenges and solutions in police and practice. He is currently associated with the Water Integrity Network in Berlin.

The underpass

Joseph Cohn updates our visions of biblical floods.

The storm raged all night. The refugees trembled as the wind howled beneath the bridge. Soon the water rose. For two hours it roared through the underpass. Along the concrete walls black shapes writhed in the primordial darkness. The underpass became a vault of screams to echo the agony of the dying earth. By dawn the flooding had ended and thirty-three people had died.

In the morning the refugees climbed down to scavenge and search for the dead. They cleared the ground and sent the dead into the sea, and then they gathered to eat out of cold, dented cans. Afterward they rested against the walls and watched the world with mute eyes. Their figures faded into the gloom, until they were no more than shadows of anguish. No one spoke, and no children ran at play. The last child living beneath the bridge had died three weeks ago.

Around midday a wild-eyed man with long, tangled hair stood at the center of the underpass. From a ragged book he read to the refugees of prophets and dead kings and a time when the earth burned. But above all else he spoke of an empire called Babylon. Of how it fell at the height of glory, its towers and walls crumbling to the earth. The refugees heard him, but they did not listen.

A month later the underpass was silent and the people were gone. Whether they fled to some distant Elysian field or perished beneath the bridge was unknown. Their fates like their origins were lost, their existences forgotten. All was still but for the ocean. It loomed just beyond the bridge, gray and calm and ever shifting. A mercurial plain beneath whose surface lay the ruins of Babylon. A sepulcher fit to house all human folly.


Joseph Cohn [email] is a high school student from Southern California. Growing up close to the ocean, he has seen how all human activities —ranging from fishing to littering — can have harm our oceans.

A family farm in the future

Kai Olson-Sawyer channels a farmer’s experience in adaptation.

NB: Bill Mattson, a Minnesota farm owner-operator, sent this letter to his children when he passed along the family farm.

September 6, 2052

Dear Liz, Dean and Mary,

As I near retirement in my 74th year (not soon enough for you worrying about Dad’s old bones), I wanted to offer a brief history of Mattson Acres Farm. Although you always laugh at me when I do it, I dusted off my trusty keyboard to give you a sense of the changes that have befallen our farm over the last 40 years. While I know that Dean is wavering on farming and Mary is off to other things, I want you all, not just Liz, to understand this land’s past because it’s also our family’s past. You also know how much I love keeping records for posterity’s sake (and to tell a good story).

It starts in 2011 when your mom and I were able to save the money to buy that parcel of Nordinger’s land and make it our own after leasing it for years. Besides marrying your mom and witnessing your births, that was the proudest day of my life. Mom always said that Good Thunder was a good luck place to farm.

The first 451 acres was about split between corn and soybean. We were fairly profitable with the high commodity prices in the years before and after acquiring that land. Although prices softened later in the teens, the Big Dry really hurt.

I’m sure you all remember how stressful that time was with record-low rain and unbearable heat from 2021-2025. Those wilted fields left us just eking out an existence with terrible yields that put us in the red. Mom was wise to keep pushing us towards more crop insurance. We also decided to adjust our crop mix, which was our first step down that road.

We were hoping for rain, and eventually it arrived. Once that rain began to fall in February 2026, it never seemed to stop. At first the Big Wet was a boon and made up for the moisture loss and increased crop yields. That year was decent, but the problems were soon rising with the Cobb River. Never will I forget when the Cobb and Maple Rivers met on our land. In all, we saw a record 70 inches of rain in 2027. Over half of our crops were lost to flood and much of the rest succumbed to root rot and fungus.

sunk_tractor_usdaThe amount of water we saw on our land was staggering and something I never could have imagined. The nub of it is that we’re lucky our farm survived. With insurance, your mom’s job at the library and a little luck, we made it.

Water is always a problem, but we knew we had to act in a big way. After all those years of loading up our soil with fertilizers, baked in by the Big Dry, the torrential runoff from our fields picked up that pollution and put it right back into the rivers and groundwater. Good thing I’ve always been adamant about regularly testing our well water because in 2028 and 2029 the nitrate levels were sky high. If we weren’t aware of those toxins and fortunate to afford that reverse osmosis filtration, who knows how badly we could’ve been sickened.

Between our fouled water and the erratic weather, we knew we had to act on what Charlie at extension services called “drought and deluge.” Even though the weather is always changing, it was evident that we couldn’t count on the past for any indication of the extreme weather or precipitation that could strike. Climate change was tearing us up and we decided we were going to fight back (and hard).

Despite uncertainty, we worked with extension to come up with a solid plan. At the time we bought our final thousand acres I’d been playing with different crop mixes. I made a commitment then to see it through. Corn, yellow pea, alfalfa, soy, lentil—I tried it all and more to varying success. Continuous tinkering with the mix and rotation of the crops became so integrated into the health and well-being of our crop yields, our soil’s water and nutrient retention, and the farm’s economic viability, that it’s of the utmost importance for the farm’s resilience. Not only does this fine-tuning concern our cash crops, but it turns out that finding the right mix for our cover crops is just as essential. The diversity of crops that we produce has enabled our farm to withstand the higher temperatures, pests and the whipsaw dry and wet times we experience. Our farm has worked with Mother Nature to adapt to whatever is thrown our way.

The other major undertaking on our farm was taking the land out of production through buffers and the conservation easement in the early 2030s. It was a hard choice and a burden even with USDA grants, but preserving those 300 acres for wetlands helped clean up nitrate pollution from our water and our neighbors’ water downstream. We had the foresight to head off the federal 2041 Green Waters Act and get a handle on our pollution numbers before we had to report them, and as you know, we’ve always beat the nutrient diet standards. It was heartening when the Garcia’s joined our easement, which really started a trend around here. (We’re trendsetters!) Opening that land to duck hunting with assistance from the Waterfowl Association has been a real economic win.

All I can say is that we’ve worked hard to sustain this farm now and into the future. To keep the farm going under constantly changing conditions, we need to watch, learn, act, repeat: It never ends. That’s all we can do to deliver the best possible outcomes. I hope you keep farming to the end of the century.

Love always,
Dad


beach4_twt Kai Olson-Sawyer [email twitter] is a writer and senior research and policy analyst for GRACE Communications Foundation.