We have no insurance against this risk

Nobody can take credit for inventing insurance. All cultures have found ways to protect individuals from the full cost of bad luck.

  • Farmers diversify their crops in type, location and timing to reduce their risks, but storage, trade and mutual assistance help unlucky farmers.
  • Communities diversity their work, assets and family relations to reduce their risks, but migration, sharing and collaboration help unlucky neighbors.
  • Investors diversity among liquid and illiquid assets with short-term or long-term maturities, but laws, family ties and social welfare protect the bankrupt.

Humans evolved these structures — and the rich social bonds and norms that hold them together — over millennia, with each post-event refinement bringing a little more stability to the system and prosperity to the group.

For most of the 200,000-year history of our species, Nature delivered accidents and harm, but those risks became predictable over time and thus amenable to insurance, hedging, and other means of investing a little in good times to avoid occasional, catastrophic losses.

Among those who study climate, “stationarity” implies that patterns vary within clear boundaries over time. For the past 5,000 years, climate has been stationary in terms of temperatures, precipitation and storms. That pattern has been disrupted by acute forces — hurricanes, earthquakes and volcanic eruptions — just as it has evolved under the influence of solar radiation and other geological processes, but those changes (small and local or large and slow, respectively) have not been strong enough to overwhelm our primitive insurances or prevent us from migrating out of harm’s way.

Welcome to non-stationarity

Anthropogenic climate change will bring unprecedented risks that will strain and occasionally break our formal and informal coping mechanisms. In October 2017, the World Meteorological Association noted that:

Concentrations of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere surged at a record-breaking speed in 2016 to the highest level in 800,000 years… The last time the Earth experienced a comparable concentration of CO2 was 3-5 million years ago, the temperature was 2-3°C warmer and sea level was 10-20 meters higher than now… The rate of increase of atmospheric CO2 over the past 70 years is nearly 100 times larger than that at the end of the last ice age. As far as direct and proxy observations can tell, such abrupt changes in the atmospheric levels of CO2 have never before been seen.

The unprecedented levels of CO2 and other greenhouse gases (GHGs) and their unnatural accumulate rate in the atmosphere mean that our species is about to experience dramatic changes in temperatures, precipitation and storms.

As a water economist, I am well aware of climate change’s impacts on the water cycle and thus on the various categories of water-related phenomena  through which climate change will arrive. Given this experience, I would order the risks in these categories, in order of highest to lowest threat to humans, as follows:

  1. Temperatures too high or too low for unprotected exposure
  2. Droughts or precipitation too long to be buffered by storage or drainage
  3. Changes or crashes in biodiversity that destroy entire food systems
  4. Wind-driven storms stronger than natural or man-made defenses
  5. Changes in sea levels and currents that alter continental ecosystems

Note that I put sea-level rise — the change most closely connected to the name of this project — as the least-threatening category of change.

There are many ways to die

Our formal and informal means of insuring ourselves against risk and disaster are going to fail many people in the decades ahead. Poor people with incompetent or corrupt governments will try to help each other, but their resources can only go so far. Rich people will be partially insulated by financial and political coping mechanisms, but additional costs will undermine markets and overwhelm bureaucracies and taxpayers. People all over the world will face the reality of uninsured losses and the uncertainty of emerging, unprecedented risks.

In 2052: A Global Forecast for the Next 40 Years, Jorgen Randers (one of the original authors of The Limits to Growth) suggested that climate change would slow as humans diverted resources from consumption (and thus GHGs) to investments designed to offset climate change impacts. Although his logic is sound, I see few signs of that switch.

Bottom line: The damages from climate-change driven alterations to the water cycle will overwhelm our coping mechanisms, leading to unprecedented death, destruction and misery. It’s unlikely that anyone will have the resources to help you when you need it, so now is the time to invest in securing yourself and your community against those risks.

Only the safe survive

This “vision” is one of the 30+ that we’ll publish here in the next months. Most of them will go into Life Plus 2 Meters, Volume 2 (expected publication: Dec 2017). We hope that you will comment on the message, suggest ways to sharpen the narrative, and tell us how the story affects your understanding of adapting to climate change.

Most importantly, we hope that you enjoy reading these stories and share them with your friends and family. —David Zetland (editor) and the authors

“‘Premium top floor flotation apartment in weather ready development, guaranteed water tight and to withstand hyper-storm events to level 4.’ … How can we afford to rent somewhere like that?”

“How can we afford not to? We’re not moving into some down-river death trap. We’ll just have to tighten our belts.”

They both fell silent, listening to the hail bounce off the solar windows and thermo-roofing. Beth picked at her nails, tearing them off in ragged edged strips, biting at her fingertips. Joe pressed his fingers into flushed temples, rubbed at his wrinkled forehead. They both knew there was nothing left. No belt to tighten. After paying their rent to the Housing Syndicate, the Garden syndicate for food, the Environs Council for their utilities allowance and the People’s Council their Welfare Tax, they had nothing… This was not unusual — it was the same for all Sector dwellers. All wages were logged and no ‘profit’ was allowed. For people like them, there was no hope of moving to a safer area. That was for those who had been raised into the Betterment Sector — no one outside it seemed to know how to get in – and now they had outstayed their welcome in the Rescue Sector. The message had flashed up on their bulletin screen that morning…’Your temporary shelter capsule has been reallocated to new refugee status citizens. Please vacate within seven days.’

They’d heard of other refugee status citizens — Virtual Teachers and Information Analysts like themselves — who had been forced to move back to the Unsafe Zones. Someone had to live there. Sometimes they were lucky enough to find a micro-climate enclave on a small patch of good upland and they survived. Sometimes they just disappeared. Dead or just off-radar — no one seemed to know. The daily Citizen Bulletins never discussed the matter. They just bombarded their viewers with advice — health, hygiene, life enhancing tips — always ending with a reminder: ‘Never converse with Unknowns. Stay inside your capsule at all curfew times. Only the safe survive.’

Sometimes Joe felt it it was all completely futile. There was no future he could contemplate. Four plastic walls, work and friends confined to Sealed Networks, no way to move up any kind of ladder — or even sideways — unless you were already in that mysterious Citizen Betterment loop. Beth had these same thoughts but both kept their thoughts to themselves and only spoke of change. Of improvements. It was the only way they could adapt to their situation: to talk of a future. A future with happy children, looking forward to the possibilities of Ultra-drainage and reclamation, new field sites, new crops and a return of hope, of social integration: a return of trust.

Bridget Bowen renewed her love of writing when her daughter was young, completing an O.U. Diploma in Creative Writing. She was shortlisted for the ‘Olga Sinclair Short Story Competition’ in 2016 and has appeared in ‘The Yellow Room’ magazine. She lives with her husband (& a slightly mad cat) in Suffolk, where she walks and thinks and dreams and tries to make sense of the world.

We drown with history

This “vision” is one of the 30+ that we’ll publish here in the next months. Most of them will go into Life Plus 2 Meters, Volume 2 (expected publication: Dec 2017). We hope that you will comment on the message, suggest ways to sharpen the narrative, and tell us how the story affects your understanding of adapting to climate change.

Most importantly, we hope that you enjoy reading these stories and share them with your friends and family. —David Zetland (editor) and the authors

The Caribbean water remains piss warm despite the cool barrier of the touring party’s skin suits. Hope floats next to Envy floats next to Saul, their heads colorful specks amongst the water. Their tour guide hovers behind them, adjusting their oxygen tanks for the transition between their home marshes and the deeper waters. He stays patient while they try and adjust to the warmth.

When he dives, the party follows.

Of the three, Hope is the first to adjust to the dust and blue. Stray bubbles from the sandy base press up against her collarbone. The further she swims, the more intimately she recognizes the sweat sticking her suit to her back. It doesn’t distract her, though, from the sight of women scattered across the distant ocean floor.

They lie with their backs on the sand, faces worn away but breasts preserved, pert and tattooed with the skeletons of dead coral. The tour guide glides over them, pointing out the strays that have slipped away from the crowd. The stone of their skin is white and cracking.

Hope grimaces.

“We don’t know if they ever served a purpose,” the tour guide says through their headsets, “but they migrate with the tide. My colleagues theorize that this was some sort of mausoleum.”

Hope can’t see his eyes behind his goggles, can only notice the cant of his head. Down and to the left of his floating form, the women pile atop one another like resting crabs.

The tour guide leads them on.

The water warms past piss and becomes an unclean jacuzzi. Hope gathered bubbles around her throat like a necklace and slows each of her breaths. Envy swims ahead of her, making a game of fleeing Saul’s outstretched hands for distant, sunken upshots of land.

“We’re nearing the edge of the Grenadian reef, which means we’re close to the floating islands, the tour guide signs. We can’t board them – the plastic pieces are too unstable – but you’ll be able to see their prisms.”

Hope follows his flipping feet, spots a drowning bicycle, and carries on.

The statue that marks the edge of the Grenadian reef wears a broad, stone hat; the tour guide points it out as they draw nearer, though Hope’s gaze is hampered by muck and her companions at play. She spots the floating islands before the statue itself; their refractive plastic makes them skylights, amalgamations of color glancing off of the statue’s bowed head.

“We call her Mary,” the tour guide’s voice whispers in their ears.

Hope paddles closer, ignoring the pressure building in her chest and the drift of her party. She makes eye contact with the statue’s skull. The bleached hat has spared the bulk of Mary’s face, but the hole that is her mouth has been stuffed with a plastic bag.

Hope reaches out and removes the bag. She leaves a stream of bubbles in her wake.

Above her, the light shifts. Mary’s face melts from white to gray, purple, and green.

“How’d she get here?” Hope asks the tour guide.

“Like the rest of them did,” he replies, several heartbeats later. “When the world is drowning, the wisest are the ones who learn to drown with it.”

Celia Daniels is 22 years old and is pursuing a Masters in Literature at the University of Toledo. She’s fascinated by a burgeoning science fiction subgenre known as solarpunk. Her creative works have been published in Road Maps and Life Rafts, Magic Jar, Entropy, The Molotov Cocktail, Retreat West, and others.