Will climate change make Seattle the new L.A.?
Institute of the Environment Professor Matt Kahn discusses how climate change will impact the city of Seattle.
Orginally published in UCLA Today
By Matthew Kahn
Environmental Economist Matthew Kahn is a professor at the UCLA Institute of the Environment with dual appointments in economics and public policy. Read about Kahn's new book, "Climatopolis: How Our Cities Will Thrive in the Hotter Future," in this earlier article from UCLA Today. Kahn's column, below, originally appeared Aug. 27, 2010, in The Seattle Times.
In fall 2050, Pete Carroll will be entering his 41st season as the head coach of the Seattle Seahawks. As he walks the streets, he will notice that the outdoor summer temperature reminds him of his days at USC.
Due to climate change, Seattle's future average temperature will look a lot more like Los Angeles' today. King County's average July temperature over the years 1968 to 2002 was 65 degrees. One climate-change model (with the catchy name CCSM) predicts that Seattle's average July temperature will be 71 degrees in the year 2070. Winter average temperatures will remain roughly what they are now.
We've released the genie from the bottle: While models are subject to uncertainty, the scientific community generally agrees that climate change is coming. The recent failure of the U.S Senate to adopt climate-incentives policies portends ever-rising atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse-gas emissions. As climate change unfolds, what will happen to a city like Seattle?
Most of us see the big, but ambiguous, challenges to be faced in the not-so-distant future. And anticipation is the first step of being proactive in response to change. Unlike in Hollywood, the world will not be saved by a famous action hero. In the case of climate change, our recourse will not be to Arnold, Harrison, Willis, or even Sly; the hero in this case will be self-interested households looking to protect their families in a changing world.
My optimism hinges on our evolutionary ability to use our collective talents to adapt to climate change, to utilize the free-market-capitalist system. In our hotter world, people will have a greater demand for energy- and water-efficient products. Entrepreneurs, either due to profit motive or social consciousness, will have an incentive to design such products.
My UCLA colleague Thom Mayne has designed a floatable home, and is now working with Brad Pitt to sell this in New Orleans. The new product is a salient example of how the anticipation of future pain and suffering creates the desire to develop new products that help to protect us from the anticipated shocks.
Sure, some of us are like Homer Simpson — either denying the risk of climate change or blissfully assuming that we will figure out some "magic bullet" to rescue us. But even today there are forward-looking innovators such as professor Mayne thinking ahead and anticipating the future challenges and opportunities that climate change will pose.
If improved climate models predict that certain Seattle communities are at considerable flood risk, then insurance companies will require higher insurance premiums to be paid and land-use zoning will be amended to discourage new construction in such areas. Any construction will be required to meet certain requirements to lower the damage caused by inevitable natural disasters.
Today, the U.S population is highly mobile, with more than 3 percent of Americans moving across state lines each year. Such migration helps to protect the population against location-specific shocks. Here in Seattle, we're likely to experience increased demand as people who live in the Sun Belt in cities such as Las Vegas and Phoenix seek to beat the heat. Seattle's homeowners will experience a windfall as property prices are bid up.
In today's skills economy, a city that can lure and retain talent will boom. A city that can attract the next Google has a bright future. Coastal cities such as Seattle, Boston and New York and warm-winter sunny cities are currently winning the competition. Losing cities such as Cleveland and Detroit are slowly decaying.
The point is, cities compete. If Seattle maintains its reputation for being a high-quality-of-life city, even in the face of climate change, then footloose firms and workers will both locate in Seattle and the greater metropolitan area will continue to host a vibrant economy.
Climate change will shake up the rankings of which cities "are hot" and which "are not" (pun intended). There is no singular magical solution to coping with it. We will grope around trying different strategies; we will experiment. Some will fail and others will succeed.
In this age of Twitter and the Internet, good ideas will spread and will protect coastal urbanites around the world. Anticipation, migration and innovation will allow Seattle's residents to continue to thrive in our hotter future.
Published: Friday, September 03, 2010