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Life on the Edge

Climate change isn’t just about emissions. It’s about the vulnerable society we’ve built.

More than a century ago, in 1915, a man named Carl Fisher arrived on the barrier island of Miami Beach. A serial entrepreneur with an eye for good real estate, Fisher saw what was then a thick morass of mangroves as a prime location for a future beachfront resort. Other entrepreneurs had tried and failed to tame the island wetlands before, but Fisher had ample investment capital and access to very cheap labor. He cleared the mangroves, stripped the island bare, dredged the nearby bay, and used the dredged-up sand to build out an island. Like so much else in the modern world, the place Fisher created was a fiction, an astro-turf paradise slapped down over unsteady ground.

Three generations later, in the 1980s, Miami Beach had become a premier destination for retirees who flooded in from the Midwest and northeast. In order to cater to these retirees, developers again harnessed the miracles of engineering to build hundreds of high-rise condo buildings along the Florida coast, from Miami up to Palm Beach. Recent advancements in the usage of steel and concrete allowed builders to throw up large, slab-mounted buildings on a piece of land that itself had been artificially constructed. One of those buildings was called Champlain Towers South.

A year after its completion, Congress passed the Coastal Barrier Resources Act, the first law that attempted to restrict development on barrier islands and vulnerable sections of coastline. Prior to that, there had been virtually no restrictions on where shoreline developers could build, and even after the passage of the law, the state of Florida negotiated numerous carve-outs. There was money to be made, a lot of money, and nobody wanted to get in the way. It would be more than half a decade before the climate scientist James Hansen testified before Congress about the ecological poly-phenomenon known as climate change, bringing the issue into the political mainstream for the first time.

Last week, an entire wing of Champlain Towers South collapsed, killing at least eighteen people and burying as many as a hundred and fifty under tons and tons of rubble. The rest of the structure may soon fall as well. In the days after the tower’s collapse, as rescue crews were still searching for bodies, a number of commentators sought to link the tragedy to the climate crisis. Slate called the collapse “a warning about climate change”; the Washington Post pointed out that the building was “perched on a barrier island facing an ocean that has risen about a foot in the past century” and that “subsidence worsens as the water table rises”; and the Guardian wrote that the collapse “prompts questions over [the] role of climate change,” noting that the land beneath the tower was subsiding. Even President Biden’s energy secretary, Jennifer Granholm, speculated that sea-level rise might have played a role: “Obviously, we don’t know fully, but we do know that the seas are rising,” she said on CNN.

Now, there is a difference between saying this specific collapse was caused by climate change and saying that this sort of thing will be made “more likely” by climate change. The latter statement is a conceptual argument and easy to defend, but the former and more alluring statement is an empirical argument, one that requires extensive perusal of mechanical and hydrologic data. Imagine for a moment that the sea levels around Miami had not risen six inches since 1981, that there had been few tidal floods in the building’s parking garage or none at all, that we’d had marginally fewer extreme rain events per year. Would the building still have collapsed? Would the ordinary toll of thunderstorms, subsidence, and salty sea air have been enough to bring it down?

When we restrict our focus to recent changes in the natural world as evidence of the coming crisis, we ignore the history of cost-cutting and neglect that lets buildings like Champlain Towers South deteriorate to the point of collapse.

My suspicion is that it would have, given problems with the building’s structure: a series of inspectors had noted both a serious design flaw that prevented rainwater from draining off the parking garage and extreme damage to the concrete pilings at the base of the same structure. But that isn’t the point. Because we still don’t understand all the ways in which climate change affects the natural world, we have tended, in the aftermath of disasters and extreme weather events, to fall into a kind of attribution trap. When we discuss a heat dome in the Pacific Northwest or a tropical storm swirling over Alabama, the first thing we want to know is how much worse it has been made by anthropogenic warming, what portion of the death and destruction represents a new and sui generis phenomenon.

This temptation is understandable, but it is also facile. When we restrict our focus to recent changes in the natural world as evidence of the coming crisis, we ignore the history of cost-cutting and neglect that lets buildings like Champlain Towers South deteriorate to the point of collapse. Even more importantly, we miss an opportunity to interrogate the society we have built at water’s edge, a society whose fragility and artificiality has little precedent in human history. When we blame the collapse of such a building on unprecedented changes in nature, we imply, whether we mean to or not, that the status quo ante was sustainable, that Fisher’s imitation paradise might have been just fine were it not for newfound environmental turbulence. The truth is that nature has always been turbulent, and it is only recently that we have deemed ourselves capable of overpowering that turbulence.

It is no coincidence that the earliest signs of climate collapse are visible in the most manipulated and manmade places—the barrier islands, the concrete freeways, the flammable mountain cities. Our cities, highways, and power plants are sitting ducks for an era of extreme and unpredictable weather. They were built by people who viewed nature as something that could be sized up and defeated, and now, as nature mounts a counterattack, we are woefully unprepared.

In addition to asking whether climate change makes it statistically more likely that beachfront buildings will collapse, then, we need to ask why we put such buildings on the beachfront in the first place, and what we’re going to do about it now. The same goes for the millions of homes we have built in fire zones, in riverine floodplains, in bone-dry deserts. For a long time, we didn’t know what the risks were, sure. But now that we do, how do we stop?

“God makes floods, man makes disasters”—so goes a popular saying among climate experts, and it’s true in more senses than one. Yes, human society created the climate crisis by warming the earth through the combustion of fossil fuels, but it also brought about the climate crisis by building a contemporary society so vulnerable as to be unable to tolerate environmental shocks. Soil can soak up a flood, but concrete can’t. Trees can bend in the wind, but buildings fall over. People can move, but they tend not to want to, and it’s only with the requisite support and restitution that relocation becomes a blessing rather than a curse.

The reader will by now be familiar with the many audacious policies that will be necessary to slow down global warming—we must phase out combustion vehicles, seed gigantic investments in renewable energy, eradicate coal, stopper the pipelines, throttle the oil majors, electrify the rest of our energy consumption, and maybe even suck carbon out of the air. There is another, more profound task ahead of us, though, and that is the elimination of the hubristic attitude that compelled us to build such a flawed society in the first place. Zeroing out our emissions will require unprecedented feats of innovation and engineering, but adapting to the world we now inhabit will require something more: forsaking the attitude that sees the natural world as something to be conquered and controlled.

Another way of putting it is that we must exorcise the ghost of Carl Fisher and reconceive of the planet as something that must be granted ample room to breathe. Nature is going to claim its space regardless. It’s up to us whether we get out of the way.