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Blazing Arizona: why adapting to climate change is deeply immoral

Credit: Jason Corneveaux/Getty Images

Credit: Jason Corneveaux/Getty Images

October 3, 2018   3 mins

In 1950, Phoenix, Arizona was a city of 100,000 souls. Today, its population stands at 1.5 million.

Air-conditioning is what enabled this astonishing rate of growth, along with the wider shift in the US population toward the South and Southwest.

But as Oliver Millman explains in the Guardian, there are limits to what air-con can achieve:

“Last summer, Phoenix was so hot that road signs and mailboxes melted. Planes couldn’t take off or land.”

Air-con provides a refuge, but as temperatures climb and summers lengthen, life in the Sun Belt can feel like a siege:

“It will get worse – Phoenix, the fastest-warming large city in the US, could spend close to half of its year in over 100F (37C) heat within 30 years.

“‘If you choose to live in the desert you have to learn how to live in the desert,’ [Amanda] Ormond [a local resident] said. ‘You worry about your car breaking down and so you have tons of food and water in it.

“‘But the heat used to break around September. Now, it’s October, sometimes November. We literally have six months of above 90F (32C). Mentally, you need a break. You can’t leave your house. It’s fatiguing.’”

Millman describes a new nationwide trend of “climate gentrification” – in which the well-to-do acquire property at higher elevations – either to escape the heat or, in vulnerable areas, the risk of flooding.

In Arizona, that’s resulted in growing demand for homes (including holiday homes) in communities like Flagstaff (population: 70,000 souls, elevation: 7,000 feet):

“On a recent July day this year, when Phoenix hit 116F (47C), Flagstaff, a two-hour drive and a world away, was 80F (27C).”

But what about those who can’t afford to buy ‘elevation privilege’? They’ll either have to stay behind and sweat it out – or move out of the region altogether.

Climate change is already happening and we have no choice but to adapt to the warming that’s locked-in. However, there is a choice to be made between preventing further climate change and adapting to a hotter planet.

There are those who claim that the latter approach is more cost-effective. The argument is that prevention is an immediate and ongoing cost, but that adaptation can wait until climate change properly kicks in – by which time the global economy will be much bigger and the necessary spending that much more affordable. Those who suffer the worst impacts of climate change could be compensated from the proceeds of all that unrestricted growth.

Well, that’s the theory and it’s full of holes: the dubious economic assumptions; the impossibility of managing the ‘tail risks‘ of unmitigated climate change; the other costs of not kicking our addiction to fossil fuels. However, the biggest problem with the adaptation-only argument is a moral one. 

In Christian theology, the concept of ‘common grace’ refers to the blessings that God confers upon all of humanity, without condition. As it says in the Gospel of Matthew: “He makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust.”

Whether within a religious framework or not, this is how we should see the blessing of a stable climate – as a form of common grace. It is there for the benefit of all – whether rich or poor, powerful or powerless.

To choose to take it away from anyone is not only an act of theft (for which ‘economic efficiency’ is never a defence), it also renders the poor and powerless dependent on the pity of the rich and powerful – making them beggars in their own homes.

Peter Franklin is Associate Editor of UnHerd. He was previously a policy advisor and speechwriter on environmental and social issues.


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