Wednesday, October 25, 2023

Imagining Climate Havens in a Boiling World

These blogs seek to conceptualize what the good life means in a consumption-obsessed, planetary-boundary constrained era. Here we suggest that cities and towns are our epicenters for imagining what a good-life means in an era where climate change increasingly determines what is available to be consumed and by whom. More to the point, we suggest that the whole notion of a good life should be collectively discovered in the process of re-imagining what it means to create just and climate-resilient communities --that is, to create climate havens.

Cities and towns are facing major challenges to their abilities to maintain livable communities. Our cities are unprepared to face inevitable pandemics, drought, and homelessness. Massive storms, excessive heat, devastating wildfires, and even simple failures in our gray infrastructure are making some places unlivable. In the meantime, states that were previously considered destinations for retirees and voluntary migration, such as Florida, are so embroiled in cultural engineering (and not climate preparedness) that few – except straight, white, affluent folks – feel welcomed or safe in these places. Our communities are suffocating under the threat of cultural and climatic change. The challenge is real, and the reality is existential. Indeed, it almost seems unlikely that we could have a productive dialogue on future human and community needs in the era of climate “boiling”  when there is so much evidence that we are unable to keep people safe today.

This, however, is the work that we have to do. People are already on the move. We are seeing significant human displacement resulting from wildfires, sea level rise, flooding, and drought – all of which are exacerbated by poor disaster planning, economic inequality, and ideological combat. Yet, better planning is possible. A growing number of communities are intentionally engaging the climate emergency by preparing for decades of disruption, and it is in this context that we need a blueprint for a model city that is prepared for the onslaught of climatic changes and able to provide an equitable and inclusive quality of life. We need a blueprint for the climate haven – a place to live in which one feels belonging and engagement, while simultaneously experiencing opportunity and security in a climate resilient community.  The climate haven is a community that centers the inevitability of change, the irrefutability of existing patterns of inequality, and the possibility of planning for more just and sustainable communities at the intersection of the two. This should be the goal of every city and town in the climate era. 

Literature on climate havens is developing as “scholars, think tanks, news outlets, and local elected officials” engage the idea in critical discussions about the direction of climate preparedness. Climate havens must respond to both internal and external pressures of governance: how to pay (and who will pay) for adaptive improvements, which needs (past and future) should be addressed, whose perspective defines acceptable standards of living and need, whose cultural preferences and values should define community character, and which climate (and socio-economic) threats should be prioritized. Such a climate destination must also engage the question of the basic, critical characteristics that will allow communities to thrive in a climate-challenged circumstance. Such characteristics might include:

(1) Be situated to avoid or mitigate extreme climate impacts, especially in communities that are vulnerable to sea level rise, wildfires, and prolonged drought or heat waves;

(2)  Have equitable access to fresh water supply;

(3)  Have available affordable housing;

(4) Enjoy infrastructural capacity that exceeds (or can be upgraded to accommodate) the need among both current and future residents;

(5) Demonstrate a character of growth, cultural inclusivity and welcoming; and

(6) Be interested, versed in, and experienced with improving adaptive capacity through sustainability or resilience efforts throughout governmental operations.

(7) Embrace inclusive community-planning processes.

These are the minimal requirements for beginning the process of creating climate havens. How communities meet these needs will vary, in large part due to variations in topography, culture and history, climate, economy, and other geographical and socio-economic factors.  However, in our view, the model climate haven is inclusionary and is prepared to welcome those people who are fleeing climate-related disasters and “may have limited resources to relocate or rebuild.” The model climate haven addresses past injustices and inequities in ways that provides a clear path towards equity.  The climate haven is a place where officials examine and understand existing community vulnerabilities and value the need both to mitigate such inequities and to avoid reproducing them in the climate haven planning process. At the heart of the climate haven model is an appreciation of the ways that power is exercised through governance, how existing structures of power influence the appreciation (and distribution) of risk, and how equity demands that climate change responses address the needs of different communities.  In short, the climate haven represents good governance: a climate haven is a just city that is also prepared for climate change.    

To even envision the climate haven, we can at once recognize that the perspective of a community insider is relevant to understanding local needs, without allowing the insider’s values to dominate climate priorities.  Indeed, the cities and towns of tomorrow will be more dynamic and diverse as migrating folks encounter unfamiliar places and bring with them the stories, mythologies, and values that should not be the casualties of climate migration.  The climate haven will collapse the distinction between old and new residents to create places “where migration and immigration are seen as being strength and vitality and growth” for everyone. Cities and towns are our epicenters of climate planning. The climate haven model creates opportunities for re-imagining what it means to create just and climate-resilient communities. It is a model for imagining a “good life” where all members – present and future – of communities are acknowledged and accounted for as we adapt to the era of climate boiling.

-- Cinnamon Carlarne & Keith Hirokawa

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