What People Still Don't Understand About Climate Change

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.
Regis Duvignau / Reuters

So I was being a little tongue-in-cheek when I asked the question: Is anywhere on Earth safe from climate change? Global warming, as the term suggests, affects the entire planet. It’s not just about hotter temperatures and rising sea levels.

Still though. Some places will shoulder the worst effects from climate change, and other places will fare better. Several scientists told me that the cities best positioned to cope with our uncertain future will be those with responsive institutions and enough money to prepare in the meantime.

All this makes sense. But it doesn’t get at one of the more profound challenges humans face, a problem with how people understand climate change and their relationship to it. I asked Pierre Bélanger, a professor of landscape architecture at Harvard who focuses on the intersection of ecology and infrastructure, for his thoughts. Here’s a particularly compelling excerpt from our recent correspondence:

As urban populations become apparently more and more sophisticated, they become more and more removed from the means of production and the environments of extraction. This material and ecological amnesia has further and further been exacerbated by the separation, if not the near ablation of the essential importance between the dynamics of coastal ecologies (storms, floods) and estuarine economies (ports, industries, services, riverside living).

This separation between the estuarine economies and oceanic ecologies of coastal regions is further fueled by the fear of climate change perpetuated by catastrophic nature of media reporting and the increasing climate-centric fear fueled by the risk insurance industry, are together fueling a view that nearly separates but dangerously divides the essential importance and interdependence between coastal ecologies and coastal economies.

So, in essence, we not only spend our lifetime on the coast, we specifically spend it in estuaries, bodies of water where coast-meets-river, mixing zones of fresh and salt waters, and environments which we know very little of yet are the breeding grounds for 80 percent of marine life.

It’s at the base of the ocean and at the base of urbanization, yet lies in between many different conditions which makes near impossible to see and understand. You could call this a form of estuarine urbanism and its a complete rethinking of the continental (land-based) perspective we currently have.

And anyway, he said, understanding where we will end up living as a result of climate change is a less interesting question than how we will live. That’s one of the themes my colleague Rob will explore in his new newsletter, Not Doomed Yet. In the meantime, as Pierre put it to me, “enjoy the estuarine future.”