Policy makers need to accept that societies won’t make drastic changes to address climate change until such a crisis hits. But that doesn’t mean there’s nothing for them to do in the meantime. When a crisis does occur, the societies with response plans on the shelf will be far better off than those that are blindsided. The task for national and regional leaders, then, is to develop a set of contingency plans for possible climate shocks — what we might call, collectively, Plan Z.
Some work of this kind is under way at intelligence agencies and research institutions in the United States and Europe. Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government has produced one of the best studies, “Responding to Threat of Climate Change Mega-Catastrophes.” But for the most part these initiatives are preliminary and uncoordinated.
We need a much more deliberate Plan Z, with detailed scenarios of plausible climate shocks; close analyses of options for emergency response by governments, corporations and nongovernmental groups; and clear specifics about what resources — financial, technological and organizational — we will need to cope with different types of crises.
The piece references Responding to Threat of Climate Change Mega-Catastrophes. (pdf)
One common theme through these scenarios is the need to protect large numbers of extremely poor people from the terrible consequences of climate change, or any other contingency. I did a round of work on rehousing populations in developed world countries after nuclear terrorism and I want to expand on a couple of themes from that piece to look at climate refugees.
The first model is that there are only six basic threats to people’s lives: too hot, too cold, hunger, thirst, illness and injury. Those six needs come in three groups: shelter needs, supply needs, and security needs. These needs can be mapped using the Simple Critical Infrastructure Maps system. So what does it look like to provide these basic needs for, say, 100 million climate refugees?
- 100 million people
- 4 people per acre, to self sufficient farming.
- we assume there will be initial food aid, but that these populations are not returning home
- 25 million acres or 40,000 square miles or a 200×200 mile square
- the most rational deployment model is many tens of thousands of smaller settlements
- Multi-year shelters, that’ll be penta-treated hexayurts in osb/plywood with a tinfoil coating.
- $100-$200 each for 10 to 20 years of shelter. Penta treatment is a triage measure only.
- One unit per 4 people, on average. 25 million shelters. $5bn max.
- Water treatment. Options: SODIS, potters for peace filteron, biosand. Biosand filters can be made by hand from ferrocement, and work anywhere, so we’ll assume biosand filters.
- Sanitation. The Sulabh toilet, or something better. Again, can be made from ferrocement.
- Water and sanitation costs will be less, possibly substantially less, than $100 per family.
- Seeds, agricultural tools and training to migrate people to self sufficiency, see One Acre Fund
- Medical care is largely going to be health visitors and medical expert systems.
- Security is a hard problem. My off-the-cuff suggestion is mixing in settlements of former UN peacekeepers on the same land as the refugees.
At the basic infrastructure level, these simple, free technologies can be combined together to provide all the basic needs for enormous numbers of people using materials present in vast quantities in the industrial supply chains. It’s not a lot of concrete and plywood compared to current global consumption. The construction mechanisms are simple enough that the refugees can do most of the work themselves. Complete technology transfer of ferrocement toilets and water filters has been seen in the field.
It would be good to do some test runs of this approach for providing large quantities of cheap emergency life-support housing. The farming side, what we might term emergency permaculture, is still the domain of private individuals rather than being a state-funded research project.
I first became sensitized to these issues in 2004, when I wrote a piece on Gunboat Environmentalism. Since then I’ve been working through the logical consequences of environmental trouble at the scale it is rational to expect we might see, given our collective unwillingness to anticipate trouble, and avoid it.
Vinay Gupta is the editor of The Future We Deserve.