Sea-Level Economy Mapping: A big data project for future equality

Here’s something that we can use big data for today: Let’s set the socioeconomic benchmark against which society will respond to rising sea levels across all income levels.

Everyone carrying a phone today is throwing off location data that, if anonymized, collected and analyzed, would show what low-lying land is most used today. From that, we can project the potential economic disruptions that will be caused by various levels of sea level change, as many tools do today. We can look at property ownership, travel patterns, rent and home prices that will be impacted by rising water and, like the Dutch when they decided to hold the sea back, make some long-term decisions that will save everyone, not just the privileged, from personal tragedy and economic disaster as their homes, communities and job networks disappear in the waves.

When the ocean rises, and it will rise enough that many low-lying cities in 40, 80 or 120 years will be under many inches or feet of water, everyone’s lives will be disrupted. If we start tracking the use of public and private property, shared-use common areas and investments, such as the the cost of infrastructure that may be destroyed, and that which needs to be created to holds the seas back, can be mapped to provide the best outcome for all. At least, it will give everyone a baseline against which to measure the impacts. Democracy can take care of the rest, with an assist from the market, but a market-only solution will leave far too many losers.

Without some benchmark to measure the social cost of responding to climate change, the wealthiest people will almost certainly benefit disproportionately to others who live and work in flooded areas. We’ll see cries reparations for lost land from every quarter, but the rich will have the loudest voice, as we know from the state of political speech today.

The homes of the rich that line sea coasts everywhere will be lost, but so will many of the homes occupied (not necessarily owned by) the poor and middle class. Who will get the help necessary to relocate? Who will have new public right-of-ways running through their neighborhoods when existing rail and road infrastructure must be moved inland or raised above the rising seas? Will insurers make the rich whole and, like home insurance today, leave most people less than half-whole when the cost of relocation is counted?

I am not arguing that anyone get resources here, only for a measurement so that, when the crisis comes, we will have had many years, even decades to have the national and international conversation about the mass migration of people fleeing the high tide. We may decide it’s time to move past many of the institutions we rely on today.

If we’re going to go through this together, we need the data to understand the distributed social cost of lands and infrastructure — technical, industrial, social and even personal networks that currently provide support to families. The problem with this statement is that it appears naive, because we live in a society where almost everyone thinks they’ve made their way in the world alone. That myth is going to collapse as the world starts denying us land and resources we used to have.

Yet we can get through this, as humans have done many times in history, if we recognize the real costs and opportunities in radical change. Perhaps, with lots more data and people trained to think through these complex issues armed with real-time and historical perspectives provided by big data strategies, we might actually realize we are in this together.

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