Maeve Higgins: New York floods a wake-up call on climate emergency

The World Bank’s latest Groundswell report about climate migration and climate displacement brings to Maeve Higgins' mind a freak weather incident in New York and the stories of those who drowned in their homes in the city after Hurricane Ida
Maeve Higgins: New York floods a wake-up call on climate emergency

Pedestrians take cover near Columbus Circle in New York as the remnants of Hurricane Ida moved along the Eastern seaboard. Photo: AP/Craig Ruttle

Last night I had one of those moments where the climate crisis, usually an uncomfortable but largely ignorable hum in the background of my life, flashed quite literally in front of my eyes.

I was sitting having drinks with friends in a wooden structure with a corrugated plastic roof built out into the street opposite a bar. These structures popped up all over New York City last summer and are still in use despite the return of indoor drinking and eating. 

Some have flower pots and cushions on the chairs, this one was very simple, just some folding chairs and a couple of tables. It’s a heavy metal bar that advertises itself as an ‘evil drinkery’ but has a very sweet staff and very cheap alcohol. 

It also has a rotating cast of tattooed and pierced dancers who twirl and grind along the length of the bar. Those dancers stopped what they were doing to peer out at the minor weather event that unfolded around us at around 11pm.

The atmosphere felt weighted down and at first, it simply began to rain. Then, very quickly, the rain got so heavy it drowned out the sound of our voices and even the sound of distorted guitars and blasting bass from the bar’s speakers. 

It hammered down on the plastic roof so hard that we were sure it would cave in, so we fixed on our masks and skittered inside to the beckoning dancers. Sheets of lightning and cracks of thunder filled the sky, and rivers formed in minutes, almost blocking off the entrance to the bar from the street.

A small moment, in the scheme of things, but the suddenness and ferocity of this storm in the middle of September brought home to me how vulnerable we all are. As always, some are more vulnerable than others.

On August 31 and September 1, the tail end of Hurricane Ida hit the east coast, leaving more than 50 people dead. Rainfall in the city broke all records, with 8cm falling in Central Park in one hour. 

This flash flooding was not the same as what happened along the Gulf coast where Ida had actually made landfall. Neither was it the same as previous climate disasters such as Hurricane Sandy, the deadly post-tropical cyclone that devastated the coastal parts of New York City in 2012.

“This was a whole different reality,” Mayor Bill de Blasio said of the impact of Ida during an interview on MSNBC. “The lives weren’t lost in the coastal areas, which is where Sandy hit. Lives were lost in places far away from any seashore because of stunning amounts of water coming down so quickly, flooding basements and catching people unaware.”

There are devastating stories still emerging of those killed by these floods. Last week the Department of Buildings confirmed that five of the six buildings where New Yorkers were killed had illegal basement or cellar conversions. 

Flooding on New York's Upper East Side when the remnants of Hurricane Ida inundated large swaths of the northeastern US. Last week the Department of Buildings confirmed that five of the six buildings where New Yorkers were killed had illegal basement or cellar conversions. Photo: New York City Police Department
Flooding on New York's Upper East Side when the remnants of Hurricane Ida inundated large swaths of the northeastern US. Last week the Department of Buildings confirmed that five of the six buildings where New Yorkers were killed had illegal basement or cellar conversions. Photo: New York City Police Department

The mayor said: “This was not part of any previous playbook, but we’ve got to literally change the whole way of thinking. Because as good as some of the projections are, they can’t always keep up with weather.”

It’s certainly true that climate events are becoming ever more difficult to predict, but the growing rates of inequality are not. The main reason to live in an illegally converted basement is cost, the rent is cheaper than an apartment above ground that meets the basic safety standards laid out in NYC construction codes. Again and again, when it comes to climate events, it’s the people who are already vulnerable that suffer the worst consequences.

The brief moment I experienced in the metal bar as the street outside flooded, and the stories of those who drowned in their homes here in the city, all came to mind when I saw the World Bank’s latest Groundswell report about climate migration and climate displacement.

It is a clear-eyed and really quite dire analysis and set of projections about east Asia and the Pacific, north Africa, and eastern Europe and central Asia. This report builds on the modelling approach of the previous World Bank Groundswell report from 2018, which covered sub-Saharan Africa, South Asia, and Latin America. 

In short, the report finds that climate change is an increasingly powerful driver of migration and that largely this is internal migration, meaning people move around in their own countries in search of a safer home. The researchers predict that 216 million people in six world regions could be forced to move within their countries by 2050. 

It is important to emphasise that most climate displacement will be internal, because a huge industry is mushrooming around the notion, favoured by the ignorant, that there will be hordes of climate migrants clamouring at the borders of the global north. Wealthy countries are already going full steam ahead with externalised borders, militarised responses and increasingly violent and illegal methods of forcing migrants back to their original country or to a third place, always away from themselves.

The World Bank report contradicts this lurid and often racist scenario and most migration will not be across borders. I write “will not be” but I need to take care with my tenses when writing about climate migration, because of course as well as the projected future it is already happening. 

This is not something that is far off in the future, hotspots of internal climate migration could emerge by 2030 and continue to spread and intensify by 2050. Josue De Luna Navarro is a climate and migration researcher at the Institute for Policy Studies here in the US and said: “This report should be used as a reminder that in the climate crisis, families in the global south will be the most impacted, forcing displacement and migration.

“Instead of building more border infrastructure to keep migrants from reaching safety, the global north must ensure freedom of movement by abolishing and dismantling systems of migration control.”

The good news is that the Groundswell report also finds that “immediate and concerted action to reduce global emissions, and support for green, inclusive, and resilient development, could reduce the scale of climate migration by as much as 80%.”

We have to reduce global emissions and we know what that will take, we have known that for decades now. There is no doubt now that many more lives will be disrupted by climate chaos and they will need to move, but migration has always been a strategy human beings have used to adapt. 

New York's Times Square after Hurricane Ida. Recriminations continue among residents and local government about how Hurricane Ida was handled. Photo: AP/Craig Ruttle
New York's Times Square after Hurricane Ida. Recriminations continue among residents and local government about how Hurricane Ida was handled. Photo: AP/Craig Ruttle

People forced to move must be allowed to do so safely and with dignity. It’s only been a few weeks since the flash floods that killed more than a dozen New Yorkers and displaced many more.

Recriminations continue among residents and local government about how Hurricane Ida was handled. The mayor’s office released an NYC Climate-Driven Rain Response that includes a taskforce, more warnings, and more measures to protect vulnerable families, such as those who live in basement apartments.

Instead of repeating the mistakes of the past and allowing money and resources to dictate whose life is worth saving, the city seems to understand now the level of threat and the unequal burden of that threat on the less fortunate residents.

On a global scale, we have to do the same.

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