During the second round of the Democratic debates this week, the candidates sparred over the best way to prevent catastrophic climate change. Stark divisions emerged between the liberal candidates who have embraced the Green New Deal and the more moderate Democrats who believe the vision is unrealistically ambitious. But one candidate, the entrepreneur Andrew Yang, used his time to note that it may be too late to stop global warming anyway.
When asked about their climate plans on Tuesday night, the candidates tended to focus their responses on policies to mitigate the crisis. Senator Bernie Sanders talked about criminalizing the fossil fuel industry for its role in climate change, and Senator Elizabeth Warren talked about her $2 trillion plan to create more than a million jobs in green manufacturing. On Wednesday, Washington Governor Jay Inslee, whose climate plan calls for 100 percent renewable energy by 2030, railed against "middle-ground solutions."
Yang took a more nihilist tack. "Even if we were to curb our emissions dramatically, the Earth is going to get warmer. The last four years have been the four warmest years in history," he said. "This is going to be a tough truth but we are too late. We are 10 years too late."
The best way forward would be to adapt, Yang went on, pivoting to the centerpiece of his campaign: a no-strings-attached payment of $1,000 per month to Americans from the federal government. "We need to do everything we can to start moving the climate in the right direction," Yang said, "but we also need to start moving our people to higher ground—and the best way to do that is to put economic resources into your hands so you can protect yourself and your families."
Those comments didn't sit well with climate advocates and journalists, who quickly noted that claims that it's too late to act ignore the fact that climate scientists have shown that the magnitude of the consequences of climate change will vary with the scale of our emissions. But nothing else Yang said on Wednesday was patently false. Temperatures will continue to rise even after we reach zero emissions, because the greenhouse gases we've poured into the atmosphere for decades won't disappear over night. As sea level rise and storm surges eat away at the United States' coastlines, some communities will have to move to higher ground—and some communities already are. At least one study has suggested that, no matter what we do, it may be too late for iconic coastal cities like Miami and New Orleans. As Sophie Kasakove reported for Pacific Standard earlier this year, officials in Louisiana have already released a plan to carry out state-funded retreats in several of the most impacted parishes surrounding New Orleans.
But relocating, even when state-funded, only solves one type of climate change-induced problem—sea level rise, coastal flooding, and erosion. And global warming's effects will reach well beyond our coasts, which makes moving to higher ground an overly simplistic adaptation strategy. (Though, to be fair to Yang, the debate format and time restrictions require simplified responses.)
Rising temperatures are expanding the range of mosquitoes that carry diseases including malaria, West Nile virus, and dengue fever—a disease long associated with tropical regions that appears to be gaining a foothold in southern states. Climate change will disrupt the water cycle, dumping unprecedented amounts of rainfall in wet regions of the U.S. like the Midwest, while leaving the arid West with lengthier and more severe drought conditions. It will make weather patterns more extreme and less predictable, making it more difficult for farmers to produce the food we eat and for water managers to ensure we all have enough to drink. Longer and hotter heat waves and freezing polar vortexes will push our electrical grids to the brink. None of those problems with necessarily be solved by moving away from the coasts.
But overall, it wasn't so much the content of Yang's statement that raised eyebrows, but the framing of climate adaptation as a personal responsibility. Climate change has already worsened income inequality around the world and within the U.S. An extra $12,000 per year is unlikely to be enough for Americans most affected by climate change to compete for dwindling land and resources, and the gulf between the haves and the have-nots will continue to expand.