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Hurricanes and the demographics of climate change

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Hurricane Ian intensified rapidly overnight, and is now a monstrously huge storm with 155 mph sustained winds. This means among other things that it’s going to cause a massive storm surge on the western coast of Florida, which, because the Gulf of Mexico is so shallow for many miles offshore in that area, is going to be extremely destructive.

The center of the storm is likely to come ashore somewhere in or near Lee County, whose major cities are Cape Coral and Ft. Meyers. I was looking at the county’s population growth over the past 80 years:

1950: 23,404. As I’ve noted before, relatively few people lived in places like Florida before the proliferation of residential air conditioning.

1970: 105,216

1990: 335,113

2010: 618,754

2020: 750,822

The 21% growth over the past decade is three times faster than the growth of the national population over that same time.

Now people love to live near the ocean, and lots of people, especially old people, hate cold weather. (Again, very few people would live in places like this if they had to endure the actual climate during the summer, as opposed to staying and especially sleeping indoors in artificially cooled air.)

But lots of people living near the ocean is getting increasingly expensive for society as a whole, for obvious reasons. To this point, the increasing costs of hurricanes in the USA are not really traceable to climate change effects per se, but rather to the far less scientifically complicated factor that larger and larger percentages of the population are moving into hurricane zones. To date pretty much the only pushback to this, to the extent there has been any at all, has come from the insurance market. A friend wrote yesterday about his elderly aunt, who lives in a manufactured home community in Venice, Florida, which is a few miles north of Lee County:

Doesn’t look good at the moment. Direct strike on Venice is like 75% per the NOAA wind probability forecast. She’s evacuated to a high area but seems likely her home is going to be destroyed, doubt you’re able to get insurance for a manufactured home in the hurricane belt. She has a small place in Michigan she could go back to but her whole life right now is in a community that’s probably going to get leveled. Ugh.

Obviously we need basic structural changes to the incentive structures that are creating these situations, but that would require a government, in Florida and nationally, that would impinge on the constitutional right to move into the heart of a hurricane zone because you can’t stand Michigan winters any more. But this is a problem that is only going to get worse over the next few decades, as the effects of climate change on things like the sea level really begin to kick in.

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