Super-Storms, Logic and Impossible Solutions
When New Orleans found itself under water a couple of years ago, the legal community jumped forward to fulfill its social obligations by providing help of all kinds to the distressed New Orleans community. Lawyers labored nobly and long to facilitate aid, solve real estate problems, provide legal services and provide the infra-structure necessary to rebuild the City and environs.
At the time I was very skeptical as to the direction of some of that effort. The needs and sufferings of the people, and the impetus and desire to assist, could not be denied. No one wants to see others in need, particularly through no fault of their own. But the pledge to rebuild New Orleans to its former glory presented a logical problem: a strong argument could be made that rebuilding that city was not very smart from a utilitarian standpoint.
At the time, some climatologists pointed out that the city was likely doomed in the not too distant future. In a world of cold logic, it probably made sense to relocate the whole thing, including its people, somewhere else.
The undertaking of such a novel and in some ways cold-hearted program did not appeal to the government, nor to the lawyers either; the American way is to rebuild, bigger and better, and to be optimistic and forceful, to conquer impediments. Nor had our population fully integrated the reality of global warming, an issue tied up with what has proven to be unimportant ancillary issues such the relative role of human participation in the warming process.
Recent events have reoriented much of popular thinking. The science tells us that human existence is speeding global warming. But it also suggests that without human intervention we still will be in trouble. Recent coverage in the New York Times is chilling: a modest rise in the ocean levels will flood out of existence a good deal of the United States, including but by no means only New Orleans. The colored Times maps showing a nonexistent Florida and a vastly shrunken New York City have the makings of a sensationalistic movie, and I am willing to bet anyone that such a screen epic will follow shortly. The factoid that at one point in our world the oceans were hundreds of feet higher than today suggests that we should be building beach cabanas in Denver.
Conversations about installing flood gates along the lines of some in Europe seem surreal, and in any event scientists are sure that gates can be effective only in some, not all areas, particularly when one looks at the cost factor. Burdened by the economy, the President a couple of days ago refused to take a leadership role in addressing the issue at an international conference on the subject, with its implicit subtext of curtailing the consumption of hydrocarbons. As in the past, immediate presidential concerns are trumping the problem of the 900 pound elephant; it is easier to herd the ten pound cats.
The role of law in a logical world, faced with these issues, is clear; plan for a different coast line. Congress needs to address this kind of law; you cannot bring a lawsuit and deal with this type or magnitude of problem. Certainly unemployment would be cured for a century; the amount of labor of every sort, even unskilled, that it would take to move Manhattan (figuratively of course) to, say, a nice plot of open land just outside Pittsburgh is, at base, incomprehensible.
So the power of law and lawyers will again be directed, in New York and New Jersey and even inland in Northern New Hampshire, to rebuild what we had. And to suggest otherwise is to seem both cold-hearted and hysterical. Hysterical even as we continue to pump water out of New York City basements.
One day, the cost to our society of flood insurance may well dwarf all the entitlement costs about which we are now squabbling.
Who would have thought that our future might be imperiled not by missiles, nor by nuclear bombs, nor by terrorists, nor by virus dumped into our drinking supply, but by salt water?