A rising tide lifts some boats

Looking up and down the beach in Maine’s Saco Bay, I consider the row of houses and condos lining the coast for miles. The amount of beach between the high water mark and these structures appears to be shrinking, the tide rising inch by inexorable inch each year. These vacation homes and investment properties may be uninhabitable within my lifetime.

Serves them right, I think at first. These buildings never should have been built for a few to horde the ocean views and coastal access that should belong to all, sullying the natural beauty of the bay, and encroaching on the habitat of native plants and animals. With pleasure I imagine these structures underwater studded with barnacles and tendrils of seaweed swaying in the ocean currents.

Just deserts, it seems, for the brunt of climate change’s disruptive effects thus far have been borne by the most vulnerable and least culpable, people living in places more sensitive to flooding or other climate changes and extreme weather and people living in closer synchronicity to the previously slow-changing rhythms of nature. Their property damage may not be valued as highly, but their reliance on whatever shelter, belongings, community they lose or leave behind is probably greater than the attachment we feel to ours. It will be long overdue when here in comparatively affluent coastal Maine, we too finally suffer the costs of —

How naive am I. These property owners will clamor for relief. They will leverage their wealth and status to lobby for a seawall, receive compensation from insurance policies, or sell their properties for a profit before it is too late — all outcomes out of reach for the politically worthless underclasses suffering the destruction of climate change already, to whom no one listens, who have nowhere else to go, and for whom it will soon be too late.

This double-standard has been the way of the world for a long time, fostering inequality and resentment, but what new extremes of tension will this disparate treatment reach in the coming decades? Would anyone else like to save ourselves this nauseating embarrassment of privilege by acting now to help people suffering the effects of climate change in the present? I know there are many who would, but it is untenable, irrational even, to do so on an individual basis — a drop in the bucket during a deluge. We need a coordinated response. We need collective action. We need governance that serves the common interests of humanity, not just the historically and geographically privileged.

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