It’s capital versus climate in Dawson’s Extreme Cities: The Perils and Promise of Urban Life in the Age of Climate Change (Verso, Oct.).
You argue that climate change is as much a political and economic phenomenon as an environmental one. Are the solutions political and economic too?
Absolutely. We must react to what I term “environmental blowback.” But the ways we choose to react will be shaped by economic and political decisions. It’s absolutely imperative not to allow the 1% to retreat into their lifeboats and allow the vast majority of people to essentially drown. We’ve got an economic and political system that gives power to climate-change-denying elites who make money hand over fist, in a way that totally ignores vulnerable people, as well as future generations. It’s a system based on the notion of ceaseless growth with no eye to limits. We shouldn’t wait for some revolution to happen to start acting.
Is there something inherently environmentally destructive about cities?
Cities have been much touted as places where less energy is consumed. That’s certainly the case if you look at the average carbon footprint of a person living in New York compared to someone in suburbia or sprawling cities such as Phoenix. However, cities en masse are places where a huge amount of energy is consumed and a lot of carbon emissions are produced. Additionally, cities have their own climates; they are warming at a rate that’s about twice what we see when we look at national or global averages. Cities contribute to climate change disproportionately and suffer from its impacts disproportionately.
How do we take seriously the possibility of retreat from coastal cities?
That would entail talking about the forms of tactical, targeted retreat that would make sense given sea-level-rise predictions. Some cities are more threatened than others. For such places as Miami, the writing is on the wall. Within one or two generations, retreat on some scale is inevitable. The question is how we can have a policy of just retreat from those cities. We need an elaborated plan that can make that happen on a rational and just basis. That’s a nonstarter at the moment, politically.
How does your background in post-colonial studies inform your approach?
I lived through Hurricane Sandy and watched Hurricane Katrina play out—when the levees collapsed, as well as the form of disaster capitalism that took root: the reconstruction of the city, the demolition of public housing, the transformation of the education system on a privatized model. I was born in South Africa during apartheid. I’m very aware of the challenges of urbanization in the Global South. These aren’t wealthy cities; they’re cities on the front lines of climate change, where you can really witness the conjunction of urbanization and global climate change.