How Cities Adapt: A Q&A With Climatopolis Author Matthew Kahn


There are plenty of dire predictions about what will happen to our cities if the worst predictions about global warming were to come true: flooding, droughts, famine, chaos and massive death. But Matthew Kahn, an economist at UCLA’s Institute of the Environment and Sustainability, sees a different future. He tells that story in his new book Climatopolis: How Our Cities Will Thrive in the Hotter Future.

Kahn looks to the past for clues to how cities adapt to changing circumstances. Chicago recovered strongly from the devastating Chicago Fire of 1871. He argues that Japanese and German cities recovered rapidly after World War II and experienced sharp population growth. So how will cities adapt in the future? Kahn expects that cities will continue to compete for desirable residents, and that residents will make their own locational decisions based on risk preferences. For example, while the risk-averse may choose to locate to “safe” cities like Salt Lake City, Milwaukee, Buffalo, Minneapolis or Detroit (Kahn’s top 5 picks), cities like Los Angeles, San Francisco and New York will continue to attract people. Especially if these cities prepare for a warmer future.

Ultimately, Kahn’s optimistic vision of the future rests on adaptation and innovation: “Unlike the Manhattan Project during World War II, we do not need to make one big bet on the strategy for winning this war. Instead, we will launch a billion mutinies against climate change. In a world with billions of educated, ambitious individuals, the best adaptations and innovations will be pretty good.”? For a longer preview, check out Kahn’s recent essay on Vox.

Kahn has agreed to answer your questions about this topic and his new book, so fire away in the comments section below. As always, we’ll post his answers in good time.

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  1. Emmi says:

    Wow, is this guy for real? Floating homes that “allow residents to literally float during the next Hurricane Katrina” (??) Does this guy have any idea how violent that storm was?

    Do these floating residents have superhuman powers wherein they can drink contaminated water as well?

    And the ONLY scientific reference he used was Wikipedia. Seriously?

    If you guys use science for your information, you would know that, yes, short-term a few boosts may be at hand. However, long term, there is no way to address worldwide drought, polluted water, dying crops and deadly heat waves that will tax our energy sources and housing challenges with overpopulation the way it is.

    I am making a personal plea to you, Mr. Dubner, as a Biologist and someone who worries about scientific misinformation, can you please be a bit more careful about what you say? You guys have the world’s attention, and quite a bit of influence.

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  2. Dr J says:

    I don’t know about the author – but I didn’t “choose” to live where I live (Albany) – I was forced there by the nature of my work – as a worker with a highly specialized skill set there are only a handful of employers in the country who can hire me and/or can afford me – I would love to live in Manhattan or SF or DC, but I didn’t have a whole lot of choice – I suspect most workers don’t get to choose where they work via some wonderful free market system – maybe economists do, but is suspect they have the same issues as well – most workers are stuck where their family ties are or where their employer sets up shop

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  3. David Chowes, New York City says:

    Sorry, I don’t agree. The problems with global warming is that it will continuesly occur so quickly and exponentially — it will be as a pipe where holes are leaking — each one increasing the probability and rapidily of more and more destruction . . .

    Tornados in Brooklyn and The Bronx… Give me a break!

    Ergo ‘a zug um veh’!

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  4. jonathan says:

    That’s an odd quote about the Manhattan Project because a) we didn’t bet it all on it, not even close and b) we divided the MP into parts better to succeed. As to the first, it was completely uncertain that we could build a bomb and since no one knew about the MP in the general military there was absolutely no reliance on it in war planning. None. Zero. Nada. As to the second, they built both a uranium bomb and a plutonium bomb because they weren’t sure what would work, meaning they didn’t bet it all within the MP either.

    Also, the issue with cities in global warming is not Manhattan but Bangladesh. I don’t see Bangladesh having the resources to do much.

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  5. Jeff says:

    Poster #1 asserts that the only scientific reference used was Wikipedia. In fact, in the References section the author cites 13 sources, only one of which is Wikipedia.

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  6. Emmi says:

    @Jeff – I apologize if I was wrong. Were there any references at all from *science* journals, and I simply did not see them?

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  7. Drill-Baby-Drill Drill Team says:

    ‘safe” cities like Salt Lake City, Milwaukee, Buffalo, Minneapolis or Detroit (Kahn’s top 5 picks)’

    Except for SLC, it seems these are all cities straggle the Canadian border. Move North as the climate heats up.

    But why not just move to Canada, Russia or the Artic Circle? The tundra would be defrosted and the climate balmy. Canada has health care; Russia has cheap vodka, Live next door to Santa…..what’s not to like?

    This has too much of a Survivalist Mentality. Many of these people have already moved to Utah and Idaho. Others can ‘t leave underwatre mortages or family ties going back generations.

    The day after Yk2 a lot of disappointed survivalist woke up alive, but confused that cities weren’t in ruble and mutants walking the streets. Will Armageddon come fast as night or a slow crock pot simmer, playing out over centuries?

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  8. daveb says:

    I find it interesting that the 5 “safest” cities mostly have a proximity to the Great Lakes (SLC the exception). My question to you – are these “safe” cities designated that way because of access to fresh water? I’d love to hear your comments on water access and climate change. It seems to me the smartest people in S. California wouldn’t have an answer to the Colorado river drying up.


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