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.


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.


Dr J

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

David Chowes, New York City

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'!


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.


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.


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

Drill-Baby-Drill Drill Team

'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?


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.


Eric M. Jones

A first world child adds a million kilograms of CO2 to the atmosphere. There's the problem.


Wait - is the reasoning really,

"Climate change won't have dire consequences for cities because cities recovered from the Great Chicago Fire and the bombings of Tokyo and Dresden and so on"?

Yes, humanity will figure out a way to keep going even after climate change disasters, but that doesn't mean that the disasters weren't disasters. Neither should we assume that recovery always happens, or is pretty: see, eg, New Orleans.

In any case, one should be wary of any reasoning that could lead one to suggesting that we should bomb our own cities once every few decades. Urban renewal at its finest!



I have not read the book, but I am eager to hear the author distinguish between heat-related maladies (the heat itself) and heat-related collateral (rising sea levels).

imagine Las Vegas or Bangkok10 degrees F hotter - at what point does it become effectively inhabitable? Then there is the collateral damage question about rising sea levels, which threaten Miami and Bangladesh alike. The two should be differentiated as threats. And of course ... agricultural changes.


Given the heat wave in Russia this summer, do you still think that Moscow will be a good city to move to after the effects of climate change become more significant?


Although we do have a small risk of both earthquakes and volcanic eruptions, I'm quite happy to be living in Seattle, where we will have an ample supply of fresh rainwater as long as weather patterns don't change.


"A first world child adds a million kilograms of CO2 to the atmosphere. There's the problem."

How much can one deduct from that when watering the plants in the yard?


What is the most that the Earth can warm?


first world child adds a million kilograms of CO2 to the atmosphere. There's the problem.

Yes it's much better to be in 3rd world poverty, but hey at least you'll have a nice small carbon-footprint.


He was joking with San Diego right? If things get worse, they will really affect places that already have unbearable weather, not the ones that have a lot of elements working to balance the climate. It really discredits the article....

Mr. Bad Example

How is it that Detroit will become a safe city?

Eric H

Ouch... tough crowd from the comments so far. Apparently our author doesn't fit so nicely into the sacred climate change religion. I'm sure the Freakonomics guys can relate - they shook the global warming hornets nest not too long ago.

Here's only the second question out of 18 fiery comments:
How is it to do research in a subject that most people have such zealous views? Does it make it easier in some ways? Harder in others?

Do you think that most climate change research is directed toward searching for negative effects - or just any effects, good or bad?


@ Eric - those are good questions and I wish people would ask them more often. Sadly the public gets all their "information" from snippets on Fox News, Al Gore, Freakonomics, etc.

These are sound bites designed to lull the public into thinking it is a cut and dry issue; either cities will do fine, or they will collapse. Either it's the Apocolypse or it's a huge scam. What makes me angry is the public and media have decided to be lazy and use out-of-context sentences for their conclusions, rather than read the studies.

When a real researcher does their work (for example, tree ring data), there is a serious procedure for eliminating bias. For my research in grad school I spent weeks on this part alone.

For a scientist, it is an embarassment to have biased data. It would be like if a New York Times journalist wrote an article on the English language, and the article had dozens of spelling errors. It's simply not acceptable.

The idea that humans have benefited from climate change is not without precedent. William Ruddiman developed a hypothesis that global warming began with the advent of agriculture in the Fertile Crescent some 11,000 years ago. However it was not the methane from cattle, rather deforestation and irrigation of rice which warmed the planet.

Now there is plenty of evidence for anthropogenic global warming caused by CO2. If someone wants to refute that, they should cast a critical eye on the actual research - the methods, the statitstics, the results.

Evidence for AGW includes the changes in the C13/C12 isotope with the rise of fossil fuels. This study, among others, shows that. If people want to refute that, they can refer specifically to what was wrong with the results, methods or statsistics in this study.

Or they can sit on their couch eating potato chips and watch Fox News.