What Makes a Place Habitable? Or Livable?

This year’s Climate and Society class is out in the field (or lab or office) completing a summer internship or thesis. They’ll be documenting their experiences one blog post at a time. Read on to see what they’re up to.

By Mark Stege, Climate and Society 2014

Climate-induced human migration makes a quiet but notable appearance in the third U.S. National Climate Assessment released this May. It comes in chapter 23, in the form of a ‘key message’ to the 100,000 or so atoll inhabitants within the U.S.-affiliated Pacific Islands region:

Mounting threats to food and water security, infrastructure, and public health and safety are expected to lead to increasing human migration from low to high elevation islands and continental sites.

Sea level rise is the main driver for these concerns, and the prognosis for migration from atoll territories and nations is particularly severe. The realities of geology mean atolls have very little elevation, with most land residing within 3 meters of sea level. That leaves very little high ground to escape to as oceans continue to rise.

Photo: NASA Marshall Space Flight Center/Flickr

Photo: NASA Marshall Space Flight Center/Flickr

So the question has been raised: will those government officials and communities entrusted with the well-being and safety of these 100,000 atoll dwellers recognize in advance the point at which areas become uninhabitable, or when it is time to move?

I have been spending my summer looking into this question, exploring various views on what constitutes a habitable environment in both the cultural and legal senses. Of course, “habitable” only tells part of the story. As a good friend of mind has suggested, perhaps a more appropriate baseline would be when an area becomes not uninhabitable but unlivable. The United Nations’ Our Common Future report eloquently articulates this subtle but important differentiation:


You talk very little about life. You talk too much about survival. It is very important to remember that when the possibilities for life are over, the possibilities for survival start. And there are people here in Brazil, especially in the Amazon region, who still live. And these people that still live don’t want to reach down to the level of survival.

Speaker from the floor, WCED Public Hearing
Sao Paulo, 26-29 Oct. 1985

Based on the teachings compiled by William Glasser, an influential psychiatrist,, we can elaborate this narrative further by maintaining that the human physiological need for food, shelter and safety is inextricably connected to our psychological needs for love, belonging, self-worth, freedom and fun.

One could argue further that strategy put forward by Kiribati, an Pacific Island nation, to “migrate with dignity” achieves a modicum of this holistic approach, as it affords the I-Kiribati person a living wage (survival) while addressing their need to be perceived not as a burden by their host (belonging and self-worth), indicating that a ‘livability’ baseline for determining ‘when it is time to move’ is at least plausible.

While these issues are a priority for the 100,000 living on low-lying islands, it also easily applies to the millions living along the coast in the U.S. and around the globe.

So what is an appropriate baseline to determine ‘when it is time to move’? When a place becomes no longer habitable, or when it becomes no longer livable?

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