Moving to Higher Ground: A San Antonio Lesson on Climate Change

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Green fields and hills that go on as far as the eye can see make up just a portion of Pearsall Park. Photo by Scott Ball.

Scott Ball / Rivard Report

Park visitors run atop a large hill at Pearsall Park in District 4.

Last week, I listened to presidential candidate Andrew Yang describe his solution to climate change as a “need to start moving our people to higher ground.” If you chuckled while watching this, it’s either because you thought he was right or that the idea was novel but trite. If it rubbed you the wrong way, as it did me, it might be because you know those instructions won’t be an option for everyone. 

As you go about your daily commute, I want you to notice the names of those cities and communities built around San Antonio during the time of our city’s most devastating floods and natural disasters. What sprang from these disasters, and the combination of slow physical infrastructure investment and adaptation, was the call to “move to higher ground.” 

Why do you think the new homes and developments were built in places aptly named: Alta Vista, Alamo Heights, Monte Vista, Laurel Heights, Terrell Hills, Balcones Heights, Lincoln Heights? In marketing, and in reality, these places were built on some of the highest elevations in our city, and sold as the places to seek higher ground. 

Don’t want to deal with terrible flooding, environmental pollutants from landfills, noise and air pollution from neighboring scrap yards, or military base runoff? You can simply move away from it. 

Moving to higher ground, as a policy response to climate change, is equivalent to telling poor families in underfunded public classrooms to simply pay for private school. Fleeing for higher ground, or more opportunity, is a luxury some people can afford and others simply cannot. So let’s be honest, if climate change forces people to truly find safer areas to live or breathe, it will not be the poor uprooting their lives to find cover. 

At the individual level, moving to higher ground is not a bad policy. However, when leaders inform public policy decisions with this attitude – ignoring versus adapting – it becomes a dangerous warning to those inevitably left behind. Whether it’s climate change or underfunded public transportation and public education, the consequences of these failures to invest are hard to see when you have the option to move away.

I’m not suggesting that those with the means to relocate not do so. I’m only hoping that policy makers are smart enough to invest in the public institutions, property, and services that are left for the rest of us.

If everyone is running for the hills, we’re quickly going to run out of hill tops, even for those who can afford it. So instead of doing nothing, we must invest in mass transit, alternative energy sources, and reducing consumption to help lessen the impacts for everyone, especially the most vulnerable. 

Growing up in the shadows of many of these decisions, downstream from the heights, my neighbors and I can only hope we set a better course for those that may be left drowning. Whether or not we live on higher ground, we must expect our leaders to take the high road, not the easy way out.

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