Even Plutocrats Can’t Escape the Coming Heat

By Stan Cox, the author of The Green New Deal and Beyond (2020) and The Path to a Livable Future (2021). The original version of this article was published by City Lights Books as part of its ‘In Real Time’ series. Crossposted from Common Dreams.

The future is here. A study recently published by a team of British and Dutch scientists found that this summer’s horrific heatwaves “would have been virtually impossible to occur in the U.S./Mexico region and Southern Europe if humans had not warmed the planet by burning fossil fuels.” More and more, it seems that heatwaves, more than storms, flooding, or even wildfires, may finally be delivering the long-anticipated wake-up call that could rouse humanity from its lackadaisical attitude toward climate.

Like most of us, the world’s economic and political elites—the people who effectively have veto power over any vigorous response to global warming—have long been shielded from the worst impacts of heatwaves by air-conditioning. Unlike most of us, though, they have also been protected from climate change writ large by their wealth and status—by what we might call “life-conditioning.” Now, global warming has become impossible for even them to ignore. But rather than demand reductions in greenhouse-gas emissions to protect future generations, they remain focused on reducing their own exposure to such hazards. Increasingly, they’re voting with their feet (or their private jets) in search of comfort and safety.

Flagstaff, Arizona, 7,000 feet above sea level and with summertime highs 25°F lower than those in Phoenix, has long been sought out as a haven from heat. In recent years, Flagstaff and environs have seen a surge of deep-pocketed house hunters seeking refuge from the dangerous 110°F-plus urban heat islands of Phoenix and Tucson. The city’s mayor toldThe Guardian, “We don’t mind people moving to Flagstaff at all. But about 25% of our housing is now second homes. The cost of living is our number one issue. We don’t talk much about what climate change means for social justice. But where are low-income people going to live? How can they afford to stay in this city?” Such trends toward “climate gentrification” could well spike in the wake of this year’s heatwaves. Other northerly cities, including Bangor, Maine, and Duluth, Minnesota, also are attracting seasonal climate migrants who are driving housing costs out of reach for residents with more modest incomes. Others are wandering farther afield, buying in Alaska or New Zealand.

Writing about Bangor’s new role as a cooling-off spot, Bloomberg columnist Conor Sen has pointed out an interesting non-climatic angle: “Historically, Florida and Arizona have welcomed winter travel from northerners, but the reverse may not necessarily be true. Jokes about ‘Florida man’ coming to town write themselves.”

Indeed, climate-induced migration waves are starting to merge with a growing trend of politically motivated relocation. Anti-government militia types and other political extremists have a long history of migrating to higher latitudes and higher elevations. Northern Idaho, for example, has always been a popular destination, especially for “preppers”: people and groups from various walks of life who, because they hate government or have a generalized fear of societal breakdown, make such out-of-the-way places home as they hunker down and prepare for whatever genre of cataclysm they think is coming. This year’s influx into the Idaho panhandle, reportsTheWashington Post’s Jack Jenkins, is notably heavy with white Christian nationalists.

Land Preservation for the Private-Jet Set

In a 2020 story headlined “Billionaire Cowboys Are Buying and Selling the Largest Ranches in America,” Jim Dobson reported in Forbes that the United States’ top private landowners possess, altogether, a total of almost 13 million acres, mostly in the West. They include tycoons in cable TV, other media, lumber, logging, sports, tobacco, military technology, and Subway sandwiches. Forbes also informed us that, in the first year of the Covid-19 pandemic, the land-loving rich flocked to higher, cooler ground, with “rentals and purchases, including vacation homes [increasingly] in Aspen, Colorado; Jackson, Wyoming; Park City, Utah; Big Sky, Montana; and Lake Tahoe, California,” all of which had already become heavily gentrified.

Jackson (colloquially, “Jackson Hole”) features prominently in a rip-roaring story on the “dissident right” by James Pogue in the February 2023 issue of Vanity Fair. The town and its surrounding landscape comprise the kind of place that highfalutin’ refugees have long been drawn to, given its climate and natural beauty, their own sense of privilege and apocalyptic beliefs, and, most recently, Covid-19:

Wealthy and well-connected preppers and back-to-the-landers have been moving west, many of them at least tangentially involved in the edgy online realm of thought known as the dissident right. Tech executives and crypto investors are creating secretive groups to help people “exit”—a term that has taken on almost mystical significance in some circles recently—from our liberal society, tech-dominated lives, and fraying system. And there are grander plans, for whole secessionist movements using crypto and decentralized autonomous organizations to build whole mini-societies.

Jackson is the seat of Teton County, where 80% of personal income is now derived from investment, and it shows. The colorful but often irritating cast of characters Pogue meets believe they are destined to become the founding parents of a new world, but they are mostly just doing regular rich-person stuff. By securing conservation easements, for example, the Jackson Hole Land Trust has protected 55,000 acres of private land from development, and this, writes Pogue, “has been very good for the surrounding ecosystems and very good for the private-jet class, who save millions in federal income tax.” But, he reminds us, a Jackson-style local economy couldn’t function without its “underclass of service workers, largely Latino, with little but cramped and irregular housing.”

A Jackson town council member told Pogue that the elite, distance-working interlopers had transformed the town, very much for the worse: “These people are getting paid a ton of money, they can get whatever services they want online, and they can have all these bodacious ski hills… It’s just become another money pot to them.” The trend isn’t limited to Teton County. Pogue writes that it’s “unfolding across the expanse of the Greater Yellowstone region, the closest thing to a large, intact ecosystem left in the lower 48 states, which encompasses towns like Bozeman and Livingston, Montana, both undergoing their own upheavals.”

Float or Burrow?

Descending from the Mountain West to sea level, we find an even more outlandish prepping scheme for the rich: the libertarian “seasteading” movement, which aims to build floating settlements or even entire cities at sea, as refuges lying beyond any national jurisdiction. Choose your future home! Will it be “a floating world of interlocking hexagonal islands, where power is harvested from waves and the sun”? Or a SeaPod in Panama that “offers an affordable luxury experience, while minimizing its footprint, allowing you to float above the waves”? Or a “smart floating home… wrapped in an eco-restorative 3D-printed coral reef”? Check out the Seasteading Institute’s current projects for more possibilities, including a planned sea-floor habitat off Mississippi’s Gulf Coast, equipped with data centers and research labs.

Finally, for millionaires who’d rather burrow into terra firma than abandon it, there are opportunities to make one’s home in a hardened underground bunker. The Survival Condo Project, a converted nuclear missile silo on the Kansas prairie, features a saltwater swimming pool, plus a movie theater, rock-climbing wall, bakery, bar, and dog park. Despite being underground, the 12-unit complex also offers a choice of scenery via “digital windows” in each condo, as well as protection against volcanic eruptions, nuclear attacks, and, of course, Kansas twisters. The complex is designed and equipped to allow residents to stay inside for five years without leaving, if need be. The price? Up to $3 million for the larger units, plus a monthly condo fee of up to $5,000. Many such subterranean bunker homes have been built across the country and world in recent years, including the $17.5 million Luxury Underground Doomsday Bunker in south Georgia; the Subterra Castle—another Kansas silo, this one topped by a medieval-style turret—and Atlas Missile Silo Home in upstate New York.

Few of the overprivileged preppers buying up property in Wyoming, Montana, Idaho, Kansas, and elsewhere made their money in the industries that produce or provide us with necessities like water, shelter, food (no, selling Subway sandwiches doesn’t count), and utility services. Most have drawn their wealth from the digital economy. I wonder what they’re thinking. That even if the fossil-fueled capitalism that has always supported them in high style crumbles, their accumulated riches can continue to reap for them the countless goods and services to which they’re accustomed? Some of them may really think society can achieve an optimum combination of artificial intelligence, robotics, 3D printing, drones, and crypto trading that will seamlessly sustain the cornucopian flow of goods and services to those who can afford them. Their hubris is appalling. In the words of Douglas Rushkoff, author of Survival of the Richest: Escape Fantasies of the Tech Billionaires, they “have succumbed to a mindset where ‘winning’ means earning enough money to insulate themselves from the damage they are creating by earning money in that way.”

Blindness to material realities, unfortunately, is not unique to Silicon Valley tycoons and billionaire cowboys. Today, all of us depend heavily on countless metaphorical “black boxes,” from phones to air-conditioning to municipal water systems, whose production and workings are mostly a mystery to us. Furthermore, writes Vaclav Smil in his 2022 book How the World Really Works, the material and energetic underpinnings of civilization are of much less interest to most people these days than “the world of information, data, and images.” Accordingly, he writes, the greatest economic rewards go to work that’s “completely removed from the material realities of life on earth.” Therefore, it’s only natural that Silicon Valley types “believe that these electronic flows will make those quaint old material necessities unnecessary,” and that “‘dematerialization,’ powered by artificial intelligence, will end our dependence on shaped masses of metals and processed minerals, and eventually we might even do without the Earth’s environment.” Let them go ahead and think that, because, as my late mother would have said, “they’ve got another think comin’.”

Wind Farms Aren’t Farms 

There persists a seldom-spoken assumption that by simply manipulating ones and zeroes, photons and electrons, humans can sustain and continuously reproduce the material world we see around us today—a world that would never have existed without extravagant burning of fossil fuels, extraction of minerals, and harvesting of biological mass. Pointing to critical activities such as food production and processing, energy generation and distribution, housing construction, and manufacturing, Smil argues that such “existential imperatives do not belong to the category of microprocessors and mobile phones.”

Consider the current hoopla over artificial intelligence. Despite raising the risk of human extinction—a very real threat, according to a recent statement signed by hundreds of technology experts—AI continues to be widely plugged as a climate cure. This dubious claim is based on expectations that the technology will do things like “optimize how freight is routed, lower barriers to electric-vehicle adoption,” and “nudge consumers to change how we shop.” Even if AI were to accomplish such goals, they would have only very slight effects on global warming, if any. To make matters worse, the vast data centers in which AI programs are trained and run are ravenous energy consumers and cause gargantuan amounts of carbon dioxide to be emitted. With a rapid expansion of AI widely anticipated, the energy demand and emissions would probably become unmanageable. (No coincidence that AI guru Sam Altman once said that he and tech billionaire Peter Thiel had agreed that when catastrophe strikes, they’ll bug out and take one of their jets to Thiel’s fortified compound in cool New Zealand.)

Artificial intelligence, the goal toward which Silicon Valley has long striven, is inseparable from the physical resources from which it’s created. But we should relax, say its boosters, because the energy infrastructure on which every technology, including AI, depends will soon be “decarbonized.” Oh, really? Smil in his book and science writer Alice J. Friedemann in hers, Life After Fossil Fuels (2021), beg to differ. They, as well as other experts, have demonstrated that electricity, whether generated by renewable sources or not, is not capable of powering all the functions now powered by fossil fuels, much less supporting indefinite industrial growth.

Sustaining vast, all-renewable electricity systems indefinitely through the future will be no walk in the park. Unlike green plants and the animals that eat them—converters of solar energy that have sustained humans throughout our species’ time on Earth—photovoltaic panels, wind turbines, power grids, and batteries don’t spontaneously reproduce. Wind and solar equipment must be replaced every couple of decades, batteries even more often.

It would be nice if, during their functional lifetimes, these devices could produce seeds or tubers or cuttings or a litter of offspring, so that by the time they wear out, we’d have raised new generations of solar and wind farms, ready to go. But they don’t. Into the long future, societies will be continuously starting from scratch, gathering increasingly scarce materials from mines or recycling plants and re-creating the energy system. As Friedemann puts it, what we call “renewable” energy sources are really just “rebuildable,” and much of the materials they contain—like the composites from which wind towers’ giant blades are made—are not recyclable.

In short, there’s no refuge from material facts. The only way that we humans can live within nature’s resource restraints and ecological boundaries is to redirect our economies toward meeting all people’s basic needs, and away from producing material overabundance. We have no choice but to converge on an equitable, modest level of energy and resource use that’s enough to provide a decent life for all. Material and ecological boundaries are an unbending reality, and if any of us think we can run, drive, fly, climb, float, sail, dig, code, invest, invent, grow, or buy our way out of them, we’ve got another think comin’.

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  1. Ignacio

    Another symptom of decadence. Some or many among those who benefit the most on the society do not trust in the very same society they exploit. Bad signal, isn’t It? Add the decadence of ruling classes, public and private institutions… The dollar won’t fall victim of other currencies but from system failure.

    1. Freethinker

      Makes sense though, in that if you used your intergenerational unearned wealth to buy a govt. contract to make a fat profit, thus proving yourself in your family firm, how could you trust in the system you just showed will sell out the sheeple to the highest bidder? [one quick example of life for the winners in our kleptocracy]

      …..and yes, if you’ve further enriched yourself by printing $ for a lifetime, getting away with it despite periodic fluctuations in its nominal value, why stop, especially when your peers will just take your place at the trough?

  2. digi_owl

    I would not mind checking into that bunker, as it appeals to my reclusive nature.

    But not at those prices.

    Also, an article on seasteading, by the Guardian no less, without mentioning Sealand?

    And i think the “international waters” trick was also part of the original sales pitch of The World, a cruise ship outfitted more akin to a condominium.

  3. griffen

    Anecdotes on Flagstaff and Jackson, respectively, could be directly derived from any number of the plots surrounding land and outsiders from the series Yellowstone. It’s the Dutton Ranch and billions be damned, John isn’t selling. It’s a class war alright and the 1% class continues its winning ways.

    Makes it surprising that recent news surrounded Bezos dropping a cool $65+ million on an exclusive island enclave off the FL coast. On second thought, nothing is really too surprising these days.

    1. Lexx

      I’ve read that ‘John’ is getting a divorce though, a very messy, expensive, contentious divorce. He may not be selling, but her attorneys have other ideas, about how prenups were made to be broken. I can’t figure out why those guys keep getting remarried; it’s hell on fortune-building… but then I have a very low tolerance for emotional drama, financial losses and tribalism.

  4. Henry Moon Pie

    The mention of the Jackson Hole Land Trust reminded me of another movement primarily among the monied for re-wilding and the 30 X 30 movement. That all sounds good–setting aside 30% of the land to be allowed to “re-wild” with no human presence except the occasional billionaire tour of course–until one sees that in action, it’s directed against small farmers, herders, indigenous hunters and fishermen.

    So I have a suggestion for the re-wilders. Let’s start with two types of land-use: ski resorts and golf courses. Ski resorts are an obvious choice since many of them already border on designated wilderness areas. We could start with Vail and Aspen and move on to Taos and Santa Fe. Meanwhile, golf courses are one of the most destructive types of land use. In desert areas, they suck up precious water. In coastal areas–looking at you, Harbortown–they were built on what were once precious wetlands. Wherever they are, tons of harmful chemicals are applied every year to keep that perfectly manicured look.

    Once we have re-wilded the ski resorts and golf course, we could re-wild the billionaire ranches. I’m sure they won’t mind.

    That strategy will give the biosphere a much needed boost while preserving the small and subsistence farmers and herders who are the last among us who really know how to raise, hunt and gather food without absurd levels of energy inputs.

      1. Henry Moon Pie

        No doubt the billionaires hire modern day Sheriffs of Nottingham to enforce their rules-based order.

        1. Susan the other

          Clearly what we need to establish are national foraging preserves to be maintained and expanded as required. Open season from August through December as needed and then reseeded January and February. Sort of.

    1. griffen

      I do believe the golf courses can be repurposed pretty simply, just let the grass grow if the bank loan goes into default. Those cart paths may not degrade naturally but they tend to deteriorate over time.

      I’m not here to defend golf courses on practical terms, but I do think they are more up to date on the use of (and planning for the future) more enviro-friendly practices like using gray water. Not all of them mind you, but you might tinker with grass blends and it’s amazing what you might “cook” in the lab for higher heat resistant strains. I believe the minds of NC State have been working with the USGA on this aspect. But yeah fewer golf courses and fewer private jets.

    2. Eclair

      Our local Chautauqua Watershed Conservancy, which does great work trying to persuade land owners bordering the lake, known for filling up with toxic algae and waterweed every summer, to restrict their use of lawn fertilizers and herbicides, just had its annual fundraising golf tournament. I guess that’s where the money is.

  5. Mikerw0

    But, they still need power. Bunkers don’t power themselves. Not hard to see a scenario where they go hide in Jackson, a hole-in-the-ground in Kansas and the angry masses cut the cord. Not the cord to cable TV, the cord to power generation. Unless, of course, the military stands up to defend and protect them.

    1. Michaelmas

      A small nuclear reactor can power your bunker. Indeed, I suspect that’s what some of the USAF missile silos already do.

      A VC I know has a company called Oklo in his partnership’s portfolio. I looked at it and said their reactor was too small to be practical: who would use it?

      His reply was that he had had inquiries from a dozen crypto mining companies — this being before China’s crypto clampdown and then the global crypto crash.

      He and I both thought using nukes for crypto mining was offensively stupid. But the technology is increasingly there.

      1. Bryan

        Who is going to mine, refine and deliver the uranium fuel during the Apocalypse? One advantage of such a scenario is you don’t have to worry about the waste.

        1. Michaelmas

          Bryan: Who is going to mine, refine and deliver the uranium fuel during the Apocalypse?

          No mining and delivery of uranium fuel is necessary. The Oklo reactor is a fast reactor that runs exclusively on recycled fuel, producing more recycled fuel.



          Bryan: One advantage of such a scenario is you don’t have to worry about the waste.

          Nuclear waste is a myth. There’s only partially used fuel.


          And with a fast breeder reactor, you even have the option of getting more fissile material out the back end than you put in. No uranium fuel delivery necessary, like I say.


          ‘…Breeder reactors could, in principle, extract almost all of the energy contained in uranium or thorium, decreasing fuel requirements by a factor of 100 compared to widely used once-through light water reactors, which extract less than 1% of the energy in the uranium mined from the earth … . With seawater uranium extraction (currently too expensive to be economical), **there is enough fuel for breeder reactors to satisfy the world’s energy needs for 5 billion years **….’

    2. Jams O'Donnell

      Until the military decides to cut out the middle-man, and enjoy the facilities of the hole-in-the-ground themselves. After all, scarcity will inevitably be the rule, while there is still anyone there to observe such things.

  6. jefemt

    Great post. Thank you. Sharing is caring! As the article points out, we need a lot more sharing, and need that new think to come sooner than later.

    Melania’s jacket so infamously stated,
    ” I really don’t care, do you?” She got my inner-pearl-clutch outrageous indignation blood simmering!

    I live adjacent to and work in a pretty sparsely populated part of Bumphuc Flyover. When I look at crops, livestock, and wildlife, I really do not believe the earth has the carrying capacity for 8 Billions, even if we shared with the wisdom of Solomon and love grace and compassion of Buddha, Jesus, and Mohammed.
    And we are a bazillion miles from that sharing, grace, and compassion.

    Do little with less, live simply that others may simply live.
    As Calvin opined to Hobbes on more than one occasion, “That’s a great lesson I should learn someday! “

  7. Mark Gisleson

    I’m sure they’ve got underground warehouses full of caviar and paté foie gras but at some point in the post.future these ding-a-lings are going to start wondering why they decided to live so far away from where the food is grown.

    Hauling food up mountain roads is just as easy to stop as it would be to interdict the interstates going into a major metro area. And each fiefdom will only be as safe as its security crew is good, and the really good crews will, at some point, decide they deserve to live in the “big house.”

    The world’s “smartest” people may be in for a crash course on how the real world really works.

    1. griffen

      A few hours since this post went up, and not a mention as yet of the harrowing future scenario of the well done film The Road. Don’t go looking in that basement kid! I actually thought about a future existence during a short walk this weekend, watching smaller squirrels chase around the base of a tree. Could I catch one and clean it, if the need arises?

      1. mrsyk

        Whiskey is a personal requirement for discussing “The Road”. I’ve read it, don’t care to see the movie, once is enough, thanks.
        I did just watch “Don’t Look Up” (netphlix doomsday comedy) a few nights ago. I think people here would enjoy it for its portrayal of the US government being utterly dysfunctional and corrupt.

      2. GC54

        Also, check out the excellent Apple TV Silo series (first episode is free). Close to the first half of the first book so far. Superb set design, thought provoking, and mostly well acted.

      1. Paleobotanist

        It all depends on what their groundwater supply is. They are deep enough there should be groundwater at hand. The question is, what is its condition? Is it drinkable?

    2. ChrisPacific

      The only one that looked like a remotely serious attempt at an apocalypse style bunker was the Kansas one. The others were all follies and repurposed Cold War sites, with a lot of picturesque but useless features. Thiel’s place in New Zealand does have a panic room as advertised but it’s otherwise a normal uber-wealthy dwelling, an offensively luxurious mansion that sits empty nearly all of the time.

      As you say, even the Kansas ones would probably only last a matter of weeks or months if things went seriously wrong.

      1. some guy

        Once Thiel and the AI Guy are safely in there, maybe the local New Zealanders will brick them up inside as in that Poe story The Cask Of Amontillado.

  8. ISL

    Soon, land will be opening up in Antarctica, for the (real plutocrats) who have moved to New Zealand. And Elon Musk has his sights sent on Mars. The author really should watch the movie Elyssium


    To understand the mindset. Thinking that appeals to common humanity will work is delusional. That is not human nature. See also, fall of civilizations podcast.


    I guess I would be a terrible fund raiser for a climate non-profit.

  9. Petter

    An old friend (retired RN) emailed me yesterday writing that he wants to emigrate to above the Arctic Circle Norway because it’s getting too hot for him – and he lives in Minneapolis! Wants to work with the Reindeer People. Said he was going to reinstate his RN license.
    I don’t know if he’s see serious but had to tell him that he’d have to learn Norwegian or maybe Sami and that there is no Sun for about four months a year and in the summer it never gets dark.
    They do need medical staff up there though, so who knows?

    1. digi_owl

      This year it had the warmest summer in ages.

      And with the heat comes the mosquito, and up there they are massive.

  10. Joe Well

    Re: climate gentrification

    Has there ever been a definitive study of whether people moving into an area inevitably raises rents and apartment prices in the absence of restrictions on supply (whether natural or NIMBY)?

    Historically there have been so many cases of housing prices *crashing* after an increase in population led to speculative housing construction (Harlem, New York, was maybe the most famous case, and maybe Las Vegas during the GFC). Why does that never seem to happen in the US anymore?

  11. Susan the other

    I’d just think that most of us must be smart enough to survive-in-place now and for the long haul. There are no havens for the billionaires because survival requires a critical mass of human energy, everybody pitching in, to maintain our daily bread. And survival will not be so specialized that it depends on a bunch of high tech equipment that doesn’t ever malfunction. Or, as above, doesn’t reproduce. If we survive we will do it by adapting to the seasons and thinking about the Earth as our nursery. We will not profiteer because profiteering is the equivalent of snarfing down the seed corn. So, reality. Because energy. It must be renewable. There’s no out.

  12. Michaelmas

    Susan the other: I’d just think that most of us must be smart enough to survive-in-place now and for the long haul …If we survive we will do it by adapting to the seasons and thinking about the Earth as our nursery.

    Where’s water supply — for growing crops, for drinking — in your equation? Is there going to be enough water where you are?

    Because in much of the world, there’s likely not to be —



  13. LAS

    The handyman who recently helped me out on a few projects was a talker, who told me tales about other clients he has serviced. Among them were persons with multi-million dollar homes who called him for the changing of their lightbulbs, apparently unable or unwilling to do it themselves. Being rich does not remove your dependency necessarily. In some cases, it only worsens it.

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