Conflicted Calculations: Climate Change and the Mapping and Pricing of Flood Risk in New York City

Friday, 3 July 2015: 10:15 AM-11:45 AM
TW1.1.03 (Tower One)
Rebecca Elliott, UC Berkeley, Berkeley, CA
This paper provides evidence of the conflicted experience of engaging in calculations related to climate change, with an empirical focus on recent efforts to re-map and re-price New York City’s flood risk. Drawing on interview, ethnographic, and documentary evidence, I follow the deployment of new “flood insurance rate maps” (FIRMs), reflecting on questions about the conflicted experience of calculation that arise from, but are not satisfactorily addressed in, the sociological literature on calculation and calculative devices. I argue that attending to the practical experience of calculation reveals considerable internal conflict and ambivalence on the part of actors on all sides of the device, as the device itself remains morally conflicted. In this case, as the FIRMs graft new prices onto the landscape, homeowners, as well as experts and officials, at once understand the risk as real (i.e. sea levels are rising) and quantifiable, but do not want to displace communities in the face of this risk. The FIRMs make a uniform system of flood insurance possible and incentivize “rational” floodplain management but, in the process, generate affordability problems that trouble authorities and homeowners alike. This enhances our understanding of calculation as a complex social process, one in which conflict between technical abstractions and quantifications and countervailing commitments happens not only in the context of epistemological or political battles, but also at the level of the individual. This does not necessarily denote the “failure” of the device, but rather arises when the device does precisely what it is designed to do.