Capital flight: Climate change is forcing us to move cities

Although moving small towns has proven successful, Indonesia’s plan to relocate its capital from Jakarta to Borneo will be far more challenging

Men look at a flooded street in the Sarandi neighborhood, one of the hardest hit by the heavy rains in Porto Alegre, Rio Grande do Sul state, Brazil, in May, 2024. Photograph: Anselmo Cunha/Getty Images

Although I remain hopeful about our ability to cope with climate change on this island, that positivity has been sorely tested. In the last year alone, two urban areas in Co Down have suffered significant flood damage from which they are yet to recover. The flooding in Newry and Downpatrick has been described, somewhat optimistically, as a once-in-a-century event.

Yet records of the wrong kind are an increasingly regular occurrence for climate watchers. After 12 successive months of record-high temperatures, April was declared the hottest month on record. In the past few weeks, India has been gripped by a heatwave that has killed hundreds.

In Thailand, the situation is so perilous that the government is contemplating relocating its capital from Bangkok. This echoes similar initiatives in Indonesia, which is in the process of moving its capital from Jakarta to the island of Borneo to escape severe flooding, land subsidence and overpopulation.

Thailand’s metropolis faces significant risks from rising sea levels and frequent flooding exacerbated by climate change. The city’s low-lying terrain and overreliance on groundwater extraction have compounded these problems.


The rationale mirrors Indonesia’s move to find a more sustainable location for its own vast and low-lying capital. Jakarta is currently sinking at an alarming rate; up to 20cm annually in some areas. Although overextraction of groundwater rather than climate change is responsible for the sinking, it makes the city more vulnerable to the effects of extreme weather.

Relocating the seat of government is a serious endeavour. Moving from Jakarta is estimated to cost Indonesia €32 billion. Yet other nations have decided that the gains are worth the cost and relocated their capitals for a variety of reasons, often choosing planned cities in central locations.

Brazil moved its capital from Rio de Janeiro (which had itself once temporarily replaced Lisbon as the seat of the Portuguese imperial dynasty) to Brasília in 1960 in an effort to rebalance political power away from its coastal cities. Similarly, Kazakhstan shifted its capital from Almaty to Astana (now Nur-Sultan) in 1997, and Egypt is currently building a new administrative capital east of Cairo to reduce the strain on the overpopulated metropolis, the largest urban area on the continent.

Imagine it being impossible to grow potatoes and carrots in Ireland because of climate change, and this would just be the startOpens in new window ]

Nigeria moved its capital from the second largest African metropolis, Lagos, to Abuja in 1991, hoping to alleviate congestion and overpopulation in Lagos while providing a more centrally located capital that balanced the nation’s various ethnic groups, while Tanzania relocated its capital from Dar es Salaam to Dodoma in 1996 to encourage regional development.

Although moving a city is not historically unprecedented, the underlying reasons for doing so have evolved over time. The Roman Empire had various alternative capitals for political reasons, including Ravenna and Byzantium. Natural disasters and environmental changes generally caused less important cities such as Pompeii to be abandoned.

The ancient city of Teotihuacan in Mexico was abandoned in the seventh or eighth century, possibly due to environmental degradation and resource depletion. Ani in Turkey, once a thriving Armenian cultural centre, emptied in the 14th century after suffering earthquakes, invasions and economic decline. Similarly, Angkor, capital of the Khmer Empire in present-day Cambodia, was largely abandoned in the 15th century due to ecological breakdown. More recently, Plymouth in Montserrat was abandoned after a volcanic eruption in 1997, while Pripyat in Ukraine was evacuated following the Chernobyl nuclear disaster in 1986.

Modern technology has, however, made it more practical to relocate smaller towns in their entirety. After a series of floods in 1993, the Illinois village of Valmeyer moved several kilometres uphill, one of the first successful instances of an entire settlement rebuilding nearby. Inspired by their example, Alaskan towns such as Shishmaref and Newtok are moving to escape the effects of climate change.

As climate change continues to reshape our planet, moving cities will likely become more common. It remains to be seen if moving the administrative capital is enough to save Jakarta and Bangkok. At about 35 and 19 million inhabitants respectively, they are among the largest urban areas in the world, and would be somewhat more challenging than moving a few hundred as in Valmeyer.

Stuart Mathieson is research manager at InterTradeIreland