- The pantheon of writers focused on climate change ranges from scientists and scholars to poets lamenting the loss of our environment.
Today's guest documents the impact of climate on people, including the great migration of Americans caused by changes to the Earth's environment.
He's Jake Bittle, this week on "Story in the Public Square".
(bright music) (bright music continues) Hello and welcome to "Story in the Public Square" where storytelling meets public affairs.
I'm Jim Ludes from the Pell Center at Salve Regina University.
- And I'm G. Wayne Miller, also at Salve's Pell Center.
- This week we're joined by an author working on the front lines of climate change.
Jake Bittle is a staff writer for Grist and the author of a new book, "The Great Displacement: Climate Change and the Next American Migration."
He joins us today from Brooklyn.
Jake, thank you so much for being with us.
- Thanks so much for having me.
- We're gonna get to "The Great Displacement", It's a remarkable book.
But first, tell us a little bit about Grist.
I think you've got an interesting and different kind of mission.
- Yeah, so Grist is a nonprofit news outlet focusing on climate change, right?
It's free to read, it's all online.
And we partner with a lot of news outlets around the country.
But we sort of have three main focus areas, and one is climate change, the impacts of climate change.
The second is environmental justice.
And the third is sort of what we call climate solutions, right?
So instead of just focusing on the doom and gloom, we try to write about how you could fix the problems that have emerged with climate change and what it would take to get out of the mess.
- That's a huge issue.
Serendipitously, before I did the prep for this, last week sometime, I was online and up popped a story about a ghost lake that had reemerged in the Central Valley of California.
This was your article about Lake, I hope I'm pronouncing it right, Tulare in the Central Valley of California.
What's going on with Tulare Lake?
- Right, so Tulare Lake, before white settlers arrived in California in the 1800s, it was the largest body of freshwater west of the Mississippi River.
And when settlers arrive, they basically drained the entire lake to make room for agriculture.
So this is where we get our almonds, our tomatoes, a lot of the crops that the Central Valley is famous for.
The problem is that the lake bed is still kind of the receptacle or the destination point for all the melting snow and water that comes out of the mountains in California.
So when you get a really, really wet winter, like the one we have this year, the lake kind of reappears, right?
The lake bed never went away.
It was just drained.
So now you have this sort of, the legacy of this environmental manipulation that happened centuries ago is kind of coming undone.
And all the land that's been, you know, the homes and farms that have been built in the lake, they're all flooding because all the water is sort of coming back to its natural resting point in the middle of the valley.
- So can any measures be taken to prevent that or to protect residents and livelihoods?
I mean, what's the solution there?
Is there one?
- Yeah, it's really difficult because you can't really beat nature.
You know, nature's kind of like the dealer at the casino, right?
Like the house always wins eventually.
And there's really not much you can do to stop the lake from refilling.
I mean, the state has built levees and flood control structures to manage some water, but short of a lot more investment in flood control, you can make space for the water and other places to try to redirect it away from the lake bed.
But it's really, really difficult to solve.
And we haven't really found a way to control this.
It also only happens once every couple of decades.
So people honestly tend to forget about the risk until it's too late.
- Yeah, people do tend to forget about a lot of risks.
So let's get into "The Great Displacement".
Can you give us an overview of the, it's an incredible book by the way, just a real feat of reporting and writing.
Give us an overview.
- So the book basically just tries to trace the places where climate change is already forcing people to leave their homes in the United States.
So I went to seven or eight parts of the country where different disasters from fire to flooding to sea level rise to drought.
Were sort of causing people to rethink, okay, can we afford to live here?
Do we wanna live here?
And how do we deal with the risks, right?
So what I found is there's a sort of threefold problem.
One is that natural disasters are getting far more severe and people can't keep up.
The second problem is that the government itself is sort of pushing people to leave certain places, right?
They're sort of saying, okay, well we don't want to keep rebuilding, so you've gotta move.
That's another factor.
And then the private housing market and the insurance market are also raising prices in the riskiest areas, which further sort of prices people out of those areas.
So there's a three-pronged problem that's creating just a lot of chaos around the country was what I found.
Not so much a long march from one point to another, but just a sort of turbulence in these housing markets and in these areas just leads to like a prolonged instability as people try to find safe and affordable shelter.
- So chapter one is called "The End of the Earth", which by the way is a just a great title for that chapter.
It concerns the Florida Keys in the wake of a hurricane.
If we didn't know this was nonfiction, this could almost be a fictional horror movie in many of its elements and with your elegant writing.
But tell us about chapter one, what happened there?
What happened in the Keys?
- So I focused on this one particular island in the Keys called Big Pine Key, which is like the last sort of working class enclave in the archipelago for bartenders, restaurant workers, boat buffers.
And after this hurricane called Irma, which is just an astonishingly powerful storm, basically wiped out that island overnight.
But then sort of what happened afterwards was what really interested me where the affordable housing stock that was there before the storm never really came back.
And a lot of the people who stuck it out during the storm found themselves without a place to live.
So there was this kind of long process of letting go the sort of painful process of recovery and displacement that followed the storm.
And then in the years that followed, the same islands that got wowed by the hurricane ended up encountering this sort of long-term problem of sea level rise, where they would see routine sort of small floods that made it hard to drive or hard to walk around because there was water everywhere.
So what was so fascinating about the Keys, and I think what what leads to this sort of horror aspect is that they're dealing with like two crises.
One is this giant percussive thing that happens once and destroys a lot of property, and then there's this separate sort of creeping thing that happens over the course of decades that makes it impossible to sort of have the life that you once had.
So it's an existential risk that those islands face and it was hard for people to process.
- And I'm struggling processing that right now.
I'm curious, what does that mean?
What does that fortell about the future of the Keys?
- Yeah, it's really difficult to predict the rates of sea level rise on a scale beyond the next few decades.
But certainly at the higher end of the projections, unless you see a serious tapering off, you could see a lot of the islands within the Keys become substantially basically uninhabitable for part of the year, right?
They would be perpetually underwater for four or five months at a time when the tides are highest.
And then the other places, which aren't necessarily gonna completely go under, the economies are gonna be reduced, it's gonna be much more expensive and you're gonna sort of have this just like perennial risk that I think is gonna kind of tank this tourist economy over the long run.
They rely on tourism and it just sort of seems like 50 or 60 years from now it'll be much, much harder to fit all that on these islands because they're just gonna be so flood-prone.
- So we're talking about the Keys here, but we were talking before the show started about different sea level rise maps and we've seen these from all over the country.
Correct me if I'm wrong, but this is not just a problem for the Florida Keys.
- No, definitely not.
I mean, I started there because they face, I think the highest degree of risk in that.
it's a question of the life or death of the place itself.
But everywhere, I think all along the eastern seaboard, certainly in the Gulf of Mexico, you're gonna see a lot of, over the next 50 years, a lot of coastal cities and low lying areas, rural areas as well reckon with just like frequent flooding, almost a constant risk of water.
And they're gonna have to sort of rethink how close can we get to the water's edge and still live safely in the long term.
It's a nationwide problem in a lot of ways.
- So let's get back to the Keys for a second because what happened there in terms of people being displaced, hence the title of your book is happening in other parts of the country, whether it's because of hurricane, whether it's because of rising temperatures or whatever.
And we're gonna get into some of that.
Where do the people go and what happens when you have to uproot?
And most of the people who left or will have to leave are not wealthy people.
It's not like they can go to their place in the Hamptons and who cares?
It's a tremendous financial personal, and I would argue, and you do too psychological toll on people.
Talk about that.
It's just horrible.
- So a lot of people in places that get hit by these disasters, they have really strong attachments to the places that they're from and sometimes kind of perversely living through this disaster kind of makes people more attached to the place because they put in the work to try to rebuild and they see their community kind of come together and they don't wanna leave.
And usually it's an economic strain, you know, the difficulty in finding housing or the difficulty in paying to rebuild one's house that makes people say "okay, well we just can't afford to stay here so we've gotta try to find somewhere else to go".
I think the Keys were typical in this way because there's a spectrum in where people end up, some people wanted to stay in Florida, they wanted to move to a place that was relatively similar to the one they were leaving, but just slightly less risky, right?
So they moved inland to Tampa, which is where I'm from.
It doesn't face quite the same degree of risk from sea level rise in hurricanes or Orlando, which is inland.
So it's more insulated, but others said, "look, I was so traumatized by this that I don't ever want to go through it again".
So at least a few people that I spoke to, they all ended up in Asheville, North Carolina, which if you don't like hurricanes is a great place to go.
But other people sort of scattered all over the country.
Some people did a sort of reverse snowbird thing and they went back to the upper Midwest where they were from originally.
But there's a wide variety of outcomes.
And it does depend, I think, on your income level and how much equity you have in your home, if you don't have a lot and you don't have the resources to make a long-term move, you just kind of end up going as close as you can to where you were before and sort of scraping by until you can put down roots.
- So Jake, from the Keys, you brought us across the country to Santa Rosa, California, where the issue there appears to be not so much too much water, but not enough where there's a great risk of wildfire.
Are these two sides of the same coin?
I guess that's the question.
Is it we're gonna have too much water in some places and not enough in others?
- Yeah, it certainly seems that way, right?
As soon as you get west of the Rockies, nobody's really complaining historically about having too much water.
Although this year of course in California there's tons of water and they don't know where to put it all.
I mean, I think that there's a, you can sort of look at it as when you have warmer temperatures, sort of two things happen, right?
In some places, warmer air can hold more moisture so you get bigger storms and more convective storms that can create these sort of giant impacts.
And the hurricanes stay stronger for longer.
But when you don't have these big rainstorms, like the ones that hit California this summer, in general, the air gets more arid and it dries out vegetation, right?
And so you get these sort of big swings between wet and dry.
And in California, in Santa Rosa in 2017, actually it's a perfect example of this because there was a big storm in early 2017 and it made all the plants and shrubs grow really fast, but then it got dry and no other rain came down.
And by the time September came around, everything was just completely parched and made it basically like a tinderbox.
It was ready to blow once the fire started.
So yeah, I think you can think of it as a kind of like janus faced or sort of multiple personality thing where it's really, really wet and then it's really, really dry and you don't get the kind of equilibrium in between that keeps ecosystems stable and healthy.
- Hey Jake, so this is a little bit beyond the scope of the book because it just happened this week, but the Biden administration, the week that we're taping this proposed a new rule to possibly throttle the amount of water from the Colorado River that will be distributed to communities along that basin.
That's the first time that's happened in American history and it's a milestone of really what climate change means for folks in the American West.
I'm curious if you have given any thought or the people that you've talked to have given you any indication about how we might expect communities to respond to that sort of action from the federal government?
- Yeah, I mean, that's a really, really good question.
And I think it's worth highlighting that the federal government hasn't had to do this in the past because the seven states that rely on the river's water, they've always generally been able to come to an agreement about how to apportion the water and how to reduce their use.
And in this case, the reservoirs, the river just shrunk so fast because of the drought that everyone was kind of caught off guard.
And the Biden administration felt like they had to intervene and say "look, if you don't cut your usage, we're gonna do it for you".
So it's really too early to tell I think what the long-term impacts of this decision will be.
But I think that in Arizona and California, which are the states that are gonna probably have to take the biggest cuts, you're gonna see an accelerated shift away from agriculture, which is the largest water user that accounts for something like 70% of water use in the basin.
So I think that these cuts are gonna hit agriculture first and worst.
And there's already been a transition away from agriculture in places like Arizona, but that's gonna start happening much faster.
But then I think also though, you're gonna see developers, land investors, home builders start to reconsider how much can we grow outside of Los Angeles, outside of Phoenix?
How much water is there left?
I think what you won't probably see is people literally running out of water, you know, they turn on the taps and because of the Colorado River cuts, there's nothing there.
I think you are gonna see sort of potentially an end to this limitless sort of sun belt growth that that region has enjoyed over the past few decades.
- So check chapter six is set in Arizona, specifically not far from Phoenix, where the issue, certainly a big issue is rising temperatures and the effect on farmers and ranchers.
Tell us about two of the ranchers, Karen and Bob Falcon, who manages Diamond B Livestock.
Again, as you've done throughout the book, you use individual stories to paint the smaller picture that depicts the larger picture and it's done so well, I mean, just novelistically, but tell us about those two people and what they had to do and what their future might hold.
- Yeah, so this was a couple that raised, they raised cow steers for rodeos.
So they would sort of lend their cows out for rodeos and they sort of had a large amount of range land that they could use where the cows basically to go around and drink their water and eat their grass.
But it got so hot and so dry, there was virtually no water.
There was no food for the cows in any of the tens of thousands of acres of range land that they had access to.
So the cows, basically, they kind of took matters into their own hands or hooves as it were.
And they bucked the fence and they went and ate a neighbor's lettuce or alfalfa, I can't remember which crop, which got the Falcons in a lot of trouble.
But basically became so expensive for them to feed and water the cows because there was no natural feed and water for them, they basically had to sell them off, they took them to the stockyard and auctioned them off for basically pennies on the dollar.
And I think it's a pretty significant example of how the livestock and agriculture industries have been able to rely on, they've been able to make certain assumptions about how land works and those assumptions just aren't true anymore.
And that was what that couple experienced was that they just couldn't, it was just too dry and too hot to keep raising these cattle.
So they had they basically semi-retired.
- So aside from agriculture, the rise in temperatures is a real issue for people who are not in agriculture or farming, just the residents of Phoenix, for example.
Talk about that.
This is not simply affecting one sub segment or one segment of the population.
- I think it's an important point to highlight, right?
Because if there's a flood, the lowest lying area of a given city is gonna flood.
But if there's a heat wave, you know, like the one that happened, for instance, Chicago in 1995, or the one that happened in Portland in 2021, the whole city, you know, the whole region really bakes underneath that.
And Phoenix is a case study for this, I think, where over the next few decades, even moreso than with a hurricane or a wildfire, heat is really gonna alter people's perceptions of where they live.
Because it's not, oh, maybe there's a one in 20 chance that this happens each summer and it's a virtual certainty that the temperature gets to nearly unlivable levels each summer.
And if you don't have access to air conditioning, if you don't have a car, it's really, really, really dangerous to do ordinary things in your life, just go walk to the grocery store or go to your job.
Or if you have to work outside, let's say you're at a theme park attendant or something for more than two hours, there's a substantial health risk that that doesn't go away.
So I think that this is an existential problem for these cities.
They've spent some money on kind of infrastructure improvements to create shade or cooling centers, but there's only so much you can do when the whole world around you is hot.
So I think that it's a pretty significant downside risk for those cities over the next 50 years, Phoenix, Dallas, Houston, there's a lot of danger there.
- Jake, I'm curious, you write about this with such eloquence and elegance and the facts are there for anybody to see, but we live in a very political society and a very partisan society where the divisions around this issue in particular, at least at the policymaking level, are pretty profound.
The folks that you talk to, do you get a sense of their politics and where they shake out this issue and whether or not what they're experiencing is changing the way they view the issue?
- Yeah, that's a really good question.
And there's a huge spectrum of beliefs on this issue that I encountered.
Some people, they were pretty articulate about climate change.
They thought that what had happened to them was connected to climate change.
And some people who had undergone horrific experiences that were sort of scientifically demonstrably because of climate change, they didn't think of themselves as having been a victim of climate change.
They didn't think of themselves really as being displaced at all.
They just sort of, it wasn't really in the cards.
I did notice that in some places, specifically with regard to long-term disasters like sea level rise and drought, it did kind of alter people's perception because they could look at the water and say "look, I've been here for 40 years, I've never seen the water come that high.
And now it comes that high basically every day when the tide is up".
So that did alter people's perceptions.
But after hurricanes, wildfires, a lot of people just integrate them into their existing belief system and they're traumatized, they're victims of sort of government negligence in a lot of cases, but it doesn't really change how they view the sort of question of global warming because they can kind of incorporate it into another belief system.
- So Jake, you can't watch the news over the last many years.
You can't read a book like yours and many other books.
You can't talk to guests, we've had other guests here talking about climate change without knowing viscerally intellectually in pretty much every way that there is a huge disaster unfolding.
I'm gonna use another metaphor, it's almost like watching two trains on the same track headed toward each other and you know they're gonna crash.
And yet the response so far has been, I would say, really not up to task.
Why is that?
Why can not this country summon a significant and more enhanced better response to what is unfolding around us daily?
- That's a really, really good question.
I think there's sort of two reasons.
And one is relatively clear cut and it's just that there's a lot of gridlock in the US Congress and it's just really, really difficult to pass any kind of policy of any kind.
Obama got close with the Waxman-Markey, the Captain trade bill in 2010, but it failed.
It came very, very close, but it failed.
But it's just really, really hard to get support in the house and the Senate and the White House at the same time for anything like a comprehensive bill to transition off of fossil fuels.
And they kind of did it last summer with the inflation reduction act, it was a good first step, but even that got paired down so much because they had to cater to only what every person on the democratic side of the aisle would be willing to support.
The second reason though is that I think historically voters haven't really been willing to reward politicians for talking about the issue.
And it hasn't really been something that voters have prioritized.
That's changed a lot over the last five years.
I think you'd see far more voters, at least on the democratic side of the aisle now say that it's a key issue, that it's something that they vote based on and that they're willing to punish their elected representatives for not talking about and not acting on.
And so I think the corollary movement is even on the Republican side of the aisle, you see fewer Republicans say climate change isn't real.
Now the response is more like "well, perhaps it is real, but we don't wanna do too much about it " or "let's not crash the whole economy because of it".
So there's definitely a shift in how people are talking about the issue, but I think that the last 20 years of gridlock is in part because there just wasn't that level of public awareness and anxiety about it, frankly, that that led to sort of pressure on congressional representatives.
- So this is admittedly a grim conversation.
You though end the book with notes of optimism, notes of hope.
For the audience who hasn't had the benefit of reading the book yet, what's the source of the hope?
- Yeah, I mean I think that the status quo, the landscape of climate change has changed remarkably over the last decade in particular, over the last five to seven years, I think back in 2017, you know, at the dawn of the Trump administration, knowing that the administration was just not interested at all in acting on this issue, you could have said "look, we just don't have a pathway to get off of fossil fuels", even in the lowest hanging fruit, which is like the power sector, right?
Where we get our energy.
And now that's really, really different.
Last year renewable energy provided more of the US electricity supply than coal for the first time.
And the projections for coal, which is the dirtiest fuel, they look terrible, it really doesn't have that much longer of a lifespan.
So I think that's the easiest step, right?
Fixing agriculture, fixing the automobile industry, those are much harder.
But I think even five years ago, we would've said "look, there's just no way that we're gonna do this by 2030".
And now it looks like it's kind of a live ball that you could have more or less a carbon-free electricity sector by 2030.
And that's thanks to a lot of reasons.
That's thanks to public pressure.
It's also thanks to the cost of solar panels has gone down by a lot because sort of market reasons, things have kind of coalesced.
We've gotten really, really lucky, I think.
And there's just, there's been a kind of, I think the dam has broken on public awareness and political awareness of the problem.
And while you might not see another big bill like the inflation reduction act for a while, I think politicians are willing to be much more aggressive on this issue.
And that's because of public pressure and it's because frankly, I think there's a kind of silver lining here of all these disasters, right, where people see California go up in flames, they see sea levels rising, and this is real, and that changes the whole calculus.
So it's kind of a grim note of optimism, but it definitely is, there definitely is reason to be optimistic.
- So, Jake, we only have actually less than a minute, so I'm gonna ask a question that you could take a long time to answer, but we are one nation on earth.
This is a global issue.
What's the situation there?
What hope is there in terms of other countries that need to step up?
- [Jim] About 30 seconds, Jake.
- I think that the war in Ukraine has substantially altered the balance here as well where it's made it, there's given a substantial incentive for Europe and other countries to get off fossil fuels because they're so expensive and so unreliable.
But at these UN climate conferences, the developed nations of the world still have a lot of work to do when it comes to basically admitting to responsibility for historical emissions and providing kind of preparations to other countries that are experiencing the worst.
And that's the next big challenge, I think.
- Well, Jake, your work is substantial and significant.
Folks could find you in Grist or the book is The Great Displacement".
Jake Bittle, thank you for being with us.
That is all the time we have this week, but if you wanna know more about "Story of the Public Square", you can find us on social media or visit healthcenter.org where you can always catch up on previous episodes.
For G. Wayne Miller, I'm Jim Ludes asking you to join us again next time for more "Story in the Public Square".
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