5 Decisions Everyone Will Have to Make as Climate Change Intensifies
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5 Decisions Everyone Will Have to Make as Climate Change Intensifies

Environment Politics & Economics
5 Decisions Everyone Will Have to Make as Climate Change Intensifies

Abrahm Lustgarten is an investigative climate reporter for ProPublica and works often with the New York Times, The Atlantic, and PBS. Previously, he was a staff writer at Fortune.

Below, Abrahm shares five key insights from his new book, On the Move: The Overheating Earth and the Uprooting of America. Listen to the audio version—read by Abrahm himself—in the Next Big Idea App.

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1. We are slowly being displaced from the climate niche for human habitat.

Throughout history, people have always moved in response to their climate. But now it is different: climate change is happening faster than any previous change. The population of the planet is unfathomably larger. 200 million people inhabited the earth when the Mayan civilization collapsed. There were 4 billion people by 1980. There could be 9 to 12 billion people by the end of the century. So, I set out to investigate how many people might move, when, and to where—to tell the story of the next great human migration.

There is an optimal temperature range for human life on this planet—a climate niche—and it is shifting towards the poles. Research suggests that between one-third and one-half of humanity (two to six billion people) will face degrading climate conditions that will force them to consider migrating as a solution, and that includes about 160 million Americans. In 2020, only 1 percent of land on the planet was too hot for traditional civilization. By 2070, 19 percent of Earth’s surface could be outside of habitable parameters for human life.

There is no place in America where we won’t have to deal with climate change; it is inescapable. Large numbers of Americans are already beginning to migrate. For the past several hundred years, the climatic sweet spot in the U.S. has straddled the middle of this country, keeping the Plains fertile, and the Southeast verdant. But within the next five decades, that sweet spot is forecast to shift sharply northward, hovering over the northern Midwest and Chicago. In a more extreme warming scenario, it moves all the way to the border of Canada, and eventually, to the other side of it.

Climate models and migration data suggests that between 13 and 160 million people (up to half of all Americans) will face the kind of degrading environment that has driven historical climate-influenced migrations. At least 13 million Americans will be displaced by coastal flooding alone. This will cause a sweeping change in the shape and location of communities across America, with vast implications for politics and economy.

2. What we do next makes a huge difference.

The same data that suggests half of humanity will fall out of our climate niche also shows that enforcing aggressive policies that cut emissions now will sharply lower the number of people displaced by warming. By limiting global average temperature increases to 1.5 degrees Celsius from the 2.7 degrees we are now tracking towards, the number of global climate migrants could be reduced by half, and the number exposed to extreme heat can reduce fivefold, from 22 percent to just five percent of people on the planet.

For the U.S., there is both ample opportunity to steer what happens and to seize on the change that is going to happen if tens of millions of people move into cities and repopulate northern regions that passed their peaks decades ago. Past migrations out of the South or away from the Dust Bowl transformed American culture: our cities, music, arts, literature, sports–everything. Success in the next migration requires planning, investment, anticipation, and equity. It will demand affordable housing, infrastructure, and new schools. This can lead to new jobs, entrepreneurship, and booming growth as those things are built out.

“Success in the next migration requires planning, investment, anticipation, and equity.”

Large-scale climate driven migration within the United States is only bad news if it is ignored. Planning for it, capitalizing on it, and adjusting to it with foresight can make the United States a stronger place, full of opportunity in a warmer world.

The laws and pledges made in the U.S. so far demonstrate that while they are not painless, they are possible and have an effect: 80 percent of new energy installation is renewable and the EV battery market taking off. Evidence suggests electrifying home appliances and autos with technology already on the market could cut U.S. emissions enough to reach these global goals.

We all stand to benefit. The U.S. government estimates that holding global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius would also sharply reduce the economic fallout of climate change, allowing our GDP to grow between one and four percent faster over the next several decades.

3. Climate migration will be an economic decision, not an environmental one.

Americans will ultimately respond to environmental change when it shows up as economic change. We are talking about a slow-moving change that will accelerate and unfold over decades, but we can see the signs now.

Americans increasingly face greater personal financial risk as climate change costs soar and insurance and other policy subsidies go away. This is changing the perception of climate change from a cultural-political issue to a household economics issue. That is the shift that will transform where people choose to live.

Farm production in the U.S. has already dropped by more than 12 percent since 1961 because of warming. Scientists estimate that by 2050, Dust Bowl–era yields will become the new norm across the Great Plains, and yields in Texas could drop by 90 percent. By 2080, crop failure will spread to more than 1,900 U.S. counties—representing more than half the country. Many places will become unfarmable, and the livelihoods they make possible will disappear.

“As household utility bills skyrocket, people will find reason to move to places with more opportunities to save.”

Coastal flooding is already ten times more common than it was in 1960. The Union of Concerned Scientists estimates that more than half a million more Americans could see their homes and streets flood at least every other week before their current 30-year mortgages are paid off. Across the country, Americans are facing suddenly unaffordable insurance premiums for flooding, wind, and wildfires–or losing that coverage entirely.

The cost of and demand for energy is also shifting. Consider this: For more than 100 years, only three U.S. cities topped 105 degrees for more than a month out of the year. By the second half of this century, 152 American cities will sustain such temperatures, requiring air conditioning in homes and factories. As household utility bills skyrocket, people will find reason to move to places with more opportunities to save.

867 counties are estimated to see economic damages of greater than $1 million each year directly due to climate change by 2040. Nationally, GDP will be reduced by 1.2 percent for every degree of future warming, costing $8.4 trillion each decade by mid-century.

4. Subsidies in the U.S. have made dangerous places seem safer than they are.

Do you ever wonder why Americans live in the places they do? We’ve known about disastrous hurricanes and sea level rise for decades, and yet the population of south Florida–the most at-risk-part–has grown ten-fold. How could it be that after five straight years of headlines about record-breaking strings of 115-degree weather (so hot that airplanes can’t take off), Phoenix, Arizona remains one of the fastest-growing cities in America?

These are dangerous places to live with potentially fiscally disastrous consequences. But Americans have moved to these places and remained blind to the risk to their savings, security, and safety because a host of subsidies and policies have hidden the true costs.

In Florida, for example, after Hurricane Andrew wiped tens of thousands of properties off the map in 1992, the free market for insurance collapsed, and companies stopped offering policies. In answer, the State of Florida created its own subsidized public plan and not only guaranteed insurance to anyone who wanted it, but promised to discount it below market rates. Now 30 states have similarly subsidized plans, from Massachusetts to California. They hold trillions of dollars in liabilities that their citizens can be assessed for as disasters mount.

The cost and availability of insurance is an indispensable signal. It is one of the most explicit ways that anyone who takes out a mortgage confronts the sustainability of their environment. Subsidizing that insurance distorts the perception of the real risks people face and shifts the fiscal responsibility onto the shoulders of taxpayers.

“Nine out of the ten fastest-growing regions in the country are most at risk from climate impacts.”

The same can be said about how the federal government has piped the Colorado River over mountain ranges and hundreds of miles to deliver water into the heart of the desert, where people pay less to use it than they do in Wisconsin. Or about the ways the U.S. Department of Agriculture pays farmers income subsidies to keep growing water-intensive crops, like cotton, in the middle of the Sonoran Desert.

Americans have gravitated toward some of the country’s most dangerous environments because government-subsidized insurance schemes and incentives steer them there. Nine out of the ten fastest-growing regions in the country are most at risk from climate impacts. As those programs begin to end, Americans face greater financial risk for remaining in dangerous places and must now recalibrate those decisions.

5. This is a highly personal dilemma.

Not a day goes by that I do not dwell on the unresolved questions of how to navigate this seismic change. But as I share in the book, I have not concluded yet that I need to move. While a part of this book is about the science, another part is about the human dilemma—the painful reckoning that goes along with deciding how and where to live in the future. That’s the universal part of this story, which every single American is going to face regardless of their politics.

We all need a guidebook of sorts for how to recognize slow-moving, imperceptible change. What does that actually look like? What does experiencing such a change feel like? Those are questions I try to answer. It’s not meant to be scary. It’s meant to help you understand the context and implications of what’s unfolding in your life, and give you signposts for the decisions you will, unfortunately, be forced to make.

Many people may never move, but there are things that you and your community will have to do so that you don’t ever have to. You may want to invest. You might want to become an activist. This will show you who needs help and what issues might benefit from your contributions. You might not think small changes matter. On the Move is meant to show you the difference in results between small change and big change. You might wish to ignore climate change in its entirety. This book will show you why you can’t, but that facing it might not mean what you think.

To listen to the audio version read by author Abrahm Lustgarten, download the Next Big Idea App today:

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