The U.S. smashed records this year, and not in a good way.
The Gulf and Atlantic coasts have been hit by ten major tropical cyclones so far, breaking a record that’s stood since 1916. Louisiana alone was hit four times. There have been so many hurricanes that we’ve exhausted the letter names and dipped into the Greek alphabet. We’re up to Tropical Storm Epsilon, which ties the all-time record in 2005, and hurricane season still has more than a month to go.
On the West Coast, things haven’t been better. California has been suffering its worst wildfire season ever, with more than 4 million acres burned, double the previous record from 2018. Of the six largest fires in California’s history, five happened in 2020, including the August Complex, the single largest fire the state has ever seen. Record-breaking fires have also burned in Washington, Oregon and Colorado. Plumes of smoke have blotted out the sun and turned the sky eerie orange up and down the coast.
This is what climate change feels like. In our heedlessness, we’ve pushed the Earth out of balance, disrupting the stable and predictable patterns our civilization was built to depend on. Hot, dry places are becoming hotter and drier; wet, stormy places are becoming wetter and stormier. And even if humanity ceased all our carbon emissions tomorrow, the momentum already baked in means that these changes will continue and will accelerate.
Before long, millions of people may have no choice but to move. That’s the thesis of a major article in ProPublica, “Climate Change Will Force a New American Migration“.
The author writes that, until now, America’s wealth has allowed us to put off the day of reckoning. State-subsidized insurance policies rebuild houses that repeatedly burn in wildfires or flood in hurricanes. They enable people to keep living in places where, by all economically rational standards, human settlements shouldn’t exist:
Thanks to federally subsidized canals, for example, water in part of the Desert Southwest costs less than it does in Philadelphia. The federal National Flood Insurance Program has paid to rebuild houses that have flooded six times over in the same spot. And federal agriculture aid withholds subsidies from farmers who switch to drought-resistant crops, while paying growers to replant the same ones that failed. Farmers, seed manufacturers, real estate developers and a few homeowners benefit, at least momentarily, but the gap between what the climate can destroy and what money can replace is growing.
But no matter how rich we are, we can’t outspend the climate. We depend on nature to supply the resources that make human life possible. No amount of capitalist ingenuity can replace that, any more than the most brilliant architect can build a house floating in the air without a foundation.
As climate change gets worse, the strain is going to grow. Across the South, extreme heat may make it unbearable, even deadly to be outside for most of the year. Megadroughts will wither crops and destroy agriculture, bringing about a new Dust Bowl. Along the coasts, rising seas will swamp cities, or force them to build seawalls at colossal expense. Cities foolishly built in the middle of deserts, dependent on water from distant mountain snowfall, will desiccate. Even in the Midwest, cities and towns built on river flood plains will suffer more frequent, more destructive flooding.
Sooner or later, this balance is going to shift, and when it does, the change will be catastrophic. Billions of dollars in real estate will become stranded assets overnight, mortgages will be defaulted on, and banks will collapse. People who live in these areas won’t be able to sell their homes or business. They’ll become refugees in their own country, moving north to seek more hospitable places:
Once-chilly places like Minnesota and Michigan and Vermont will become more temperate, verdant and inviting. Vast regions will prosper; just as Hsiang’s research forecast that Southern counties could see a tenth of their economy dry up, he projects that others as far as North Dakota and Minnesota will enjoy a corresponding expansion. Cities like Detroit; Rochester, New York; Buffalo and Milwaukee will see a renaissance, with their excess capacity in infrastructure, water supplies and highways once again put to good use. One day, it’s possible that a high-speed rail line could race across the Dakotas, through Idaho’s up-and-coming wine country and the country’s new breadbasket along the Canadian border, to the megalopolis of Seattle, which by then has nearly merged with Vancouver to its north.
It’s not just rich Americans who are suffering. Sierra magazine ran a story about climate migrants in Central America, profiling the Herrera Escobars, a family of farmers in the town of San Francisco Las Flores in Guatemala. Here, too, climate change has been devastating, wiping out whole villages of people who barely make a living from agriculture:
Guatemala and El Salvador are ranked by researchers as among the countries most vulnerable to natural disasters, and Honduras is among those most affected by climate change. All three countries belong to what is known as the Dry Corridor, which has seen increasingly extreme droughts and erratic rainfall. Life across the region, especially for people who rely on the land, has become in many places almost unbearable.
…In 2018, drought caused severe crop losses in the Dry Corridor, prompting El Salvador and Honduras to announce a state of emergency. The 2018 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report also anticipated a higher risk of crop-destroying pests and diseases, like the ones Ronny and his family were seeing more of in their fields. Throughout the three countries affected, losses in bean and corn crops planted by subsistence farmers ranged from 75 to 100 percent.
In a bid for survival, the Herrera Escobars went through a border-crossing ordeal. They were preyed on by gangs and human traffickers, imprisoned in squalid conditions by the Border Patrol, and ultimately came up against a wall of court hearings that leave poor refugees and asylum-seekers with virtually no chance of gaining legal entry.
Eventually, they gave up and returned to their home country, trying again to make a living from farming at the mercy of the climate. But as conditions get worse, more and more people will seek refuge in the U.S, whether legally or extralegally. If the numbers grow large enough, no border or legal system will be able to prevent them.
As stories like these show, it’s too late to head off the climate crisis. In the next few decades, human civilization is going to face unprecedented disaster and disruption. However, that doesn’t mean we have to surrender to futility.
The best thing we can do now is to ensure a just and equitable transition into the changed world that’s coming. By building stronger safety nets and passing a Green New Deal, we can cushion the economic fallout and help displaced people get back on their feet. By opening our borders, we can give refuge to people from poorer countries who are fleeing their homes because of choices that rich countries made.
Most important, we can choose to minimize the damage. The faster we decarbonize the world economy, the more we can keep things from getting any worse than they already are.
China has pledged to become carbon-neutral by 2060, a huge and very welcome step. Solar and wind are now cheaper than coal and gas in most of the world, and the renewable advantage will only continue to grow. Even in holdouts like the U.S., change is coming faster than you think: coal plants and coal mines are dying faster than ever, even with a pollution-friendly administration trying to keep them on life support.
That changed world on the horizon doesn’t have to be all calamity. We can use this crisis to build a better, more utopian future for our species. It can be a world of blue skies and clean air, regenerating forests and rewilded countrysides, eco-friendly megacities powered by the sun. It can be an era where we find new prosperity and peace as we atone for the errors of the past. The choice is still in our hands.