By Jeff Goodell
Hurricane Harvey, which hit Texas and Louisiana last August, causing $125 billion in damage, dumped more water out of the sky than any storm in U.S. history. By one calculation, roughly a million gallons fell for every person in Texas. The water rained down on a flat former bayou that had become a concrete and asphalt empire of more than 2.3 million people. Highways turned into rivers and shopping malls into lakes. As the water rose, people scrambled for safe refuge – into attics, onto rooftops and overpasses. A Texas game warden captured a nine-foot-long alligator in the dining room of a home near Lake Houston. Snakes swam into kitchens. A hawk flew into a taxicab and wouldn’t leave.
As the deluge continued, tens of thousands of people fled – some in fishing boats down suburban streets, some in canoes, some on Jet Skis. Others risked a harrowing drive through water, fallen trees and swimming dogs. More than 30,000 people ended up in shelters. Thousands more headed up Interstate 45, toward Dallas, where parking lots at IHOPs and McDonalds were full of desperate people wondering how their suburban neighborhoods had turned into Waterworld. Many of them lived in their cars until the floods receded, and eventually returned to devastated homes.
In 2017, a string of climate disasters – six big hurricanes in the Atlantic, wildfires in the West, horrific mudslides, high-temperature records breaking all over the country – caused $306 billion in damage, killing more than 300 people. After Hurricane Maria, 300,000 Puerto Ricans fled to Florida, and disaster experts estimate that climate and weather events displaced more than 1 million Americans from their homes last year. These statistics don’t begin to capture the emotional and financial toll on survivors who have to dig through ashes and flooded debris to rebuild their lives. Mental-health workers often see spikes in depression, PTSD and suicides in the months that follow a natural disaster. After Harvey, one study found that 30 percent of residents in flooded areas had fallen behind on their rent or mortgage. One in four respondents said they were having problems paying for food.
Politicians inevitably vow to rebuild, to make their city stronger than before. But in the coming years, as the climate gets hotter, the seas keep rising and storms grow more intense, those vows will become less and less credible. Climate change is going to remap our world, changing not just how we live but where we live. As scientist Peter Gleick, co-founder of the Pacific Institute, puts it, “There is a shocking, unreported, fundamental change coming to the habitability of many parts of the planet, including the U.S.A.”
In the not-so-distant future, places like Phoenix and Tucson will become so hot that just walking across the street will be a life-threatening event. Parts of the upper Middle West will become a permanent dust bowl. South Florida and low-lying sections of the Gulf Coast will be underwater. Some people may try to stick around and fight it out with Mother Nature, but most will not. “People will do what they have done for thousands of years,” says Vivak Shandas, a professor of urban studies and planning at Portland State University. “They will migrate to better climates.”
One recent study in the journal Nature Climate Change predicts that by 2050, as much as 30 percent of the world’s land surface could face desertlike conditions, including large swaths of Asia, Europe, Africa and southern Australia. More than 1.5 billion people currently live in these regions. In the U.S., a recent study by Mathew Hauer, a demographer at the University of Georgia, estimates that 13 million people will be displaced by sea-level rise alone by the year 2100 (about the number of African-Americans who moved out of the South during the Great Migration of the 20th century). In Hauer’s study, about 2.5 million will flee the region that includes Miami, Fort Lauderdale and West Palm Beach. Greater New Orleans loses up to 500,000 people; the New York City area loses 50,000. The biggest winners are nearby cities on high ground with mild climates, good infrastructure and strong economies: Atlanta; Austin; Madison, Wisconsin; and Memphis.
“Most people don’t realize how much climate affects everything, from their property values to how hard people work,” says Solomon Hsiang, a professor of public policy at the University of California, Berkeley, who led a recent study that predicts, as the climate warms, there will be “a large transfer of value northward and westward.” And the wealthy, who can afford to adapt, will benefit, while the poor, who will likely be left behind, will suffer. “If we continue on the current path,” Hsiang says, “our analysis suggests that climate change may result in the largest transfer of wealth from the poor to the rich in the country’s history.”
The Southeast will be the biggest loser due to damage from increased flooding, higher heat mortality and lower agricultural yield – in some of the poorest counties in the region, the study predicts, income will fall by up to one-third. In contrast, the Northwest will see increased agricultural yields, lower energy costs (due to milder winters) and higher worker productivity. “The lesson of this study is, the future looks good for the Pacific Northwest, especially cities west of the Cascades, like Seattle and Portland,” says Hsiang’s co-author Amir Jina, an economist at the University of Chicago. “For the Southeast, it’s not a very pretty picture.”
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