Is climate change driving a wave of global migration?

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Environmental reporter for ProPublica, Abrahm Lustgarten. Photo by Lars Klove.

Climate change continues to threaten our natural world on an annual basis. Uninhabitable environments could cause the biggest migration in the US since the Great Migration. Will people move northward and east away from coastal flooding and hot temperatures?  Is climate change driving a wave of global migration? And as important as the data is about climate change...none of it matters unless it’s communicated in a way that’s relatable.

KCRW’s Jonathan Bastian talks environmental reporter for ProPublica Abrahm Lustgarten and the executive director of Covering Climate Now Mark Hertsgaard. 

The following interview excerpts have been abbreviated and edited for clarity. 

KCRW: You’ve done some incredible mapping about what uninhabitable environments  could mean especially for people who may be forced to leave areas like the south or for those that can no longer survive. What did you learn about what could be coming our way?

Abrahm Lustgarten: The project began with a global look at how climate change will force reorganization of populations. It began with the larger overarching idea that we began by asking how people will begin to experience climate change as opposed to what our focus is so often is, which is on the science of climate change on the landscape and the conditions, but less so on how we're actually going to live in the midst of it. So the global research had me thinking a lot about the transformation of communities. I live in California and found myself facing some of these things here locally so it was an obvious extension to ask how, how climate change might affect American communities. Where will we choose to continue to face these threats? Where will we choose to flee from them? And if we, if we do flee, where will we likely end up?

There are a lot of folks who do not see this is not happening and pour in money to rebuilding communities. Why is this and is this changing?

Lustgarten: Yes, increasingly, I'm anecdotally hearing that many people are thinking about moving, but that doesn't mean that this is the Exodus. It’s probably going to be a slow and subtle thing that happens over many decades. But what is changing is that sort of cost benefit analysis. We have an economic foundation to everything that we do in this country and for a long time, those economics in various ways have favored or disincentivized action on climate in terms of where and how people will live. 

What we're seeing now is the change of that whole paradigm, the costs are beginning to outweigh the subsidies that are the support base, or the the economic logic of staying put, and so how individual people respond to climate change is becoming less of a political question, less of a question of sort of faith in science and more of a pocketbook issue. 

And the more that happens, the more people will be forced to make decisions that secure their own livelihoods and that of their family. I believe that it's going to be a slow transition, but we're certainly starting to see it in the hardest hit places that have been recently subject to wildfires, or the intense flooding like Houston saw two years ago.  

Talk about some of the data and modeling you've compiled and imagine what life could be like in the next hundred years. Where are people going to be moving to? 

Lustgarten: So right now the data suggests that people who live along the west coast will face increasing fire risk. What they have experienced in the last couple years is going to get consistently, more intense, and more dramatic. People along the entire southern half of the country will face increasing heat, humidity and violence from hurricanes, like we're seeing in this record season now. Not to mention sea level rise in those coastal communities. 

The data also suggests that from southern Texas up through the Midwest, that there's going to be a dramatic loss in crop yields. The ability of the land to support the kind of large scale agriculture that so much of the American Farm industry has depended on for so long. At the same time it's going to get increasingly dangerously hot and humid, reaching as far north as Wisconsin. 

If you look at all those threats together, there's not too many places left to go. But the places those maps show as relatively unscathed are the far northwest Washington Seattle area, and then the far northern Midwest, from the Dakotas over towards Minnesota, and into Wisconsin, and the Northeast but far from the coast and as far north as possible. 

How many people could eventually move? 

Lustgarten: This is the million dollar question but to come up with our big number, we used an analysis, based off of a study that was published earlier this year in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. The study essentially defined the human niche and ideal range of temperature and precipitation on the planet that human beings have lived in for the past 6000 years. The study looks at how that niche is going to shift with a changing climate. What that means is that the people who will find themselves outside of that niche by 2070, which is what the researchers modeled, will either have to come to terms with living in an environment that's historically outside the norms for human existence, or will have to move. It doesn't predict that people will move but they'll face that question. 

If you take that data and apply it to the United States, which I believe we were the first to do, you see a shifting niche zone, from across the kind of middle part of the country now, that moves towards the northern border of Canada. And it starts to push a lot of the southern part of the country outside of the ideal zone and some of it quite extremely outside of the ideal zone. 

So to try to translate that to population effect, is a really difficult task but the general numbers that we came up with was about half of the U.S. population. We said 162 million people, which according to that data would experience some kind of decline in their environment, some of it will be drastic and  some of it will be subtle. But that's the rough estimate for how many people will not experience an improvement in their environment.

One thing you look very closely at is the importance of storytelling and how we talk about climate change in ways that resonate with people who may not agree with us? 

Mark Hertsgaard: This is a theme I've been struggling with for 30 years. As a journalist, one of our key roles is to try and communicate the important issues of our time. And one of our shortcomings has been not enough attention to storytelling and the kinds of storytelling that will really resonate with our audiences on this topic, which is odd when you think about it, because we're supposed to be professional storytellers. 

It’s getting better and I and a number of others have founded an organization called Covering Climate Now, which is a collaboration of more than 400 news outlets across the United States and around the world really committed simply to the idea of doing more and better climate coverage and that inevitably involves trying to do a better job with storytelling. I'm happy to say and grateful that KCRW is one of our 400 news outlets in Covering Climate Now.

Why do personal stories matter in this conversation in terms of communication?

Hertsgaard: If you talk to writers, pretty much in any culture, they will tell you that stories are how we human beings make sense of our realities. If you just stop and listen to your friends, your co-workers, your loved ones, whoever. they talk about their days, we're all telling stories of one kind or another. 

If we can't figure out a way for those stories, to touch one another's hearts, as well as our minds, we're not going to get very far. Sadly, that has been one of the real challenges for my colleagues in the news media, to really fulfill our responsibilities on the climate beat, which is to find a way to really tell stories that take this topic of climate change, which can so often seem complicated and scientific and wonky. That’s one of the real challenges going forward to find a way to get to the core of the story and to do it in a way that reaches the average person.

Do you have any anecdotes or stories to illustrate this point?

Hertsgaard: One of the great exemplars of climate change communication is a scientist by the name of Katharine Hayhoe. She's at Texas Tech University but she comes from Canada and she happens to be an evangelical Christian and married to an evangelical pastor. She happens to also be one of the two or three single best communicators among all the scientists I've interviewed in my 30 years on the climate beat. 

One of the things that makes Katharine such an effective communicator is that she's able to really understand where her audience is coming from and to speak to that. So when she talks about how climate change works? Why do greenhouse gases heat up the earth, she takes it to a very basic level.  She says we put these greenhouse gases up into the atmosphere by burning gasoline in our cars, or coal in our power plants. The gases go up into the atmosphere, but they get stuck in the atmosphere and the more we put up there, it's like adding more and more blankets around the planet. So just like we as humans, put on another blanket and then another blanket and then another blanket our temperatures go up, the same thing happens to the planet as we put more and more blankets of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases up into the atmosphere. 

That’s a pretty specific example of how she's able to break through the complexities of the climate problem and bring it down to a level that a six year old can understand. She doesn't get bogged down in parts per million of CO2  or 1.5 degrees celsius or all that stuff. Her point is to communicate, rather than to pontificate.

What other kinds of conversations are you hearing about climate change within the faith community in America?

Hertsgaard: One of the most interesting conversations right now is with young people, and evangelical Christians and young conservatives, who are in a split with their older generations in the church and in the Republican Party. They take science seriously and there's a group that we're working with this week at Covering Climate Now called Young Evangelicals for Climate Action and there’s other group of young republicans for climate action and they are quite boldly and bravely standing up to their elders and saying ‘look, this is not good enough, this climate denial stuff and acting like this is all a hoax. You guys are condemning us, and our hopes of ever having children to a hellish future, and we're not going to take it anymore.’ 

So much of whether a story connects with an audience is not about the story itself. It's about who is telling that story? Are they a person? Are they a messenger that the audience can hear? Precisely because they can say to their elders, ‘hey, I'm a republican to or I'm an evangelical’ they are able to open up a deeper level of communication and more honest communication because the person on the receiving end can't just you know, shuffle it off and say,  ‘that's another Al Gore liberal’. Who is the messenger is a really big part of storytelling.

Credits

Guests:
Abrahm Lustgarten - ProPublica - @AbrahmL, Mark Hertsgaard - Nation magazine - @markhertsgaard

Host:
Jonathan Bastian

Producer:
Andrea Brody