Climate change and American life on the margins

In my work, I travel to a lot of the weird, funky places that humans have found a way to live, from the extreme desert that surrounds Las Vegas to the arctic tundra of Alaska to the stormwracked coast of Louisiana.

Two things that come clear in these travels. First, we are beautifully adaptable. We are what biologists call generalists. We can eke out an existence almost anywhere, subsisting on almost any kind of food.

When British explorers first pushed into the high arctic, they were shocked to find Inuit people living comfortably, even casually, in a landscape that to outside eyes seemed impossibly barren.

I felt something of the same culture shock when I was traveling recently in Kansas, where temperatures soared each day during my trip into the triple digits.

One dusky evening, I was driving and saw a bank sign with a thermometer that still read 107 degrees, even though the sun had dipped below the horizon.

Why do people live here? I thought. And more to the point:  How do people live here?

That question has become more pressing in this age of climate change, when NOAA researchers and other scientists warn that changing weather patterns — including summer heatwaves — are sort of like an athlete on steroids.

Here’s an excerpt from the latest study:

We found that extreme heat events were roughly 20 times more likely in 2008 than in other La Niña years in the 1960s and indications of an increase in frequency of low seasonal precipitation totals.

[C]onditions leading to droughts such as the one that occurred in Texas in 2011 are, at least in the case of temperature, distinctly more probable than they were 40-50 years ago.

Projected change in annual temperature for the 2080s in the Northeast relative to the 1980s baseline period. (NYSERDA Report: “Response to Climate Change in New York,” November 2011)

For many of us, these slight shifts won’t be catastrophic. A few more really hot days each year? No big deal. One or two measurably bigger storms each season? Not a life-changer.  A few less inches of rain?  Survivable.

But for many of the Americans who already live on the margins, in places that are vulnerable to weather or offer barely enough water for survival, these slight variations will likely be game-changers.

What will happen in places like Arizona, Kansas, and West Texas if there are just a couple inches less rain a year? Or a dozen more days with temperatures int he triple digits?

What happens if the already fragile Colorado River dries up, leaving tens of millions of Americans without a reliable source of electricity or water?

What happens if the number and severity of storms slamming against communities along the Gulf Coast increases just a little?

Some climate change skeptics have suggested that huge amounts of warming would be needed before the warming trend affects our economy, our lives, even our safety, in significant ways.

My point is that a lot of us already live in places where we are pushing the envelope.  We occupy ecological niches that were sketchy for humans from the outset, with very little margin for error.

For those communities, the climate tipping point might be much closer than we like to think.

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47 Comments on “Climate change and American life on the margins”

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  1. mervel says:

    Also how much will we as a country spend, making sure that people can live in those areas? How many times will we re-build with taxpayer dollars massive forest fire damage for example, or spend huge amounts making sure that people living in coastal areas can stay there? In the desert we already have massive cities, I think Phoenix is the 5th or 6th largest city in the whole country. My guess is that these places will end up being all of our problems.

  2. Paul says:

    I think it is interesting that some environmental groups right now are pushing for zoning changes in the Adirondacks that would cluster development in the already developed hamlet areas. The lowland areas that are all close to the water. Is that a good idea?

  3. Pete Klein says:

    Yes, the climate is changing. Before you know it the leaves will start changing color and it will be autumn followed by winter.

  4. Alan Gregory says:

    Putting new development inside an existing municipality’s lines, or better yet rehabbing existing development, are solid ways of making a town/community more walkable and getting people out of their cars, cars which are a big part of the carbon dioxide problem.

  5. mervel says:

    The heat is a loop that feeds on itself though. How do you live when it is 110 degrees F out? The same way you live when it is 30 below zero F out, you go inside and run your heating and cooling systems.

  6. Paul says:

    Alan, that may be true but when much of your municipality is right next to a river or lake you may be asking for trouble. For example Saranac Lake, Lake Placid, Tupper Lake, Old Forge, Long Lake, Cranberry Lake, Indian Lake…. You get the point.

  7. Walker says:

    When French Hill, Helen Hill and the sides of Mt. Pisgah flood, the U.S. is going to be in really deep trouble, Paul. As you know, most of Saranac Lake is not flood prone.

  8. Saw an article today about how the corporate media gives more coverage to the Kardashians than climate change. Only in America would more people believe the Kardashians are real than climate change.

  9. Paul says:

    Walker, I thought that you lived there? The whole main drag is on the river. The bridge that goes over the dam that holds back the lake had water pushing against it last August as you probably remember. Cluster development in these general areas. Maybe not such a good idea.

  10. Paul says:

    Also, there has been some strong opposition to the upland development that has been done on Mt. Pisgah as I recall? So they are saying keep the development in town and off the higher ground. That may not fit well with a changing climate?

  11. Walker says:

    Paul, I do live there. Main Street and Church Street were high and dry for the most part. It was really only the houses as businesses right on the river that had any flooding– I would guess we’re talking way under five percent of the village’s buildings. There are plenty of rehab opportunities in the area that are well above any flooding issues (think of the Frank Trudeau house in Glenwood that went for something under $70,000 recently). There’s really not much land in the village that could conceivably be developed that is flood prone. Correct me if I’m wrong.

    As for the higher ground, there is one house in particular built very high on Mt. Pisgah, all of 60 feet below the summit, that you can see from most of Lower Saranac Lake. But I’m not aware of any objections to houses being built on the north side of Pisgah, or Dewey for that matter.

    Seems like you’re creating a straw man here.

  12. Walker says:

    Oops, make that “houses and businesses.”

  13. mervel says:

    OK but in mountains, isn’t building on slopes and steep grades the problem if we are entering into a flood prone climate? It just seems like the big problems from the last floods and rains came for people who’s homes were sliding down the mountains not from those in the villages proper?

    The bigger issue for most of the US is going to be living in areas where there is simply not enough water to support the population AND big agriculture. The Colorado would have plenty of water for drinking and home use if half of the available water or more, was not being used to irrigate farms in the middle of a desert.

    Taxpayers are supporting the sustaining of a huge dairy industry in the desert. Dairy naturally belongs in a climate like ours, not in the desert. Those are the kind of things that I think really need to be looked at as we enter a new climate phase.

    As usual it will come down to power and money.

  14. Walker says:

    “OK but in mountains, isn’t building on slopes and steep grades the problem if we are entering into a flood prone climate?”

    Yes, but there is still plenty of developable land in and near existing communities that is neither flood-prone, nor on mountainsides. There are also many rehab opportunities, not to mention extreme rehab, i.e., scrape off and build anew.

    As for the support of the meat and dairy industries, you’re right. We shouldn’t be eating so much meat and dairy anyway– there’s a strong case to be made that our skyrocketing medical costs can be laid largely at the feet of our food industries– see The China Study.

  15. mervel says:

    woooo now; Walker dairy is one of the largest industries in the NC. I know that we eat too much dairy in some ways, but dairy is also healthy in many other ways, milk is good for you. Too much cheese not so much. The French are doing ok they like their dairy.

  16. mervel says:

    The point is that dairy takes quite a bit of water and the best places are cool and wet, and thus dairy naturally was done in the northeast and places like Wisconsin upper midwest etc. The desert is the last place you would naturally want to produce dairy, unless you can get cheap subsidized water, which is crazy when we are entering a period or generation of more drought.

  17. Paul says:

    “still plenty of developable land”

    Zoning and planning for a more extreme climate are long-term issues as you know.

    Look at all the issues that came with the extreme weather last August in Saranac Lake and Tupper Lake. All the houses don’t have to be inundated with water for things to get bad. Also climate scientists are telling us that this may just be a taste for what is to come. I think in the very long term these may not be ideal places to be clustering development that is all.

    Last time I check Saranac Lake’s sewage treatment facility and now its new water source are right on the banks of the Saranac River.

  18. knuckleheadedliberal says:

    Mervel, A big part of the problem is that people try to adjust the environment to suit themselves rather than adjust their behavior to suit the environment.

    I lived in Arizona for a few years and did construction work, outdoors, year round.
    In the summer we would start work at sunrise and work 2/3 of our day before we took lunch. After lunch we didn’t have too long of a stretch until quitting time. When you are out in the heat as it gradually rises you adjust to the heat. But if you stayed in an airconditioned home or office until 9 or 10 o’clock and went outside it felt like a furnace. I never had an air conditioner in Arizona and rarely felt I needed one. Our work trucks didn’t have air conditioning. 3 of us would pile into the cab of an f-250 and roll down the windows.

    One problem Arizona had was that people would move there for the desert air then they would plant gardens with species that didn’t belong there causing allergy problems for the people who moved to the desert to get away from those very same plants. The same plants that needed too much water that AZ didn’t have. Another, so many pools and golf courses have been built in and around Phoenix that they have high heat AND increased humidity. Evaporation is making Phoenix humid.

  19. Walker says:

    “I think in the very long term these may not be ideal places to be clustering development that is all.”

    Your idea for a better place to practice clustering would be…?

    “Saranac Lake’s sewage treatment facility and now its new water source are right on the banks of the Saranac River.”

    Well, yes, and that’s an issue that needs to be addressed. But once it is addressed, Saranac Lake will remain a good place to cluster new and rehab development.

  20. knuckleheadedliberal says:

    And when does it get 30 below around here anymore? Not often.

  21. Walker says:

    Er, as to the new water source being right on the river, no, it’s a good two hundred feet above the river, at the bottom of the Mt. Pisgah ski area.

  22. Walker says:

    “I know that we eat too much dairy in some ways, but dairy is also healthy in many other ways, milk is good for you.”

    Mervel, go to the library, take out a copy of The China Study, read it, and then tell me that milk is good for you.

    You are often saying that we can’t solve the problem of our rising health care costs. Well, getting rid of the meat and dairy industries’ strangle hold government health advisories could go a long way toward a solution, not that there’s any hope of that happening any time soon.

  23. Paul says:

    “Er, as to the new water source being right on the river, no, it’s a good two hundred feet above the river, at the bottom of the Mt. Pisgah ski area.”

    I guess the “Er” is caused by your confusion. From the ADE:

    “crews will work over the next week to put in the last sections of pipe for the water project, in which the village’s water source, currently McKenzie Pond, will be replaced by a pair of wells behind the village wastewater treatment plant.”

    I thought you said you lived there??

  24. Walker says:

    Oops! I was thinking of the storage tanks. But Paul, they’re artesian wells. Flooding really shouldn’t be an issue.

  25. Walker says:

    Besides, Paul, think about what you’re saying: if the wastewater plant and village wells won’t handle expected flooding, then the entire village is in trouble. Adding a few more clustered developments won’t really matter compared to the problems of the existing five thousand residents. Any problems with our fresh and waste water systems will simply have to be solved.

  26. Paul says:

    Yes, apparently these are excellent wells (despite the creepy proximity to the sewage plant!). I would not be too comfortable if the wells had lots of less than clean Saranac River water flowing over the tops of them. My point, that you so quickly attacked for some odd reason, was just that these are issues that need to be dealt with, and we have consistently built these towns and their infrastructure very close to the water where the issues are more complex. As the climate changes and we see more severe weather as predicted these could become real problems. So like I said originally, the idea of clustering development in these areas may be less than ideal somewhere out in the not-too-distant future.

  27. Walker says:

    Paul, seriously, if any problems with any existing communities’ infrastructure that come from increased flooding are going to have to be dealt with anyway, those potential problems are not a good reason to avoid adding clustered developments that will depend on that infrastructure.

  28. mervel says:

    Knuckle I agree about trying to force the environment to suite ourselves rather than vice versa.

    We will pay the price.

    I know I go on like a broken record sometimes, but what really bugs me is federally backed insurance and bail out programs for people (usually wealthy) who build these fabulous homes in eco-sensitive areas such as a beach, a mountain top, a barrier island, a wetland, a swamp etc, and then when of course private insurers say no way are we going to insure you, our tax dollars are used to give them insurance or subsidies.

    Fine if you want to raise cotton or dairy in the desert go for it, but don’t ask to use the little precious water available from commonly held water resources, rely on the rain and the environment. If you want to live on a mountain top or a barrier island fine, but you must bear the risk by yourself of that decision.

    I think what we are going to see with rising sea levels are all of these coastal dwellers wanting us to bail them out as the sea causes them tons of problems.

  29. mervel says:

    The answer is going to be move and adjust and many people who are living in these areas are going to lose a lot of money, that is when they will want the taxpayers to help them. Don’t buy Florida real estate was not wrong 70 years ago and it is not wrong today.

  30. Paul says:

    I think that you may be better off in some areas having development in other areas even if that means they need to be off the grid and independent from some of this infrastructure.

    If you want to cluster you may need to do it on higher ground. The days of needing to be close to the river near the sawmill are probably over.

  31. Paul says:

    “but you must bear the risk by yourself of that decision.” I agree. We already have this when we choose to locate in some areas of the Adirondacks. If the places I have catch fire nobody is going to get there before it is all gone anyway. Look at it as pioneer spirit! Have a good weekend.

  32. Paul says:

    I know a developer that bought some land in Dayton Beach back in 2007 for 11 million. He just sold it for 1.7 million. Live and learn. No taxpayer bailout for him!

  33. JDM says:

    “We occupy ecological niches that were sketchy for humans from the outset, with very little margin for error.”

    If this were true, it would not be very smart. We know about earthquakes, and in the past 100 years, have designed buildings to withstand earthquakes in areas where there is little “margin for error”.

    As we get more data in about climate change, the same design changes can be put in place. It’s really not that big of a deal.

  34. mervel says:

    So why did we re-build New Orleans? It’s built in a river delta that is going to continue to flood and be impacted by increasingly severe storms; we know that is going to happen. Now I agree I think that we may be able to adjust with design changes etc. for some of these areas.

    The fact is we are looking at possibly large changes needed in where we choose to live. As Paul points out if individuals following their pioneer spirit wish to buy and build in these areas I think that is fine as long as they totally bear the risk. But don’t expect federal flood insurance programs or massive federal disaster help when the same things happen over and over again.

    We encourage people building in areas that are not sound nor prudent for building with these sorts of programs.

  35. mervel says:

    Barrier Islands are being hurt by these guys building their expensive beach homes on them and then we subsidize them by providing them with federal help in both insurance and disaster relief. Private insurers will not even insure many of these coastal areas for floods, you can’t buy flood insurance at all in some of these areas. This would normally be a message, don’t build there. But what happens is the US government comes in and says we will provide it.

  36. Larry says:

    So, you don’t like federally backed insurance programs or tax dollars being spent to subsidize people who can’t get insurance from private carriers? Not exactly the same, I know, just sayin……

  37. mervel says:

    ahahah, well I think there may be somewhat of a comparison. The key is what are the incentives for risk taking or making bad decisions? I would agree that the government should take a very careful look at how any public insurance program is structured.

  38. Pete Klein says:

    Thought you might like to know but if you would like to cool off, take a trip to Vostok, Antarctica where it is -89 and expected to drop to -105 in a couple of days.

  39. knuckleheadedliberal says:

    Degrees F or C?

  40. tootightmike says:

    If you look at a globe…the kind we all had in school…the actual zone that we ALL live in is as thin as the varnish that holds the paper intact. We are generalists. We can survive in a wide array of earthly environments, but truly, that is a very narrow band. Stay for more than a few minutes at the top of Everest and you’re dead. Walk into the desert outside of Phoenix and you’re dead shortly after you run out of water. Move to Nigeria and try to survive without money for a few days…the dogs will gnaw your bones.
    All of these marginal places like Las Vegas and Phoenix can exist only because of outside assistance…water from the mountains a hundred miles away, food from the mid-west, gas and electricity from distant places. When these resources begin to fail, and they will with a few more degrees of change, there will be a major disturbance to human activity in the entire south-west.
    If Cuomo allows the gas interests to jeopardize New York’s water resource, we’ll be screwed too.

  41. tootightmike says:

    When I came here thirty years ago, I was very keen to build a house that could withstand -40 temperatures without breaking the bank. Only thirty years later, it has become more important to design houses and neighborhoods that can remain habitable at 100 degrees. Simply buying another air conditioner isn’t an option for anyone on a budget, and all those machines chugging away only exacerbate the climate change problems worse.
    The intense cold of winter is harsh, but the summer heat makes people crazy.

  42. mervel says:

    So what will happen do you think toottight if you see major disturbances due to water shortages in Phoenix or Las Vegas? Will we say you know you have far too many people living there and many of you should move?

    From what I have read, there is actually enough water to support those places as far as human consumption goes. The big thing particularly for cities dependent on the Colorado (not las vegas), is agricultural use of the water.

    It is very interesting right now. We have this changing weather and more heat, at the same time we are in the midst of a major oil and gas boom in this country. We are talking a game changer as far as that goes. So you just pour on the fossil fuels to keep people cool.

  43. Pete Klein says:

    Knuck, that’s F degrees.
    I’ve always been fascinated by weather/climate. Interesting how F & C agree at -40.
    Just saw on Channel 10 weather info for today that back in 1936 the OK state had 113 stations reporting highs of about 108 F.
    Personally, I remember the 50’s as having a lot of hot weather. My grandmother used to blame all the hot, crazy weather on the testing of atomic bombs.
    I distinctly remember July 1966 when living in NYC and we had several days above 100 and it topped out at 107.
    I didn’t have air conditioning so spent much of my time in the bathtub trying to stay cool.

  44. tootightmike says:

    When you leave Tucson, and head for the airport in Phoenix, you can see this huge, hundred mile plume of vapor and fumes rising from Phoenix. The entire culture there is auto and gasoline, air conditioning and watered golf courses. There is no natural place for humans there except the few hundred native Americans that lived in the deep canyons. It’s beautiful, but no one should have ever built an artificial city there.

  45. mervel says:

    Not only is Phoenix a city, it is the 6th largest city in the country.

  46. mervel says:

    Of the top 20 cities, 6 are in one state.

  47. mervel says:

    El Paso Texas, actually kind of a cool city is bigger than Seattle, Boston and Detroit. El Paso does not have a lot of water.

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