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The Heat Death of the American Frontier
Getting ready for another Great Migration.
It’s long been clear that we allow ourselves to ignore climate change because it moves slow enough to make ignoring it possible. That’s a relative statement, of course. It moves fast in the geological sense, but slow in the sense of “What do you want to do next Friday night?” Intellectually and scientifically we—or the people who run the world, at least—have known perfectly well for decades that climate change was happening, and why, and that it would do bad things. But, inconveniently, acting on the implications of that knowledge would negatively impact an enormous amount of short term private sector profits. So those private sector interests arranged to have the whole thing dismissed, and purchased an amount of skepticism just sufficient enough to allow politicians to do nothing, and to render the general public confused. At the root of the success of this now-familiar strategy is the fact that climate change’s damages play out over decades, but profits can be made every day. This gap was reason enough to shove the entire thing as far back in the closet as possible, and take the money and run in the meantime. The majority of the people who profited the most by knowingly ignoring climate change will have lived comfortable lives and died in peace before the planetary bill comes due.
There is a term in the investment world for the unwise but irresistible temptation to snatch easy short term profits in defiance of inevitable long term disaster: “Picking up pennies in front of a steamroller.” All those free pennies—so easy to grab!—until the day that you trip and fall and are flattened into asphalt. This concept is often invoked to describe the type of behavior rampant on Wall Street in the runup to the Great Recession, when everyone kept throwing money into the housing bubble even after it became clear that sooner or later it would pop. But probably not today! In the case of climate change, this basic greedy impulse is heightened by the fact that for the past 40 years or so it has been possible for fossil fuel companies, for example, to roar ahead in defiance of science secure in the knowledge that the negative effects of climate change that they were exacerbating would be too subtle, too disparate, for the general public to pin the blame on them. The pennies were $100 bills, and the steamroller seemed very far away.
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Those glory days may be over. It’s always been intriguing to think about what the actual tipping point for the climate change issue would be in the sense of public consciousness—the point at which the crisis feels so immediate that it overwhelms the public desire to overconsume and the business campaign to avoid the issue and forces serious political action. Natural disasters, unfortunately, are not good candidates to bring this change about. Even as they increase in pace and intensity, they still arrive at intervals unpredictable enough to be rationalized away. Florida is essentially a pinata for hurricanes, but any given coastal town in Florida can still go decades without a direct hit. Miami hasn’t been truly slammed since Hurricane Andrew in 1992. Katrina devastated New Orleans, but the city has recovered. Wildfires are like this too. It is dangerous for people to live in fire prone areas of the West, but the risk in any individual season is low enough that the gamble feels justified. Plus, these disasters have always been present in these areas. They possess a certain normality. Their climate change-induced increase is an intellectual argument that can be dismissed by people inclined to embrace inertia. Insurance rates may be an economic stick that pushes people away from these areas, but that is different than an immediate threat that forces those people to demand urgency in addressing climate change itself, rather than just demanding mitigation of its superficial economic effects.
Likewise, sea level rise, for all of its potential economic devastation, is a direct threat primarily to those who live on the water. Their neighbors just a little bit inland may feel superficially safe as the waves claim the million-dollar beachfront homes. If you are looking for something to prod us into action now, the slow advance of the waters is a poor candidate.
But heat. Heat is different. Heat comes for everyone. It blankets entire cities, states, regions. It does not touch one home and leave a neighbor’s unscathed. Nor does it arrive unpredictably. The heat will come, you can be sure, every summer. And it will reliably get hotter. And hotter. And hotter. There is no hope that it will disappear for the next few years, or offer a period of respite. The heat will come. It will keep coming. And a population raised in air conditioned bubbles will be pushed towards the recognition that you cannot air condition the entire world.
For the past week, you could have put your finger on the northern border of South Carolina and traced a line heading west, following the northern borders of Georgia and Mississippi and Alabama and Arkansas and Oklahoma and New Mexico and Arizona and Nevada and slicing through California to the sea, and every single state under that line would have been dealing with 100-degree temperatures. The heat is here. As has long been predicted, what were once extremes are quickly becoming the new normal. And at these temperatures, the ability of the population to enjoy their lives changes.
When I grew up in Florida, it was hot. But when I go to Florida in the summer now, I notice that people have begun staying inside throughout the hottest hours of the daytime—the pattern of life in the desert, arriving at the beach. This is new. Think about the regions that are most affected by the increasing heat: Florida. Texas. The deep South. Southern California. The “Sun Belt” of the West. We are talking about the parts of the country that represent its growth over the past century. We are talking about the modern American frontier. These are the places that have sprouted and become boom towns and absorbed tens of millions of transplants from colder and more expensive states. Phoenix and Vegas and Los Angeles and Dallas and Houston and Austin and Atlanta and Tampa and Miami. These are the places that owe their success to the promise of cheap housing and available jobs and plentiful sunshine, the places that represent relief and affordability and easier living to generations of Americans tired of crowded and cold and sometimes poverty stricken cites. These are the places that have allowed America to remake itself anew. They have served as a valve that releases all of the pent up pressure of a growing population. In the midst of a punishing national housing shortage, many of the metro areas permitting and building the most new homes are the same places most exposed to the life-threatening new normal of heat. It is possible for politicians and developers and wealthy home buyers to plug their ears and cover their eyes and continue flocking to Miami Beach in defiance of hurricane risk. But the heat is going to change things. It is going to change the entire US of A.
The heat is drying up the Colorado River, which supplies water for 40 million people in the West. The heat both strains the electric grid and makes blackouts a life or death issue, as people will die if their air conditioning stops. The heat is already costing cities like Houston and Phoenix billions of dollars, as people shelter inside and spend less on goods and services. The heat means that stores and restaurants see less walk-in traffic; it means that outdoor work from construction to agriculture becomes dangerous and operates more slowly and becomes harder to hire for; it means fewer tourists visiting your scorching hellscape, and fewer transplants deciding to relocate there. Even if the heat is not enough to induce existing residents to move, it will, over time, ensure that fewer people move in to join them. These regions will see long-term population declines, businesses in search of new headquarters will eschew them, tax revenues will go down, physical infrastructure will wear down faster and be replaced less quickly. As the years go by, they will become less nice places to live. Kids who grew up there will be less likely to stay. Their economic and cultural vibrancy will wilt and fade under the relentless sun. You may notice that people enjoy living in warm and sunny cities, but not in Death Valley. As the cities become less like paradise and more like Death Valley, the public will change its mind about where to live.
The second half of the 20th century saw globalization, “free trade,” and the attendant offshoring collapse of the US manufacturing sector. You can think of this as a sort of economic disaster. And you can see its physical effects. Huge swaths of northern America are now dotted with once-thriving industrial towns that lost their major employers and lost their economic opportunity and are now awful shells of themselves, some of the most depressing places you could ever be. The most vulnerable are left behind, and everyone else picked up and fled. Though this disaster was fully manmade—thank you, neoliberalism—it is analogous to what the rising heat will wreak upon equally huge swaths of now-booming sunny America. This process will take decades, but it will happen. First it will come for the boom towns of the desert—Phoenix, Vegas, Tucson, Sedona—the most blatant examples of sprawl where it shouldn’t be, fueled by cheap land and cheap water and cheap power that we pretended would last forever. Gradually, the heat will become a wall that will halt the growth of cities like Miami and Orlando and Atlanta and Houston and Austin, a boiling blast furnace that pushes those places over the line from “warm” to “unbearable.” You will see tourism drop in the summer. You will see the influx of residents from other parts of the country drop. And then you will see people start to leave. Because the heat, they know, will be there next summer, and the summer after, and the summer after. And it will get worse.
And when the new American frontier of the Sun Belt and the West Coast and the South loses its luster, and ceases to be the sponge that absorbs the nation’s aspirational population growth, where will all the people go? We tend to think of “climate refugees” as a concept that denotes destitute people from the Global South trying desperately to get into America and away from their own parched and ruined homelands. But America is going to have its own bout of climate-induced migration from the south to the north, and it will not go smoothly. In coming decades, tens of millions of people who—if current patterns continued—would have been living in all of these warm cities will instead relocate up north, or will never head south in the first place. The demographics of the country will tilt. It will be a new Great Migration, driven this time not so much by economic and social opportunity in the north as by a burning climate nipping at the heels of everyone, chasing them out of where they were.
Perhaps some of those run-down post-industrial cities will get a new influx of residents and experience a revival. That would be nice. Perhaps we will just replace the old set of boom towns with new ones in more temperate places—a new age of prosperity for Columbus and Cleveland and Kalamazoo. It is likely, though, that new residents will rush into existing mega-cities, exacerbating housing crises, stoking resentments, and sparking uncomfortable political realignments. Houston residents, welcome to Brooklyn. It’s fucking expensive, and we hate your cowboy hats. If you vote for Republicans, we will kill you. I hope that we all get along.
The certainty of all of this makes me believe that heat will be the thing that kicks in the door and flips over the table and grabs our power structure by the throat and forces decisive action on climate change. The raw, rising temperatures may not be the most scientifically impactful element of this crisis, but ocean acidification does not deliver such an immediate jolt of sweat and skin cancer and heat stroke and ruined pool parties to rich and poor alike. The grotesquely uncomfortable nature of the heat may be our final salvation. Its price will be that a large part of America becomes, like the fossil fuels we leave in the ground, a stranded asset. The strip malls of Phoenix and the golf courses of Scottsdale will return to the desert from whence they came. All in all, not a bad trade. The native Americans could have told us this would happen centuries ago. The first American pioneers who pushed out into those frontiers, hungry for land and treasure, never would have imagined that those unforgiving wastelands would all be replaced by tidy suburban developments. In the long run, they will be proven correct.
Still true: There are only two issues.
You can now preorder my book. If you did, that would be great. Let me also remind you that I may post slightly less for the next few weeks because I am going to a writers retreat in the woods. Prepare yourself.
Just as the booming cities of the West are only made possible by the waters of the Colorado River, so too is this publication only made possible by the contributions of my paying subscribers. Without this support, I, like Tucson, will wither and die. If you enjoy reading How Things Work, please consider becoming a paid subscriber. Independent media is a collective effort. Thank you.