Wildfires, Hurricanes: How Climate Change Is Affecting Natural Disasters

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Wildfires, hurricanes – climate change is making natural disasters more frequent and more fierce.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: There is a grim, new warning in the aftermath of California’s wildfire disaster.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Hurricane Maria slamming into the island – and as you heard, is destroyed.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: If unprecedented changes are not made and made soon, there will be irreversible damage to the planet.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: And it’s causing a phenomenon known as climate migration. An estimated 400,000 Puerto Ricans left their island after Maria, for example. Jesse Keenen is a faculty member at Harvard who studied how people and real estate markets are adapting to climate change. And he told me that we’re seeing only the beginning of what will be a huge population shift.

JESSE KEENAN: In the next 40 to 50 years, six to 9 million people could easily be moving internally within the United States because of climate change impacts.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: That’s a lot of people. What makes people move after a natural disaster? And what makes them stay?

KEENAN: Yeah. You know, in many ways, this breaks down along the lines of wealth, education and, really, your ability to move. The costs and expenses of moving to another part of the country, perhaps where the work is, is not inconsequential. And in fact, that further deepens the divide in terms of inequality.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: In the past, people have moved to sunnier climes when they move away because of better weather, lower cost of living. But with climate change, the south of the U.S. in particular is going to suffer disproportionately, right?

KEENAN: Yeah. Between sea level rise, extreme heat, flash flooding, including the spread of vector-borne diseases as we saw with Zika, for instance – all of that in the aggregate should have some impact on the desirability. People are now really starting to think not just about environmental exposure but the relative cost of living. So when your insurance costs for flood insurance, wind insurance or even car insurance, which we’ve already seen responding to these types of impacts – those total costs really start to make other areas of the country look much more competitive and much more desirable.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: I understand that some northern cities are now advertising themselves as better destinations because they will be able to withstand climate change better, which is extraordinary that we’re there already.

KEENAN: Yeah. You know, Buffalo, N.Y., Duluth, Minn. – these come to mind as cities that have fresh water, a commodity-based economy, a robust amount of underutilized infrastructure and a relative low cost of living. All of that plays into how we collectively think about where to settle.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: And I understand that you have worked with some of these cities. And these cities and areas are saying, hey. We actually are more resilient. You can relocate your business here. You can come here and actually sort of protect yourself from some of the more egregious effects of climate change.

KEENAN: That’s right. And, you know, our economy is deeply connected. So disruptions from things like extreme events from climate change, from storms and the like, are extraordinarily costly. And in many ways, not having the same degree of vulnerability is a huge competitive advantage and is increasingly understood to be a competitive advantage, not just for your market or your supply chain but also for the people who work for you.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: So what is the big picture here? We know we’re feeling the effects of climate change. In California, they’re already discussing – on the coasts – this sort of managed retreat from rising waters. What is the impact going to be, do you think, and are we ready?

KEENAN: Yeah. I think that conversation is becoming more and more robust, particularly in high vulnerable states. You know, even in a place like North Carolina, which, for years, has disavowed publicly – as a matter of public opinion – climate change and the impact of climate change. Well, after two years of pretty terrible storms, that public discourse is actually becoming more, you know, institutionalized and organized.

So, you know, over time, I think that – the history of human population and settlement is we’ve always adapted. And we will continue to adapt in the future. The question I have is, will we do it in time and in a manner that protects our most vulnerable and disadvantaged populations?

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Jesse Keenan is a Harvard faculty member. Thank you so much.

KEENAN: Thank you for having me.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: We wanted to hear from people already grappling with whether to stay or go. Sonia Fisher (ph) is from Port Aransas, Texas, located on an island on the Gulf Coast.

SONIA FISHER: When Hurricane Harvey hit, it damaged about 85 percent of the structures here on the island. And a lot of our friends and family had to move off the island. Every single day, I question whether we’re doing the right thing by staying. We have an RV. And we can hook that sucker up to a truck and just go ahead and get out the way when the next storm comes. We’re no longer thinking in the terms of if another storm hits. So we’re dealing with that on top of – I don’t know. If we left, we really don’t know where we’d go because there’s tornadoes in Oklahoma damaging property. There’s major snowstorms all over the place. California is definitely out. I mean, it’s – where would you go? And we really don’t know.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: That was Sonia Fisher of Port Aransas, Texas. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.