How do we face the coming worst hard time?

“The Worst Hard Time” was the title of Ken Burns’ documentary on the Great American Dust Bowl — a disaster that devastated a 100-million-acre area that reached from Texas to Nebraska and included southeastern Colorado.

Between 1930 and 1940, dust storms ruined crops, destroyed livelihoods and caused “dust pneumonia” that killed as many as several thousand — no one has a sure tally. Roughly 2.5 million desperate people fled Texas, New Mexico, Nebraska, Kansas, Oklahoma and Colorado, creating the largest migration in American history.

Farmer and sons walking in the face of a dust storm, Cimarron County, Oklahoma, April 1936. Arthur Rothstein, photographer. Courtesy US Library of Congress.

The disaster resulted from four naturally occurring droughts that were worsened by federal land policies, farm economics and cultural beliefs. Many settlers lived by the motto that “rain follows the plow,” believing that agriculture would permanently affect the climate of the semi-arid Great Plains, improving it for farming.

As their plows broke the soil, the opposite happened. Topsoil fled in the wind as plows removed the native grasses that anchored it, rising in black blizzards that blew across the nation all the way to Washington, D.C. Forced out of business, farmers lost their livelihoods, their homes and sometimes their lives.

It wasn’t the first time that humans committed “ecocide.” It probably won’t be last time, or even the worst. That will probably occur in the lives of our descendants, who will have to deal with the effects of global warming: rising seas, flooding coastal cities, increasingly virulent storms, hurricanes, floods, droughts and fires.

If that list of climate-related woes sounds a lot like this summer’s headlines, it’s not incidental. This is what scientists — the 98 percent who agree that human-caused climate change is real and happening now — have told us to expect.

Environmentally speaking, we’re living in the “end times” — the end of a geologic era that is going to impact everything from where we live to what we eat and how we make a living.

The question that faces us now is how to deal with it. Denial is a common human response; despair is another.

I have written about climate change before, and I have gotten both hate mail and denigrating comments in response. (Shooting the messenger is another common human response to bad news.) In reply to one column I wrote about global warming, one online reader scoffed, “I suppose this wouldn’t be happening if we had elected Hillary instead of Trump!”

That one gave me pause. While Trump’s climate denial has been infuriating in a “let them eat cake” kind of way, in the larger view, he’s a footnote. Over the past 250 years, much of human progress — the changes in diet, health, working conditions and material well-being that lifted us out of the brutish Middle Ages — has been due to the burning of fossil fuels. In terms of human lifetimes, two centuries is a vast span. In the geologic view, it’s the blink of an eye.

It has only been a couple of decades since we humans noticed that, climatically, we might be in for a hot time. Our collective response to that news, regardless of who has been in the White House, has been too little and too late to change the global climate trajectory.

Like farmers who reaped the whirlwind in the Dust Bowl, we humans will be forced to cope: to move, to alter public policies, to change technology, to somehow find the moral courage to move forward with generosity and inclusiveness while avoiding greed and despair.

I’m an agnostic. Sometimes, deep in the shadows of fear, I pray, but I have to address those entreaties “to whom it may concern.”

I have found myself both surprised and heartened by Pope Francis, who has said that global warming is a symptom of spiritual poverty — a myopic mentality that has failed to address climate change.

Francis has warned that the rich world’s pursuit of short-term economic gain in the face of environmental destruction is part of “a throwaway culture” that threatens not just unwanted things but also unwanted people — the poor, the elderly and the unborn — as waste. Frances has asked us to “break with the logic of violence, exploitation and selfishness,” entreating us to stand before God, or personal conscience, and examine the consumerist lifestyle that most of us live.

I’m 65. Although I won’t live long enough to fully reap the coming whirlwind, I struggle daily with how to spiritually face the coming worst hard time. Frankly, buying an electric car, putting up solar panels and growing vegetables has proved easier than avoiding selfishness and despair.

Results of a dust storm. Cimarron County, Oklahoma, April 1936, Arthur Rothstein, photographer. Courtesy of US Library of Congress.

 

Still I’m heeding the pope’s challenge, making daily changes that light a candle of hope, and remembering that wherever we’re going as a species, we’re in this together. Courage and cooperation is all that will save us.

Column published in the Glenwood Springs Post Independent September 21, 2017

Beach front property going cheap?

Psst, wanna buy some coastal property?

Despite the news of Harvey and Irma, I was surprised to learn that the husbands of two of my friends do—in Florida no less!

Perhaps I shouldn’t be surprised. The Yale Program on Climate Communication has found that nationally, while 69 percent of Americans think that global warming is real and dangerous, only 42 percent think it will harm them personally.

Personally, I think that buying property in Florida would hike the odds of personal harm considerably.

Real estate appraiser Orell Anderson, who works for Strategic Property Analytics in Laguna Beach, California, says that people “pay significant premiums to be on the water” but notes that most home-buyers arrive at the conclusion that storm-surge flooding “only happens to other people and not me.”

If you’re among them, you’d do well to visit the website CoastalRiskConsulting.com, owned by attorney Albert Slap, who lives in Snowmass Village, high and dry at 8,209 feet. Many of Slap’s clients are in Florida. Although cities and utilities form a large portion of his clientele, any potential property owner can plug an address into CRC’s website to discover its risk for storm-surge flooding and high winds. CRC mashes up scientific data from NOAA, USGS, USACE and other sources to create a comprehensive assessment of current and future flood risk to the property’s location.

Those risks are no secret. In April 2016, Sean Becketti, chief economist for government-backed mortgage giant Freddie Mac, issued a (largely unpublicized) warning that owners ditching their coastal properties could trigger another nationwide mortgage meltdown.

 Even so, neither sellers nor realtors in Florida (or most other coastal states) are required to warn potential buyers of climate-change risks.

Those risks are many and interrelated: rising insurance costs, the eventual likelihood that mortgage companies will refuse to write 30-year loans in low-lying areas, enormous spikes in real estate taxes as cities and struggle to relocate utilities, roads, bridges, even airports. And not just in Florida. In the San Francisco Bay Area, all three airports are at risk from rising oceans. New York’s La Guardia could be swamped with as little as five feet of rising water.

Although few owners have so far sold coastal property due to these woes — the longer-term recovery pattern in New Orleans after Katrina and in New York after Sandy saw property values dropping in badly impacted neighborhoods but rising in those that were less affected and thus seen as “safer”— Albert Slap thinks that sell-offs are inevitably coming. In an interview with Bloomberg News, he opined that people will eventually insist on disclosure for homes that suffer regular floods, just as they have for the risks of asbestos and lead paint. Then dominoes will fall. “There will be a large number of homes that will lose substantial value, and [owners] will default on mortgages, if nothing is done to help them.”

That brings us to politics.

Right now, your right to build or buy in a flood zone is underwritten by the U.S. government. As the editorial board of the Chicago Tribune wrote recently, “Let’s all acknowledge one reason for the vulnerability of Americans who live in low-lying coastal regions of the Sun Belt: The federal government has been paying people to locate there.” The payment isn’t explicit, the newspaper explains, but comes in the form of flood insurance underwritten by the National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP).

Under that program, private companies insure the homes, but the bills are ultimately paid by the Feds. After Sandy, Katrina and a rush of local floods, NFIP racked up a $25 billion deficit. Right now, the program, which was up for re-authorization this year, needs an infusion of cash.

House Financial Services Committee Chairman Jeb Hensarling, a Republican from Texas, is making a push for reform. “The NFIP in its current form is unsustainable and perverse,” he said. “It is a government monopoly that subsidizes people to live in harm’s way. With pricing structures that do not reflect the reality of risk, it actually encourages the building and re-building — and re-building again — of homes and businesses in flood-prone areas.”

Truly evaluating that risk would include projecting the impact of ocean rise and global warming. That’s something that the current climate-change denying administration is not likely to do, despite the fact that Florida property-owners Rush Limbaugh and Donald Trump were both personally impacted by evacuations during Hurricane Harvey.

If you’re actually considering buying property in Florida — taking a risk this fixed-income senior would never consider! — I’d advise consulting Albert Slap’s website first.

Either that, or rent a beach house. And travel light.

 

Seeking Higher Ground column
Published in The Sopris Sun on September 21 , 2017