Climate Change Literature That Made Waves in 2019
By Rob Moore
As the planet heated up to record-breaking levels, the seas continued to rise and wildfires, storms, floods or other manifestations of climate change made headlines every single day, the stream of climate change literature turned into a deluge.
The quantity and quality of research, journalism and fiction writing that revolved around climate change and its impacts in 2019 was impressive.
Admittedly, I was only capable of reading a small sliver of it all. This year-end list comprises the pieces I recommend you all read. Because my work at the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) revolves around the impacts of climate change, particularly the relationship to flooding, sea level rise and climate-driven disasters more generally, my annual reading list reflects that as well. It's a collection of research, policy papers, reporting by journalists and works of climate fiction.
And this year, because I'm insecure and fear someone judging me by what's not on this list ("How can you not have that on here?!" I know. I know. I hear ya.) I'm including a short compilation of the things that I still intend to read and you do should too!
Major Climate Reports
- Special Report on Climate Change and Land, International Panel on Climate Change
- Special Report on the Ocean and Cryosphere in a Changing Climate, International Panel on Climate Change
- Global Linkages: a graphic look at the changing Arctic, UN Environment Programme
These reports detailed just how much the world has changed with 1 degree C of warming in the rearview mirror and how much more dire the situation could become. Widespread changes are already apparent on land, in the oceans, in the cryosphere (that's a fancy word for areas that are always cold), and for all life on Planet Earth. These reports are the most comprehensive view yet on the impacts we're already feeling, those that are unavoidable, and the ones we have to make sure we never realize.
Takeaway: The first step to solving a problem is to acknowledge just how big of a problem you're dealing with. And we've got big problems. On the plus side, we've got a good idea of what the big solutions are.
- Climate Fiction: A Special Issue, Guernica Magazine, Amy Brady, Editor
- Issue 58: 2040 AD, McSweeney's, Claire Boyle, Editor
Climate fiction is the hot genre to be writing in these days! This year, both Guernica and McSweeney's elevated the profile of climate fiction with special editions. Addressing the multiple challenges of climate change isn't just a scientific or technical problem … it's also a cultural problem. That's why it's so encouraging that writers, artists and other creative-types are incorporating climate themes into their works, reaching broader and more diverse audiences and subtly helping bring about those cultural changes.
Side-note: I had the distinct privilege of working with Amy Brady at Guernica on an event around climate change and storytelling this year, and was part of a team of people at NRDC that worked with Claire Boyle at McSweeney's on Issue 58. These were such amazing enjoyable projects to be a part of and many thanks to the amazing Elizabeth Corr for coordinating NRDC's involvement in both.
Takeaway: Diving deep into climate science isn't for everybody, but everybody shares stories. The stories contained in these editions give all of us a new place that we can start the climate conversation from.
- Gun Island, Amitav Ghosh
This book had garnered an enormous amount of attention since it's release and is making many of the "Best Books of 2019" lists. Deservedly so, because it's an arresting and beautifully crafted novel that draws upon Bengali folklore, linguistic history and a globe-spanning story that intersects multiple manifestations of our altered climate.
Takeaway: "Amid the freak cyclones and oxygen-starved waters comes the story — or stories — of migration across the ages; tales of escapology, of deprivation and persecution, of impossible yearnings for a new world that bring us, inexorably, to the terrified refugees on the Mediterranean." — The Guardian
- American Climate: The Shared Experience of Disaster, Inside Climate News
Stories of people whose lives have been deeply affected by climate change aren't just the subject of fiction, they're an all too real part of the world we live in. Inside Climate News collected these first-hand accounts from survivors of the wildfires in Paradise, California; Hurricane Michael in Mexico Beach, Florida; and from those affected by widespread flooding throughout the Midwest.
Takeaway: These personal stories are a visceral reminder that the impacts of climate change aren't some theoretical possibility but are already a reality for many in the U.S.
- The Other Kind of Climate Denialism, Rachel Reiderer, The New Yorker
When faced with the enormity of the challenges of climate change, people can enter a form of climate denialism. No, not denying that it's occurring or that humans are the cause; but denying that anything can be done about it. This essay examines David Wallace-Wells' book, The Uninhabitable Earth, and the work of many others, including NRDC's own Mary Heglar, to examine how we overcome this social-psychological barrier to action.
Takeaway: Hey, it's okay to be fearful, or feel overwhelmed, or be angry because those are the feelings that inspire us to act.
Despairing About the Climate Crisis? Read This, Earth Island Journal, Interview with Dr. Susi Moser by Laurie Mazur
Along the same lines, this interview with Dr. Susi Moser, "talks about communicating bad climate news, the benefits of 'functional denial,' the varied flavors of hope, and the better world we can build in the wreckage of life as we know it." Dr. Moser has been working on climate change issues for a long time from multiple angles. She's seen her share of failures, or at least things that have not come fully to fruition. Still, she remains hopeful because there are so many things we can do, but just haven't yet.
Takeaway: It's not whether you fall down or fail. It's whether you pick yourself up and keep trying.
NRDC Flood Reports
- Going Under: Long Wait Times for Post-Flood Buyouts Leave Homeowners Underwater, Anna Weber and Rob Moore, Natural Resources Defense Council
As sea levels rise, flooding becomes more prevalent and other types of hazards lead people to the conclusion that it's time to relocate, what assistance is available to help make that happen? This report examined more than 30 years of FEMA data on that agency's efforts to finance buyouts of flood prone homes. The typical project takes more than five years to complete after a flood happens. That's not gonna cut it — and the current paradigm for doing buyouts definitely can't scale up to meet the future demand driven by climate change. Inside this report you'll find several recommendations for how buyouts could become more equitable, more efficient and more widely available.
Takeaway: As the old saying goes, "Build it and they will come." With buyouts the corollary is, "If people want to leave, we should unbuild it." Okay, that's not too snappy a phrase, but we'll keep working on it. Meanwhile, you can hear about the buyout experience directly from Kentucky resident Olga McKissic, who pursued a buyout for years before her repeatedly flooded home was finally demolished this summer.
- Changing the National Flood Insurance Program for a Changing Climate, Environmental Law Reporter, Michael Burger and Dena Adler, Columbia University's Sabin Center for Climate Change Law; Joel Scata and Rob Moore, Natural Resources Defense Council
This paper lays out ways to fix a program that we should already be relying upon to adapt to the growing number of floods that come with climate change. Some of the fixes? Give people accurate information about flood risks and past damages to their home or a home they're buying. Improve community compliance with minimum standards and codes. And if people want to move to higher ground (and doing so would actually save the flood insurance program some dough) then why aren't we doing that?!
Takeaway: The definition of insanity is doing the same thing and expecting a different result. And, currently, that's what the flood insurance program is all about: flood, rebuild, repeat. But it doesn't have to be that way. Congress just keeps it that way.
Building a Resilient Tomorrow: How to Prepare for the Coming Climate Disruption, Alice Hill & Leonardo Martinez-Diaz
With the world already having warmed by 1 degree C, the impacts of climate change are being felt in the U.S. This insightful book offers up some real solutions for how communities can cope with the vulnerabilities that have already been exposed and those that will be in the future.
Takeaway: If you were to boil this down to two sentences: First, don't make your problems worse by making bad decisions that you'll regret in the future. Second, start figuring out how to address the vulnerabilities you know you have, then the ones that are foreseeable.
As the Trump administration has dismantled our nation's response to climate change, the Pentagon has been remarkably successful at continuing to address the issue in its own way. This fascinating book looks at why the Pentagon views climate change as a huge national security risk. Climate change threatens its bases, climate change puts additional operational pressure on the military, and climate change may hasten the destabilization of governments, exacerbating regional tensions.
Takeaway: Keep this close by for the climate throwdown with your conservative national security conscious family members. It may just bring them around.
What I Should Have Read, Am Still Going to Read, and You Should Read Too!
- Sea Level Rise: A Slow Tsunami on America's Shores, Orrin Pilkey and Keith Pilkey
- An Ecotopian Lexicon, Matthew Schneider-Mayerson and Brent Ryan Bellamy, Editors
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EcoWatch Daily Newsletter
By Stuart Braun
We spend 90% of our time in the buildings where we live and work, shop and conduct business, in the structures that keep us warm in winter and cool in summer.
But immense energy is required to source and manufacture building materials, to power construction sites, to maintain and renew the built environment. In 2019, building operations and construction activities together accounted for 38% of global energy-related CO2 emissions, the highest level ever recorded.
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By Eric Tate and Christopher Emrich
Disasters stemming from hazards like floods, wildfires, and disease often garner attention because of their extreme conditions and heavy societal impacts. Although the nature of the damage may vary, major disasters are alike in that socially vulnerable populations often experience the worst repercussions. For example, we saw this following Hurricanes Katrina and Harvey, each of which generated widespread physical damage and outsized impacts to low-income and minority survivors.
Mapping Social Vulnerability<p>Figure 1a is a typical map of social vulnerability across the United States at the census tract level based on the Social Vulnerability Index (SoVI) algorithm of <a href="https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1111/1540-6237.8402002" target="_blank"><em>Cutter et al.</em></a> . Spatial representation of the index depicts high social vulnerability regionally in the Southwest, upper Great Plains, eastern Oklahoma, southern Texas, and southern Appalachia, among other places. With such a map, users can focus attention on select places and identify population characteristics associated with elevated vulnerabilities.</p>
Fig. 1. (a) Social vulnerability across the United States at the census tract scale is mapped here following the Social Vulnerability Index (SoVI). Red and pink hues indicate high social vulnerability. (b) This bivariate map depicts social vulnerability (blue hues) and annualized per capita hazard losses (pink hues) for U.S. counties from 2010 to 2019.<p>Many current indexes in the United States and abroad are direct or conceptual offshoots of SoVI, which has been widely replicated [e.g., <a href="https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s13753-016-0090-9" target="_blank"><em>de Loyola Hummell et al.</em></a>, 2016]. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) <a href="https://www.atsdr.cdc.gov/placeandhealth/svi/index.html" target="_blank">has also developed</a> a commonly used social vulnerability index intended to help local officials identify communities that may need support before, during, and after disasters.</p><p>The first modeling and mapping efforts, starting around the mid-2000s, largely focused on describing spatial distributions of social vulnerability at varying geographic scales. Over time, research in this area came to emphasize spatial comparisons between social vulnerability and physical hazards [<a href="https://doi.org/10.1007/s11069-009-9376-1" target="_blank"><em>Wood et al.</em></a>, 2010], modeling population dynamics following disasters [<a href="https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007%2Fs11111-008-0072-y" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer"><em>Myers et al.</em></a>, 2008], and quantifying the robustness of social vulnerability measures [<a href="https://doi.org/10.1007/s11069-012-0152-2" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer"><em>Tate</em></a>, 2012].</p><p>More recent work is beginning to dissolve barriers between social vulnerability and environmental justice scholarship [<a href="https://doi.org/10.2105/AJPH.2018.304846" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer"><em>Chakraborty et al.</em></a>, 2019], which has traditionally focused on root causes of exposure to pollution hazards. Another prominent new research direction involves deeper interrogation of social vulnerability drivers in specific hazard contexts and disaster phases (e.g., before, during, after). Such work has revealed that interactions among drivers are important, but existing case studies are ill suited to guiding development of new indicators [<a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ijdrr.2015.09.013" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer"><em>Rufat et al.</em></a>, 2015].</p><p>Advances in geostatistical analyses have enabled researchers to characterize interactions more accurately among social vulnerability and hazard outcomes. Figure 1b depicts social vulnerability and annualized per capita hazard losses for U.S. counties from 2010 to 2019, facilitating visualization of the spatial coincidence of pre‑event susceptibilities and hazard impacts. Places ranked high in both dimensions may be priority locations for management interventions. Further, such analysis provides invaluable comparisons between places as well as information summarizing state and regional conditions.</p><p>In Figure 2, we take the analysis of interactions a step further, dividing counties into two categories: those experiencing annual per capita losses above or below the national average from 2010 to 2019. The differences among individual race, ethnicity, and poverty variables between the two county groups are small. But expressing race together with poverty (poverty attenuated by race) produces quite different results: Counties with high hazard losses have higher percentages of both impoverished Black populations and impoverished white populations than counties with low hazard losses. These county differences are most pronounced for impoverished Black populations.</p>
Fig. 2. Differences in population percentages between counties experiencing annual per capita losses above or below the national average from 2010 to 2019 for individual and compound social vulnerability indicators (race and poverty).<p>Our current work focuses on social vulnerability to floods using geostatistical modeling and mapping. The research directions are twofold. The first is to develop hazard-specific indicators of social vulnerability to aid in mitigation planning [<a href="https://doi.org/10.1007/s11069-020-04470-2" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer"><em>Tate et al.</em></a>, 2021]. Because natural hazards differ in their innate characteristics (e.g., rate of onset, spatial extent), causal processes (e.g., urbanization, meteorology), and programmatic responses by government, manifestations of social vulnerability vary across hazards.</p><p>The second is to assess the degree to which socially vulnerable populations benefit from the leading disaster recovery programs [<a href="https://doi.org/10.1080/17477891.2019.1675578" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer"><em>Emrich et al.</em></a>, 2020], such as the Federal Emergency Management Agency's (FEMA) <a href="https://www.fema.gov/individual-disaster-assistance" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Individual Assistance</a> program and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development's Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) <a href="https://www.hudexchange.info/programs/cdbg-dr/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Disaster Recovery</a> program. Both research directions posit social vulnerability indicators as potential measures of social equity.</p>
Social Vulnerability as a Measure of Equity<p>Given their focus on social marginalization and economic barriers, social vulnerability indicators are attracting growing scientific interest as measures of inequity resulting from disasters. Indeed, social vulnerability and inequity are related concepts. Social vulnerability research explores the differential susceptibilities and capacities of disaster-affected populations, whereas social equity analyses tend to focus on population disparities in the allocation of resources for hazard mitigation and disaster recovery. Interventions with an equity focus emphasize full and equal resource access for all people with unmet disaster needs.</p><p>Yet newer studies of inequity in disaster programs have documented troubling disparities in income, race, and home ownership among those who <a href="https://eos.org/articles/equity-concerns-raised-in-federal-flood-property-buyouts" target="_blank">participate in flood buyout programs</a>, are <a href="https://www.eenews.net/stories/1063477407" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">eligible for postdisaster loans</a>, receive short-term recovery assistance [<a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ijdrr.2020.102010" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer"><em>Drakes et al.</em></a>, 2021], and have <a href="https://www.texastribune.org/2020/08/25/texas-natural-disasters--mental-health/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">access to mental health services</a>. For example, a recent analysis of federal flood buyouts found racial privilege to be infused at multiple program stages and geographic scales, resulting in resources that disproportionately benefit whiter and more urban counties and neighborhoods [<a href="https://doi.org/10.1177/2378023120905439" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer"><em>Elliott et al.</em></a>, 2020].</p><p>Investments in disaster risk reduction are largely prioritized on the basis of hazard modeling, historical impacts, and economic risk. Social equity, meanwhile, has been far less integrated into the considerations of public agencies for hazard and disaster management. But this situation may be beginning to shift. Following the adage of "what gets measured gets managed," social equity metrics are increasingly being inserted into disaster management.</p><p>At the national level, FEMA has <a href="https://www.fema.gov/news-release/20200220/fema-releases-affordability-framework-national-flood-insurance-program" target="_blank">developed options</a> to increase the affordability of flood insurance [Federal Emergency Management Agency, 2018]. At the subnational scale, Puerto Rico has integrated social vulnerability into its CDBG Mitigation Action Plan, expanding its considerations of risk beyond only economic factors. At the local level, Harris County, Texas, has begun using social vulnerability indicators alongside traditional measures of flood risk to introduce equity into the prioritization of flood mitigation projects [<a href="https://www.hcfcd.org/Portals/62/Resilience/Bond-Program/Prioritization-Framework/final_prioritization-framework-report_20190827.pdf?ver=2019-09-19-092535-743" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer"><em>Harris County Flood Control District</em></a>, 2019].</p><p>Unfortunately, many existing measures of disaster equity fall short. They may be unidimensional, using single indicators such as income in places where underlying vulnerability processes suggest that a multidimensional measure like racialized poverty (Figure 2) would be more valid. And criteria presumed to be objective and neutral for determining resource allocation, such as economic loss and cost-benefit ratios, prioritize asset value over social equity. For example, following the <a href="http://www.cedar-rapids.org/discover_cedar_rapids/flood_of_2008/2008_flood_facts.php" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">2008 flooding</a> in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, cost-benefit criteria supported new flood protections for the city's central business district on the east side of the Cedar River but not for vulnerable populations and workforce housing on the west side.</p><p>Furthermore, many equity measures are aspatial or ahistorical, even though the roots of marginalization may lie in systemic and spatially explicit processes that originated long ago like redlining and urban renewal. More research is thus needed to understand which measures are most suitable for which social equity analyses.</p>
Challenges for Disaster Equity Analysis<p>Across studies that quantify, map, and analyze social vulnerability to natural hazards, modelers have faced recurrent measurement challenges, many of which also apply in measuring disaster equity (Table 1). The first is clearly establishing the purpose of an equity analysis by defining characteristics such as the end user and intended use, the type of hazard, and the disaster stage (i.e., mitigation, response, or recovery). Analyses using generalized indicators like the CDC Social Vulnerability Index may be appropriate for identifying broad areas of concern, whereas more detailed analyses are ideal for high-stakes decisions about budget allocations and project prioritization.</p>
By Jessica Corbett
Sen. Bernie Sanders on Tuesday was the lone progressive to vote against Tom Vilsack reprising his role as secretary of agriculture, citing concerns that progressive advocacy groups have been raising since even before President Joe Biden officially nominated the former Obama administration appointee.