‘The Tipping Point’: How Climate Change Could Reshape America As We Know It

In the coming decades, climate change could impact everything from where we live to the economy. Reset spoke with two experts about what to expect.

A firefighter sets a controlled burn in California
In this Sept. 6, 2020, file photo, firefighter Ricardo Gomez sets a controlled burn with a drip torch while fighting the Creek Fire in Shaver Lake, Calif. Marcio Jose Sanchez / Associated Press
A firefighter sets a controlled burn in California
In this Sept. 6, 2020, file photo, firefighter Ricardo Gomez sets a controlled burn with a drip torch while fighting the Creek Fire in Shaver Lake, Calif. Marcio Jose Sanchez / Associated Press

‘The Tipping Point’: How Climate Change Could Reshape America As We Know It

In the coming decades, climate change could impact everything from where we live to the economy. Reset spoke with two experts about what to expect.

The West Coast is burning, the Midwest is recovering from a powerful derecho and the National Hurricane Center has almost run out of names to use from this year’s Atlantic storm list. Scientists say this, at least in part, is the impact of climate change — and it could get worse.

In the coming decades, many experts say climate change will affect everything from where we live to the economy. “The costs are becoming greater, and the consequences are becoming greater,” said Abrahm Lustgarten, who reports on the climate for ProPublica and The New York Times Magazine.

Reset spoke with Lustgarten and Jeff Dukes, director of the Purdue Climate Change Research Center, about what we might experience next. Here are three takeaways from the conversation.

Climate change will take a financial toll

From the coasts to the Mississippi River basin, the impact of climate change could soon come with additional costs.

“As we see more wildfires in California, we’re seeing insurers wanting to drop people’s coverage or insurance rates going up,” Dukes said. “As sea-level rise happens, we’ll see more and more flooding along the coast, and that’s going to affect insurance as well.”

pound a wall near buildings in Pacifica, California
In this Jan. 20, 2010 file photo, waves pound a wall near buildings in Pacifica, Calif., during a rain storm. Paul Sakuma / Associated Press

The rising rates could lead to problems beyond higher bills.

“Property values will drop if they can’t be insured or are expensive to insure, and that bleeds into the system even further through things like the tax base,” Dukes added. “So some of these financial risks are maybe more far reaching than they would seem at first blush.”

Further inland, exposure to extreme heat and humidity could lead to dangerous health effects, Lustgarten said. In some parts of the South and the Midwest, that could shut down segments of the workforce.

“Our data found that places from Louisiana to Wisconsin will experience an increase in those wet bulb days, which means that outdoor labor can’t happen,” he said — everything from roadwork to outdoor sporting events.

Cities like Chicago could see population growth

Grappling with the effects of climate change, people in certain regions may choose to migrate elsewhere, Lustgarten said. “If you look at those affected by sea-level rise on the East Coast and the Gulf Coast and the fire risk in the West and the extreme heat that’s expected to come for the southern part of the United States, we’re really going to see a transformation of where people live.”

As people flock to safer areas, cities like Chicago, Atlanta and Houston could see a population growth — and this rapid urbanization could lead to challenges.

“How successful or unsuccessful these urban areas are really depends on how much effort and investment is made toward adaptation … making sure that there is affordable housing, and a robust enough economy to provide employment to the people who come, and water services and sanitation and food and things like that,” Lustgarten said.

Farmers may face an altered growing season

The Midwest is getting stormier and wetter, Dukes said — and that’s not great for agriculture.

A cornfield damaged in the derecho earlier this month is seen on a farm in Iowa
A cornfield damaged in the derecho earlier this month is seen on the Rod Pierce farm, Thursday, Aug. 20, 2020, near Woodward, Iowa. Charlie Neibergall / Associated Press

“It was an exceedingly wet spring … [and] that frustrated farmers because it rained so regularly” he said. “That affected what they could plant and their yields.”

In the future, Dukes predicts farmers may try switching crops, growing them in different ways or, in regions with a longer growing season, planting two crops a year instead of one.

“It’s not like every year is going to be bad, but there is a risk that many years are going to be worse than they are today and some years are going to be catastrophic,” he said.

Press the “play” button to hear the entire conversation.