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Climate change will make Arizona more urban and more expensive, author says

The effects of climate change could lead 100 million Americans to leave their homes and move to a different part of the country over the next 30 years.

In addition, more than 850 counties across the United States could see more than $1 million worth of economic damage because of climate change by 2040.

Those are among the findings Abrahm Lustgarten writes about in his new book. Lustgarten is a reporter covering climate change for ProPublica; his book is called “On the Move: The Overheating Earth and the Uprooting of America.”

He joined The Show to talk about what he found — and what it could mean for Arizona and the Southwest.

Full interview

MARK BRODIE: Abrahm, we’ve heard so much about climate change, migration in other parts of the world, where people often leave their homes to come to the U.S. What did you find about what climate migration in this country might look like?

ABRAHM LUSTGARTEN: We Americans are not going to be as bad off as other harder-hit hit parts of the equatorial regions of the planet, but we are going to be affected. There’s really no place in this country, in North America that won’t be dramatically affected by climate change. And some of the same science that I look at that suggests that billions of people will be displaced globally suggests that about 160 million Americans will also see a change in their environment that is traditionally linked with migration.

BRODIE: And which parts of the country might be most prone to those kinds of conditions that would lead people to feel like they have to leave?

LUSTGARTEN: So I collected data and mapped some primary risks: wildfires and hurricanes and sea level flooding and drought and things like that. And what it basically suggests is that the United States will be squeezed from the sides and from the south especially, that the southern region that we’re in is the most dramatically affected by a number of these perils. And that essentially it suggests that people will shift northward over the coming decades.

BRODIE: Does that include the southwest? Does that include places like Arizona?

LUSTGARTEN: Absolutely. Arizona, as you know well, will, face extraordinary heat — is already facing extraordinary heat, but it’s going to face more heat and greater water scarcity.

BRODIE: So what does that mean, then? Let’s start with what that means for places north of here. If some number — hundreds of thousands or millions of people from Arizona, New Mexico, Texas, places in the south and southwest are moving northward — what does that mean for those places?

LUSTGARTEN: For receiving communities — which is the fun term that’s applied to those places — it means that a lot of these places can expect significant growth. And they’re not all exclusively northward.

One of the phenomenons around migration and climate migration is that people move the shortest distance possible. And that might actually mean that Phoenix as a city continues to thrive and continues to grow. But that rural regions around Phoenix, across the Southwest begin to empty out and there’s a sharp urbanization.

BRODIE: Does all of that further potential growth in the Phoenix area potentially make it less likely that all those people will be able to continue to live here?

LUSTGARTEN: It will continue to stress the water resources in this region. The increase in temperatures will divide along wealth lines primarily. The cost of energy is going to rise, and the need for air conditioning is going to increase dramatically.

And so there’s going to be a greater division between the people that have those resources and have those facilities and the people that can’t afford that. And as the city grows, there’s going to be a larger, obviously, customer base and citizen base to support.

BRODIE: Does that outmigration follow along those economic lines as well? Could it be the fact that only the people can afford air conditioning bills and to potentially pay for water or other things like that, those are the only people who can actually afford to live in a place like Phoenix in the future?

LUSTGARTEN: The breakdown of traditional migration patterns suggests that the very wealthy will remain, are more likely to remain longer in a stressed environment. It’s the middle class, upper-middle class that is most likely to be mobile.

And poor communities, marginalized communities — people of color in particular that have been disproportionately harmed by policies in the past — are going to be more vulnerable to these environmental changes in the future and also probably less likely to be mobile. As well as aging populations.

BRODIE: So Phoenix and Arizona, of course, have had issues with wildfires and water scarcity and — especially in the Phoenix area — rising temperatures for a number of years. And these are things that a lot of climate scientists have pointed out that other parts of the country are relatively new to compared to Phoenix.

So I’m wondering if there are lessons from Phoenix that other parts of the country might be able to take, to either deal with these kinds of things or to try to make it so that people don’t have to leave to go somewhere else.

LUSTGARTEN: Phoenix has grown in the face of its water scarcity and its extreme heat for a while now, and it continues to do so. There’s some folly in that, but there’s also a lot of wisdom that’s been accumulated. So Phoenix has lessons to teach about how to develop in the face of severe water shortages; how to deploy more water-smart conservation technologies; and also how to build and construct buildings with materials that are comfortable to live in in a hot environment, and how you integrate indoor, outdoor spaces for extreme heat and those sorts of things.

BRODIE: One of the other topics you write about is agriculture and how all of these changes in the climate will affect how food is grown and where it’s grown and by whom it’s grown. That’s obviously a really big component of both the economy and people’s lives, not just in Arizona, but in California, other parts of this region.

How might the Southwest and how might the West more broadly be affected by all of this, especially if people feel like they have to move elsewhere?

LUSTGARTEN: Changes in agriculture are probably among the most dramatic ways in which the United States will change. And crop yields across the country have dropped by about 12% since 1960 just due to climate change. And the data that I look at suggests that they're going to drop dramatically in places, in the southern part of the country — parts of Texas up to 90%; parts of Arizona, New Mexico 50-60%.

So we’re looking at a projected dramatic decrease in our ability to grow crops. Combine that with the water shortages that are present in Arizona and Southern California, and I think it necessitates a real rethinking. It will force a rethinking of how food is grown and where it’s grown and what other crops in addition to food are grown.

But I would expect that agriculture becomes a smaller and smaller part of Arizona’s economy and of the Southwest economy.

BRODIE: So I guess maybe the big question here is, has the ship sailed on this? Is the die cast on all of these Americans needing to move because of climate? Or — as some kind of climate scientists suggest — there is still time to maybe put the toothpaste back in the tube here and try to stop the warming that is leading to so many of these things including, as you write, migration.

LUSTGARTEN: Both those things are true at the same time. Our fate is not sealed. And what we do right now makes a monumental difference in everything that we’re talking about. I rely on a lot of astronomically high projections in some scientific studies of how many people might be displaced globally. Those same estimates are cut in half if emissions are sharply reduced from this point forward.

That said, there’s a certain amount of warming that is already baked in because of what we’ve already done in the past. There’s a delay in that cycle. And so if we are perfect from here on out and we were 100% renewable tomorrow morning, we would still see warming for a good number of years, and we’ll still see all the pile-on effects of that warming, just to a lesser degree.

I really like to think about all of these impacts as being ultimately economic impacts. And I think that that’s how Americans are going to experience them. And part of the shift that we’re seeing is a shift away from climate changes as kind of like a social-political issue and more of a household pocketbook issue.

And it’s when it starts to affect people’s assets and their savings and their safety nets that I think that migration will result. So the premise isn’t so much that people are going to say, “Gosh, it’s hot” or “I’m really afraid of the wildfire, and I’m going to move.” It’s that they’re going to say, “I can’t get home insurance because of the wildfire risk,” or “The cost of air conditioning is just skyrocketing, and I want to live someplace that’s a little bit cheaper.” And that’s what’s going to start to push this change.

KJZZ's The Show transcripts are created on deadline. This text may not be in its final form. The authoritative record of KJZZ's programming is the audio record.

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Mark Brodie is a co-host of The Show, KJZZ’s locally produced news magazine. Since starting at KJZZ in 2002, Brodie has been a host, reporter and producer, including several years covering the Arizona Legislature, based at the Capitol.