We Don’t Think of Californians as Climate Refugees Yet, But We Should

Published on
by

We Don’t Think of Californians as Climate Refugees Yet, But We Should

Texas. Florida. Puerto Rico. California. The growing climate disaster toll ought to raise questions about where humans can and should live.

Jennifer Yarnal searches for keepsakes in the rubble of her home in the Coffey Park neighborhood on October 10, 2017 in Santa Rosa, California.

Jennifer Yarnal searches for keepsakes in the rubble of her home in the Coffey Park neighborhood on October 10, 2017 in Santa Rosa, California. (Photo: Brian van der Brug/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images.)

Let’s play with a word and an idea. “Hegemony” means the dominance of one political group over all others. That, at this moment, is the Republican brand. President Donald J. Trump, a Republican Senate, a Republican House, and a conservative, if not Republican, court system that will judge the law and Constitution for years to come. Hegemony.

But that word has been corrupted. Once the Greek word, “hegemon,” meant to lead. But the root word “heg” in English later became to seek, or better, to “sack,” as in ransack.

So hegemony is a fine word to describe the Trump era. The goal is to ransack (instead of lead). Ransack the government. Or at least the idea of government.

We have no better example of hegemony than the debate about the climate. The Republican brand from top to bottom is bent on grabbing as much natural resource loot that can be carried away in short period of time.

Except this: Hegemony is an illusion. What seems like absolute power is not.

This should be easily evident amid hurricanes, fires, and other growing climate threats. You would think this is the moment for a pause (at the very least). A time-out to examine what’s going on around the world and then a consideration about what should be done.

But the Republican brand, including the people who manage federal Indian programs, are willfully hostile to facts.

The World Meteorological Organization reports that natural disasters have tripled and the damage caused by them have increased fivefold. “Today, there is scientific proof that climate change is largely responsible for the dramatic increase in the intensity and devastation caused by the hurricanes in the Caribbean and by many other phenomena around the world,” United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres said after a tour of Dominica. That island, including the Kalinago Indian Territory, was hit with successive category five hurricanes. “I have never seen anywhere else in the world a forest completely decimated without one single leaf on any tree,” said Guterres, who flew by helicopter over some of the most affected areas, including Kalinago Territory.

And Puerto Rico still waits for clean water, sanitation, electricity, and basic infrastructure more than a month after its storms. Yet President Trump told reporters Thursday: “I’d say it was a 10” as he described the federal government’s response. “I’d say it was probably the most difficult when you talk about relief, when you talk about search, when you talk about all of the different levels, and even when you talk about lives saved. You look at the number. I mean, this was—I think it was worse than Katrina.”

The governor of Puerto Rico has a different take. “Recognizing that we’re in this together—U.S. citizens in Texas, U.S. citizens in Florida, U.S. citizens in Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands—we need equal treatment,” Gov. Ricardo Rossello said. “We need all the resources so we can get out of the emergency and of course the resources to rebuild.”

We know, yes, know, that climate change will leave parts of the earth uninhabitable (as we have already seen in tribal communities in Alaska, Washington, and Louisiana.) How many times can you rebuild when storm after storm wipes out the life you know? How do we as a country, as a species, decide when we can no longer rebuild or stay? I’ve been thinking a lot about the Iranian city of Ahvaz, where temperatures this past summer reached 129 degrees. When will it become too hot, 130? 132? What’s the number that we hit before we leave?

Who will be the next climate refugees?

Already in Puerto Rico, that demographic transformation is occurring. “It could potentially be a very large migration to the continental United States,” said Maria Cristina Garcia, a Cornell University historian, immigration expert, and author on large-scale population shifts, which includes a forthcoming book on climate refugees in Scientific American. “Whether that migration will be permanent or temporary is still anyone’s guess. Much depends on the relief package that Congress negotiates.”

Puerto Rico has 3.4 million residents. Think of the magnitude of so many people, a half-million or more, moving to Florida, Texas, or any other state. Only then will the fecklessness of Congress be clear.

So much of the debate now only focuses on the “relocation.” But Indian Country, which has had too many experiences with forced relocation, knows that’s only the beginning of the governmental and social costs. Costs will range from demands for behavioral health to increased joblessness and poverty. The fact of hundreds of thousands of American refugees should be seen as a dangerous crisis worthy of our immediate attention.

Right now, we don’t even think of Californians as climate refugees, but we should. At least 100,000 people were evacuated and nearly 6,000 homes and buildings were destroyed. And this number will grow, and it ought to raise more questions about where humans can and should live.

“An increasing body of research finds that the hot and dry conditions that created the California drought were brought on in part by human-caused warming,” writes Georgina Gustin in Inside Climate News. “Higher temperatures pull moisture out of soil and vegetation, leaving parched landscapes that can go up in flames with the slightest spark from a downed utility wire, backfiring car or embers from a campfire.

California’s average temperature has risen about 2 degrees Fahrenheit during the second half of the 20th century. Altogether this has led to more ‘fuel aridity’—drier tree canopies, grasses, and brush that can burn.”

Gustin writes that research from the Pacific Northwest National Labs and Utah State University projects more extreme drought and extreme flooding. “If global carbon emissions continue at a high level, extreme dry periods will double, the study finds—going from about five extreme dry “events” during the decade of the 1930s, to about 10 per decade by the 2070s. Extreme wet periods will increase from about four to about 15 over the same periods, roughly tripling.”

Again, raising the question of where people can be? Think of the tension about immigration now—and multiply that by a factor of 10 or 100 to get a sense of the scale ahead.

The failure of coal

There is another dimension to hegemony—or the lack of that in the federal government. Cities, states, tribes, corporations, and individuals, are ignoring the ransacking of the climate and moving forward with a global community focused on solutions. Markets are exercising power, too.

One example of that is the Trump administration’s failure to revive the coal industry. This was one of Donald J. Trump’s main campaign promises. The chief executive of a private coal company, Robert Murray, sums up the illogic. Just a week ago he said on the PBS’ News Hour: “We do not have a climate change problem” and 4,000 scientists told him that “mankind is not affecting climate change.” Murray’s former lobbyist has been nominated as the deputy director of the Environmental Protection Administration. Already the EPA has proposed rolling back the Obama Administration’s Clean Power Plan. But the new coal regulations (or more likely, non-regulations) will still be challenged through the regulatory process and in court.

And the markets for coal are dictating the terms of surrender. The U.S. Energy Information Administration reports coal consumption picked up after President Trump’s election but has started to decline again. “The recent decline in production was a result of weaker demand for steam coal, about half of which is mined in Wyoming and Montana. Production of metallurgical coal, which is used in steel manufacturing and makes up about 8% of total U.S. coal production, increased for the third consecutive quarter,” the EIA reported. “Demand for steam coal, which in the first half of 2017 made up more than 90% of U.S. coal production, is driven by coal-fired electricity generation. In recent years, coal has lost part of its electricity generation share to other fuels, but it still accounted for 30% of the U.S. electricity generation mix in the first half of 2017 compared with natural gas and renewables (including hydro) at 31% and 20%, respectively.”

And the jobs that were promised? Fewer than 60,000 people are employed nationwide by the coal industry. And about a thousand jobs, at most, were created since Trump took office. By comparison during that same time frame one of the fastest growing jobs, wind turbine service technician, created 4,800 new jobs at an average salary of $52,260. But the big numbers are in health care (where we should be growing jobs) an industry that created 384,000 new jobs as home health aides in the last year.

Hegemony? No.

But Congress acts as if it has all the power over nature. The budget the Senate just passed would open up the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil development. Instead of a pause, and a rethinking of climate policies, we see a hurry-up-and-drill mentality. (Even if you love oil: Why now? Why not wait until it’s worth something? The answer is because it will never again be that valuable. The era of extraction is over.)

Sen. Lisa Murkowski is an interesting position. She’s fought hard for Medicaid and for the Alaska Native medical system. She deserves credit for that. But the budget she now champions could undo all of that work because the generous tax cuts will have to be eventually paid for by cutting from social programs, especially Medicaid. And what will the new costs be for more development in the Arctic in terms of subsistence hunting and fishing, potential relocation, higher health costs, and increased strain on the environment?

A group of elders from the Bering Sea recently published a report on their Ecosystem and Climate Change. “The cold, rich waters of the northern Bering Sea and Bering Strait form the foundation of culture, food security, and economy for coastal Yupik and Inupiaq peoples, who have relied on the abundant marine resources of this region for thousands of years,” the report said. “But this unique ecosystem is vulnerable to ecological transformation and uncertainty due to climate change … climate warming is leading to change in seasonal ice, altering the abundance, timing, and distribution of important species. The loss of sea ice is in turn causing a dramatic increase in ship traffic through these highly sensitive and important areas.”

How do we change course? How do get a pause? One way is to wait until it’s too late.

In Dominica, a forced rethinking followed the hurricanes. Roosevelt Skerrit, the country’s prime minister, recently put it this way: “Our devastation is so complete that our recovery has to be total. And so we have a unique opportunity to be an example to the world, an example of how an entire nation rebounds from disaster and how an entire nation can be climate resilient for the future. We did not choose this opportunity. We did not wish it. Having had it thrust upon us, we have chosen actively and decisively to be that example to the world.”

A shining example, yes, but at a cost that has been extraordinary and painful. The price of hegemony.

Mark Trahant

Mark Trahant

Mark Trahant is the Charles R. Johnson Endowed Professor of Journalism at the University of North Dakota and a member of The Shoshone-Bannock tribes. He writes a regular column at YES!, where he is a contributing editor. Follow him on Twitter @TrahantReports.

Share This Article