Fifty States of Climate Change: Weather.com's Sprawling Portrait of a Vulnerable Nation

January 25, 2018, 12:10 PM EST

 
Above: United States of Climate Change explores the mosaic of climate-related impacts and responses from state to state. Image credit: weather.com

For better or worse, the United States was built for a stationary climate. We’ve readied ourselves for the kind of weather extremes and climate patterns the past has brought us. Things aren’t going to be quite so predictable going forward, courtesy of greenhouse gas emissions. A powerful new project at weather.com convincingly argues that we’ve only begun to grapple with this truth.

United States of Climate Change is a stop-in-your-tracks website that brings home the reality of climate impacts by zeroing in on a key issue from each state. Produced by the editorial team at weather.com, the project includes partnerships with other journalists and photographers at a range of media outlets and nonprofit organizations, including InsideClimate News, Center for Public Integrity, The Lens, InvestigateWest, Food & Environment Reporting Network, The Marshall Project, Divided Films, Honolulu Civil Beat, and Louisville Public Media.

Banner for United States of Climate Change

Using an eloquent blend of words, photos, videos, and infographics, United States of Climate Change conveys the breadth and depth of climate impacts from coast to coast. It also points to successes—and not a few shortcomings—in confronting a future that’s racing headlong into our present.

“The idea behind the United States of Climate Change project was straightforward: tell one climate change-related story for each state, many of them investigative,” says executive editor Kevin Hayes. “Those investigations and, ultimately, the project as a whole, came to much the same conclusion: America is unwilling to invest in mitigating the effects of climate change to the degree that future safety and stability requires.”

Waterfront homes on the Gulf Coast near Naples, Florida
Figure 1. Waterfront homes on the Gulf Coast near Naples, Florida. The Florida installment of United States of Climate Change focuses on Collier County, which includes Naples. In addition to its efforts to protect property against rising sea levels, Collier County has made a few gestures toward reducing emissions—switching to energy-efficient light bulbs in some cases and using solar-powered lights in the Naples Zoo parking lot. However, as county commission chair Penny Taylor told writer Jonathan Katz, “It’s hard to let go of what you have built your life on successfully,” she said. “It’s all about money. Always. It always boils down to that.”

In reading through United States of Climate Change, I was reminded time and again that climate change doesn’t happen in a vacuum. Some adaptations to a changing climate might look like no-brainers, but they can still get waylaid by politics, economics, prejudices, or simple inertia. The lines that go from fossil fuel emission to human adaptation are often zigzags rather than arrows.

Some of the consequences of an evolving climate hadn’t crossed my mind till I read these articles. For example:

•  Of the roughly 150,000 people imprisoned in Texas, some 80 percent are in cells that lack air conditioning. At least 20 inmates have been killed by inescapable heat in the last 20 years. There’s little public or legislative support for putting A/C into Texas prisons, even as the state’s average summer temperatures continue to rise. “The likelihood of more deaths in hot prisons and jails is an article of faith among not just inmates but correctional officers, who often complain of headaches and sometimes take night shifts to avoid the heat,” says Maurice Chammah.

•  In Missouri, the floating riverboat-themed casinos that gave the state’s economy a shot in the arm starting in the 1990s have a big weakness: their vulnerability to flooding. One Missouri casino has already closed as a result of repeated floods along the Mississippi. “The casino industry is losing hundreds of millions of dollars in an effort to keep from going under water themselves, both metaphorically, and literally,” writes Matt Hongoltz-Hetling. “Despite massive expenditures, many casinos seem to be on an inevitable collision course with a series of future floods that will, at some point, threaten the very viability of their operations.

Floodwaters from the Mississippi River blocked the entrance of the President Casino in St. Louis on May 15, 2010
Figure 2. Floodwaters from the Mississippi River blocked the entrance of the President Casino in St. Louis on May 15, 2010. The casino closed its doors later that year. Image credit: AP Photo/The St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

The project also spotlights a few states that are thinking ahead and moving forward, though the path is not always smooth.

•  Delaware is a standout among low-lying East Coast states in its dedication to preserving natural coastlines that serve as critical buffers against the rising sea. Much of this success is due to the Coastal Zone Act, a groundbreaking state law passed in 1971 that prohibited factories and chemical plants along the state’s 96-mile coast. Last year, however, environmentalists failed to stop a bill that allows for redevelopment of shipping docks and industrial plants along northern stretches of the Delaware coast.

•  After more than a decade of legislative and courtroom setbacks, the Cape Wind proposal for a massive wind farm off the southeast Massachusetts coast bit the dust in 2017. Meanwhile, Rhode Island has quietly proceeded with the nation’s first offshore wind farm. With just five turbines so far, it already has 30 megawatts of capacity—enough to power 17,000 homes, including all of the permanent residents of nearby Block Island.

Although United States of Climate Change takes the reality of climate change as a given, it doesn’t shy away from complexity. I was struck by the conflicts running through the Arizona feature, which focuses on the Navajo Generation Station. The largest coal plant in the U.S. West, it’s now facing stiff competition from natural gas and renewables. The Navajo Nation is seeking a new buyer that will keep the plant operating for at least another decade past 2019, when the current operator’s lease runs out. Coal is the most climate-unfriendly of the major fossil fuels (the Navajo Generation Station produces greenhouse-gas emissions roughly equal to that from 2.7 million passenger vehicles). And the benefits this plant has brought to the Navajo Nation’s economy are inescapably juxtaposed with serious health impacts, air-quality issues, and stressed water supplies.

File photo of Lake Powell in north central Arizona, with the Navajo Generating Station in the distance
Figure 3. File photo of Lake Powell in north central Arizona, with the Navajo Generating Station in the distance. Image credit: iStock/CrackerClips.

In Nebraska, we see and hear from farmers who are ripping out shelterbelts, the rows of trees built in the 1930s Dust Bowl to blunt the fierce winds of the Great Plains and cut down on soil erosion. (During my Oklahoma childhood, I passed many a shelterbelt on family drives.) Farmers are operating on tighter profit margins than ever before, and cropping even the modest amount of land blocked by the shelterbelts could make the difference between ending a year in the red or in the black. But what about next year, or next decade? Are we confident we no longer need these bulwarks against nature, even in a warming climate with the potential for more severe drought impacts?

Each of the 50 articles in the United States of Climate Change is compelling in its own way. As a group, they pack an even bigger wallop. “The individual stories vary widely,” says executive editor Patty Cox, “but what they have in common is short-sightedness and the human tendency to hope for the best.”

Find out more at United States of Climate Change.

The Weather Company’s primary journalistic mission is to report on breaking weather news, the environment and the importance of science to our lives. This story does not necessarily represent the position of our parent company, IBM.

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Bob Henson

WU meteorologist Bob Henson, co-editor of Category 6, is the author of "Meteorology Today" and "The Thinking Person's Guide to Climate Change." Before joining WU, he was a longtime writer and editor at the University Corporation for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, CO.

bob.henson@weather.com

@bhensonweather

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