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How climate-driven migration could change the face of the U.S.

DAVE DAVIES, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies. I read a lot of books in this job, and now and then I come across one that I think everyone should read. One of those is the latest by my guest, ProPublica reporter Abrahm Lustgarten. It's about climate change, which you may think you've already heard enough about. But Lustgarten paints a detailed and sobering picture of how global warming is already affecting the lives of many people, causing them to rethink where they're living. And he says climate migration will increasingly reshape the country as tens of millions of people move to escape rising seas, searing heat and humidity, catastrophic floods and wildfires and earth-withering drought. Decades from now, he writes, the United States will be wildly different, even unrecognizable.

He examines what happens when climate refugees take flight, something we're already seeing in other regions, including Central America, and how migrants may be treated in places they choose to settle. Abrahm Lustgarten writes about climate change for ProPublica and works frequently with The New York Times Magazine, The Atlantic, and PBS Frontline, among others. His new book is "On The Move: The Overheating Earth And The Uprooting of America." Abrahm Lustgarten, welcome back to FRESH AIR.

ABRAHM LUSTGARTEN: Thank you so much. It's great to be here.

DAVIES: You know, we kind of think of climate change as serious but something in the future, something for our children and grandchildren to really worry about. But this book really brings it home. You know, you didn't grow up in Northern California. You settled there in part because you loved the access to the wilderness and the raw beauty, but it's made you rethink that decision. And you tell us in the book about a woman who had read your stuff and wrote you, Ellen Herdell. You want to just tell us a bit about her story and why you think it's important?

LUSTGARTEN: Yeah, sure. And let me - just a little bit of context. I'd been working for about 18 months at this point on a story about global migration in response to climate change and, through that reporting process, become a whole lot more focused on what was happening in my own life and in California. And the second story in that series was about climate migration in the United States, and how we were also going to be affected here, and that large numbers of Americans were going to move. And when that story was published, Ellen wrote me an email. And she essentially said, you know, you just wrote what's been going through my mind for years now.

We constantly debate whether or not we're safe here, whether or not we need to move. We want to know when and where to. And it was really like emails that I got from a lot of people. But what she expressed to me in this little note I felt like was exactly like my own experience. And so we began talking, and I decided to share her story in the book. And she lives, you know, about an hour north of San Francisco. And she is repeatedly affected by wildfires at the time, 2015, 2017, 2018. She was repeatedly evacuated, her and her family, her two children, living in the hills above Santa Rosa, Calif.

And each of those fires was, you know, not something that destroyed their homes or their property, but was its own sort of traumatic experience, and something she had to explain to her children and something she had to live through. And packing up the car and unpacking and keeping boxes ready to go. And, you know, it was an experience that, for her, built over some time until she just wondered if she could take it anymore. And her entire family is here in California. Her entire life is here in California. And she was thinking about leaving.

DAVIES: Wasn't one of her in-laws burned out?

LUSTGARTEN: Yeah, her husband's family lost their homes, I believe, in the 2015 fire, and they had been repeatedly evacuated in the years since then. So that was her closest experience to actual loss. And then on a couple of other occasions, she was actually evacuated from her own home where she was regularly hosting family that was evacuated from their homes at her home.

DAVIES: She has two kids. They saw all this. Tough on them, obviously. And then there's the smoke that's there huge parts of the year over the summer, right? That had an effect.

LUSTGARTEN: Yeah, so this is the thing, you know, all of us living in the state of California at one time or another - and now the whole country knows this. But at the time that I was first writing and interviewing, this was a little bit more unique to our part of the country and to maybe parts of Colorado. You live through smoke in wildfire season, whether you have the wildfires in your backyard or not. And so, you know, it's this sort of double-edged sword. You might be grateful that you're not immediately threatened or immediately in danger this time around, but you can't go outside and play. Your kids can't go outside and play. It's unhealthy to breathe the air.

And this can go on, as it did in 2018 and 2020, for many weeks at a time. And for Ellen's children, it was also a bit triggering. They'd been through these scary evacuations. They had friends and neighbors who had lost their homes. And so when the smoke came, the conversation about fires came with it. The life at home becomes a little bit more tense. There's a lot more to process. And for children in particular, that was a difficult experience for them.

DAVIES: You know, when researchers look at conditions that really support human life in a more or less comfortable way, they find that much of the United States supports it, right? As the climate changes - and of course, there are differing estimates about how quickly the Earth will warm. But as you look into the coming decades, how might the United States change?

LUSTGARTEN: Yeah, scientists have identified a human habitability niche. And historically, it's fallen pretty much like a bull's eye in the center of the United States, which is why the Great Plains are fertile for farming, why the southeast is as verdant as it is and why life generally from the south to the northern ends of the United States has been relatively comfortable. What the researchers found is that under, you know, a medium trajectory of climate change, that niche is shifting northwards. And the sweet spot, instead of being in the middle of the country, is going to fall around the upper Midwest and the Great Lakes region closer to Chicago and Detroit. And as that niche shifts northward, the southernmost parts of the country are going to slip outside of it.

The southwest and the southeast in particular and the Gulf Coast will be shifting towards, really, the marginal areas of what has been most habitable for human beings on this planet for the last 6,000 years. Under a more extreme climate-warming scenario, kind of a worst-case scenario, that niche is going to shift right up to the Canadian border, possibly over it. And it will begin to leave a larger portion, as much as half of the United States, kind of in that marginal zone.

DAVIES: Well, I want to talk more about how this change might affect some of those specific regions and where people live and where they go. But before we get to that, you know, it's interesting that the experts that you conferred with in writing this book weren't just climate scientists and that you find that people who advise investors, people who have money at stake in where people live and where economies thrive are really paying attention to this, right?

LUSTGARTEN: Imagine tens of millions of Americans moving and what that means. It's not just bad news for the places that they leave from or bad news that force them to move. It's potentially extraordinary growth in the places that they arrive at, and also enormous economic implications for both ends of that spectrum. A lot of what I've come to understand about climate migration in the United States is that it will be, ultimately, an economic decision, not an environmentally driven decision. And that's to say that people will move when they find that the changing environmental conditions affect their economic standing and their economic security - their jobs, their income, the cost of living.

There are a number of businesses, real estate in particular - let's say it's hotel companies or private equity - buying up land and properties and rental properties, especially, that are trying to see around the curve on this and anticipate where those fast-growth areas are going to be, where maybe some of the sharpest and earliest losses are going to be. And there's a distinct interest, you know, in trying to game that change and time that change. A lot of what I think the, you know, my reporting suggests is that people - individual people can do that, as well. You don't have to be a big corporation. You can think ahead and be proactive about what this means, you know, for your own life and your own economic future and the security of your assets and make those decisions that keep your assets, you know, as secure as possible.

DAVIES: I guess one point I drew from this, I mean, you talked about a company called the Rhodium Group in the Bay Area, which spends a lot of time researching what may happen with climate change and how it may affect the country. I guess what interests me about this is that people who may be suspicious of climate scientists, you know, regarding them as liberal doomsayers, might take note that people who actually have money at stake are taking this seriously, right?

LUSTGARTEN: Yeah. Absolutely. I mean, understanding climate science, understanding climate data and developing various tools to use that data is big business. It is a cornerstone of a lot of what's happening in the American economy. And there's quite significant - you mentioned Rhodium Group, and there's others - kind of climate intelligence firms, if you will, that are in a very nonpartisan and objective way, gathering this data and analyzing it and trying to find some meaning in it and then selling that meaning to plenty of customers who are out there trying to understand and capitalize on those change. And that includes the insurance industry, foremost, real estate, absolutely, transportation industry, health care industry, they've all got very significant vested interests in understanding what's happening, regardless of the politics of the conversation around climate change.

DAVIES: We're going to take a break here. Let me reintroduce you. We are speaking with Abrahm Lustgarten. He writes about climate change for ProPublica. His new book is "On The Move: The Overheating Earth And The Uprooting Of America." We'll continue our conversation in just a moment. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF AVISHAI COHEN SONG, "GBEDE TEMIN")

DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR, and we're speaking with ProPublica reporter Abrahm Lustgarten. He's written for years about climate change. His new book is "On The Move: The Overheating Earth And The Uprooting Of America."

So I'd like to talk about ways that climate change might affect parts of the country where people now live in large numbers and may choose to leave in large numbers. In the West, wildfires are an increasing problem, and you report that it's not just that they are bigger and more frequent, but veterans of firefighting told you that they're qualitatively different in the way they spread and move through terrain. What's different here?

LUSTGARTEN: Fires are burning hotter and because they're burning hotter, they're burning faster. So they are flying across landscapes, sometimes, you know, above the ground level from treetop to treetop. It's just a speed and a heat that scientists have never seen before, and it makes them virtually unfightable. And I think that's what you're seeing some of these last couple of seasons in the West or in Canada last summer, where, you know, the fires are so out of control that they just need to burn and reach their natural ending.

DAVIES: Right. Because they leap over natural barriers like roads and rivers, because they're flying through the tops of the trees at great speed with great heat.

LUSTGARTEN: Yeah. In excess of 100 miles an hour in places.

DAVIES: Wow. So there's heat and there's storms and rising seas. And in the West in particular, there's the problem of drought in the West and Southwest. You've written a lot about the - all of the irrigated agriculture in California and Arizona, where they grow a lot of cotton, a lot of it with water from the Colorado River, which clearly can't sustain the level of development and agriculture that it has in the past. What might the future bring to the West, the Southwest, agriculture in those areas as climate change advances?

LUSTGARTEN: Yeah. You're describing these kind of compounding or layering, you know, disasters or influences - extreme fire risk, extreme drought, extreme heat. What they will all generally mean is that the population of the United States is likely to shift towards cities and generally towards the North and the Northeast in a long-term climate migration pattern. That doesn't necessarily mean that the American Southwest is going to empty out. It's probably a lot more likely that rural areas empty out and cities in that region become bigger. Phoenix might even continue to grow, for example. But the ways that - you know, that the agriculture industry works in places like Arizona where they grow cotton or places like Southern California and the Imperial Valley where they grow winter vegetables for the whole country with Colorado River water, those places are destined to see enormous change. The water will be available for a long time but in much, much smaller quantities.

The Colorado River, for example, is not only overused between all of the states that share it but is diminishing in its supply. Its supply is supposed to drop about another 9 or 10% with climate change over the next decade, so - and already has by a similar amount. So farm communities will have to work with less, and the heat will make it more difficult for them to obtain the yields that they're accustomed to and makes their businesses a lot less workable into the future. And you can expect to see a shift of where people live and where they work in response to that. I wouldn't be surprised to see a lot of, you know, West Texas begin to empty out but Texan cities continue to grow. Atlanta, for example, might be a, as far as the South goes, a magnet city for a lot of people coming from further south on the Gulf Coast where there's different compounding threats, where those threats include sea level rise and extreme heat, as well. But people will begin gravitating towards more urban economies and more urban infrastructure and the support network that comes with - you know, with an urban community.

DAVIES: What about all the wheat grown in the Great Plains?

LUSTGARTEN: It's a really great and unanswered question. So, you know, farming across the - crop yields across the Great Plains have already dropped about 12% due to climate change. And some of the projections that I use in my reporting, which come from the Rhodium Group, suggest that those yields will drop in the Great Plains, depending on the location, between another 20 to 40, even 50%. And as you go further south, those crop yield losses become much more even total. So parts of - into Central Texas and down to South Texas, Rhodium projects crop yield losses of 90%, even 100%. So some places will become completely unfarmable. The Great Plains, which is the breadbasket of the United States, the - you know, the center for a $35 billion annual agricultural industry, it's not really clear what the outcome will be, but it's difficult to imagine that it continue to produce major crop - staple crops like wheat and corn the way it does now for long into the future. And that suggests that the communities that farm in those regions and the big corporate farming companies will have to look elsewhere to be able to produce that food.

DAVIES: Right. So if agriculture virtually disappears from Texas and it's drastically reduced in California and wheat yields in the country - in the middle of the country declined dramatically, what does that do to world food supplies and international relations?

LUSTGARTEN: Yeah. So the United States is a huge exporter - the second largest global exporter of wheat, depending on the year, sometimes the first largest with Russia. And much of the world depends on imports of those staple grains from the United States. There's a study out of Columbia University that traced the ripple effect of that sort of decline in American agriculture and I'm forgetting the exact numbers, but found that it would have a significant impact on the food stocks and the food supplies in North Africa, in places like Yemen and a lot of other places that rely on both U.S. foreign aid, which often comes in the form of food or on U.S. food purchases.

DAVIES: You write about a town, Ordway, Colo., and the impact already there where the shortage of water has really kind of decimated agriculture. And this was a really bustling place, you know, what was it like? What's happened? What's left?

LUSTGARTEN: Ordway is a really fascinating example because it underwent this extraordinary change that began a couple of decades ago that's partially due to economic reasons and not solely because of climate change, but it gives us a glimpse into the future of what happens in an American farming community when they run out of water. Ordway is this small town about an hour and a half south of Denver that used to have a thriving agricultural industry. They grew tomatoes and melons and canned them there, and they were shipped by railroad out across the country. And the local - the small towns there were thriving little communities with car dealerships and large grocery stores and feed stores. And it was a vibrant place.

And a couple of decades ago, Ordway tried to enhance their water availability, and they built a pipeline. They funded a pipeline to draw water from the Colorado River on the other side of the Continental Divide and bring that water over to the Front Range of Colorado. And as they did that, they increased their dependence on that water. And then they had water rights. And as Colorado developed and its population grew and it built more track homes and the cities of places like Aurora or Colorado Springs grew, the farmers sold those water rights to go to those booming new municipalities. And part of their assumption was that even if they sold the water rights that they brought over from the Colorado River, they would always have the natural water supply that Ordway had had for 100 years before that when it was still a vibrant farming community.

DAVIES: The natural supply being rainfall or aquifers or...

LUSTGARTEN: Right. Rainfall. Primarily rainfall. And what they found is that the Front Range of Colorado was enduring a long-term and steady decline in rainfall, and that water just wasn't naturally available. And as they sold the water rights in their canals to the cities around them, they didn't have enough to farm. And that effect corresponded with the general decline in American small-town agriculture. So people were leaving Ordway anyway, but it accelerated the decline of this community so that by the time I went there, most of the land around Ordway was sitting empty, unfarmable, dust clouds rolling on the horizon, shops in town that used to be vibrant, boarded up with plywood. Most of the businesses shut down except for the very basics. The school had declined in population in enrollment by more than half. And it was just a - you know, a picture of the decline of a small community that can no longer depend on their natural environment to support a robust farming experience.

DAVIES: We're going to take another break here, and I'll introduce you.

Abrahm Lustgarten writes about climate change for ProPublica. His new book is "On The Move: The Overheating Earth And The Uprooting Of America." He'll be back to talk more after a short break. I'm Dave Davies, and this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE VAMPIRES SONG, "FREEDOM SONG")

DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies. Our guest, ProPublica reporter Abrahm Lustgarten, has written for years about climate change and about battles in the American West over increasingly scarce water resources. His new book looks at the likely effects of climate change on where we live. He says people are already fleeing rising seas, wildfires, oppressive heat and drought. And we can expect to see tens of millions of climate refugees in the coming decades, jarring movements that will dramatically reshape the United States. His book is "On The Move: The Overheating Earth And The Uprooting Of America."

We've talked about wildfires in the West and droughts, and how it could really damage agricultural production across much of the country. In the south and southwest and the East Coast, we have a problem of rising seas. Is it already driving people away from coastal areas?

LUSTGARTEN: We're already seeing dramatic flooding on the coastlines. And, you know, the way rising seas are experienced by people living next to them is not that one day an acre that used to be dry is forever buried, but that the floods of that acre of land happen more frequently until they're happening all the time. It's really difficult to measure on the coast or anywhere else who has moved already in response to sea level rise or in response to, you know, a climatic event. But there are obvious examples of homes being swallowed by the sea.

We've seen some of those on the coast of North Carolina just in the last year or two, where high tides have literally just taken out the foundations of homes and swept them out into the ocean. And that's the kind of thing that's going to be happening a whole lot more often. Some of the research that I based my reporting on suggests that there are about 13 million people who currently live in places that are projected to be underwater by later this century. So that's sort of the low end of, you know, the climate migration that we would expect might be driven from sea level rise alone.

On the Louisiana coast, you're seeing already some whole communities that have essentially been moved. I spent some time in a place called Isle de Jean Charles. And it's an old Native American community about an hour and a half south of New Orleans. And there's been a formal effort to take that community in its whole and move a couple of hundred residents to a spot about 40 miles north onto dry land, build them new homes and essentially retreat from that rising coastline. So you're starting to see small examples of retreat and displacement along the coast. But it's hard to pick up on the bigger trend at this early time.

DAVIES: We're already seeing places like in coastal Florida, for example, where it's increasingly risky to build in places that have been destroyed by hurricanes or flooded. And, you know, business leaders and political leaders resist the idea that people should abandon parts of their communities or that they should move out. And so there's been this need to find insurance. You know, most insurance companies don't, I don't think, write flood insurance anymore because it's so unpredictable. You have a chapter called "The Great American Climate Scam," and this involves how insurance risk is apportioned. Tell us what's going on here.

LUSTGARTEN: Yeah, so this basically focuses on the countervailing incentives, you know, that local governments have and that state governments have and that individual people have. And a lot of Americans live in some of the most dangerous regions of the country in terms of climate risk. And nine of the 10 fastest-growing regions in the country are some of the highest climate risk regions in the country. And people have been moving into those places because there are a set of subsidies and government programs in place that essentially mask the risk, that mask the true cost of their decisions to live there. And one of those fundamental subsidies has been an insurance system that basically makes it cheaper to buy a home or cheaper to insure a home then the risk would suggest that it should be.

DAVIES: And is that - that's a subsidy from taxpayers?

LUSTGARTEN: It's indirectly a subsidy from taxpayers. So this began in Florida after Hurricane Andrew in 1992. Tens of thousands of homes were wiped off the map. Insurance companies fled the state, they dropped people's policies, and they didn't want to write new policies in the state of Florida. And so what you saw at that point was the state of Florida and local governments as well thinking, we've just had decades of astronomical growth, we love that growth, we can't see that reverse, and we can't see people move out of the state.

And so Florida devised a state-run insurance plan that would make insurance available to any homeowner who wanted to buy it through the state. And eventually they promised to discount that plan so that it would actually be cheaper than what the free market insurance was providing. Systems for insurance like that have now been replicated in about 30 states across the country. They're called FAIR plans - for fair access to insurance - and it has essentially made it less expensive for Americans to move into places that are threatened by hurricanes, threatened by wind damage, threatened by flooding. In some cases, though, you mentioned, flooding is now covered by the federal government, another form of that subsidy.

And in California and a lot of the West, there are similar FAIR plans now being expanded to cover people who face risk of wildfires. Insurance is becoming harder to buy in places like California, and there is an increasing reliance on those state-subsidized plans. So there's all sorts of subsidies - insurance subsidies, water has been kept inexpensive in the American southwest. Crops have been supported by the U.S. Department of Agriculture when they fail in the southwest. These are all forms of payments to people to remain living in high-risk areas. And they mask a natural signal that might tell somebody that they're living in a high-risk place or that their assets are at risk and that might otherwise, in an uninfluenced environment, convince them that they should move elsewhere.

DAVIES: So there's no pressure on Congress from areas that there ought to be a lot of pressure from because the risk is masked by insurance subsidies?

LUSTGARTEN: That's right. Americans don't necessarily feel the urgency of the climate crisis because they've been shielded from the consequences of the climate crisis by these subsidies and similar systems.

DAVIES: You know, and yet, if the climate crisis deepens and even these subsidized rates really are not sustainable or taxpayers rebel, things could change. I mean, one of the things you write is that when things really start to get serious that, you know, everyone, including businesses, maybe starting with businesses, will act to protect themselves. And that includes banks and insurance companies. So, I mean, like, you own a house in Northern California. At some point if they say, we can't give you home insurance anymore because the fire, the wildfire risk, is that a real possibility?

LUSTGARTEN: It's happening. You know, I mean, Americans increasingly face greater personal financial risk as climate costs are soaring and insurance and those subsidies are starting to go away. And this is changing their perception of the climate issue from a cultural, political issue to a household economics issue. And that's the change that I think is going to start pushing people to reconsider where they live. And across California, for example, where I am, people are being dropped by their homeowner's insurance on a daily basis because of wildfire risk. And when that happens, they have an option to go to the state subsidized plan, which exists to support people. It's a double-edged sword because people need that support, but it also encourages people to remain in wildfire risk zones. But they're also finding that those plans are extremely expensive.

And people in California, people along the Gulf Coast are beginning to consider self-insurance. There's larger numbers of homeowners who are going without insurance. That means that their personal financial risk is increasing exponentially. And undoubtedly, people will begin to move in response to that, or people will ultimately suffer greater economic consequences the next time there's a devastating hurricane, the next time there's an unexpected wildfire in a suburban or urban area.

DAVIES: Take another break here, then we'll talk some more.

We are speaking with Abrahm Lustgarten. He writes about climate change for ProPublica. His new book is "On The Move: The Overheating Earth And The Uprooting Of America." We'll talk more in just a moment. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF JULIAM LAGE GROUP & JULIAN LAGE'S "IOWA TAKEN")

DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR, and we're speaking with Abrahm Lustgarten. He writes about climate change for ProPublica. His new book about climate migration is "On The Move: The Overheating Earth And The Uprooting Of America."

You were describing how affluent people in California are responding to these wildfires and where, you know, they may not have really comfortable, breathable air and clear skies for weeks or months at a time. People will drive for long, long distances to rent a place just to have a weekend in the clear. And you've experienced this yourself, right?

LUSTGARTEN: I mean, this was our experience the summer of 2020, you know, in Northern California. I had close friends who were evacuating, you know, not literally told to evacuate but were seeking cleaner air virtually every weekend. So they would work from home when they needed to report to their jobs and then just get in the car and look for a place where they could breathe - where their family or their kids could breathe.

I had a similar experience running around the northern part of California one weekend going camping. I write about it in the book - not because we were looking for a vacation, but we were just trying to get out of the smoke, and the wind shifted during that weekend, and the smoke followed us, and we ended up packing up and moving on to the next place. And it's kind of, you know, it's this harrowing and stressful experience of, you know, driving through clouds of really toxic fumes and terrible air and looking for a place where you can just take a good, long, deep breath and, you know, that kind of experience, it really teaches you to appreciate the - you know, the most essential sort of aspects of a clean environment.

DAVIES: I think there's a moment in the book when you were talking to some researcher about these very issues and kind of hanging on in California when, you know, insuring homes is getting increasingly dicey. And you ask the guy, should I move? What happened?

LUSTGARTEN: Yeah. I mean, this was a potential turning point for me. And then, interestingly, you know, I've never turned the corner. You know, but the place that I live is a suburban area, and it is adjacent to, you know, wildfire risk zones and open space. And I was having this conversation, and I was being educated on the economic impacts of, you know, a lot of what I've just told you about how insurance schemes change, about how state support for insurance changes and how the markets and the banking systems will respond to that. And I was looking out my own window and I asked this person, you know, should I move? And it was a resounding and urgent yes that I got in response.

And that was, you know, a real kind of reality check for me. It was probably the moment that started, you know, the process of writing this book, and also the moment that started this long process of deeply considering what it means to be pushed out of a place on a personal level because of climate change and how to consider, you know, what the risks are, what the impacts are, how to try to game that timing and how difficult, ultimately, it is that it is not a simple decision to ever decide to move and to uproot your own life, which is something that I haven't done yet.

DAVIES: And it's like the place that you love so much you wanted to stay there forever isn't that place anymore.

LUSTGARTEN: Yeah. That's absolutely right. I mean, personally, I've always chosen where I live based on, you know, my access to nature and the beauty of my surroundings. I lived in the Rocky Mountains. I came out to California's mountains. I always thought that that was a completely subjective decision and felt like one of my greatest freedoms was, you know, my right to make that decision and what, you know, this whole process and understanding, you know, the climate pressures and how they affect where people live, what that's taught me is, you know, that one impact of climate change is that I'm losing that particular freedom, that - you know, that where to live, you know, ultimately becomes a more difficult decision. Maybe one day in the future becomes a decision that's made for me and taken out of my hands, you know, altogether. And the simplicity of - or the luxury of being able to just sort of choose your environment and place yourself in it at will, that's a luxury that's going away, along with all the other things that are changing.

DAVIES: You write in the book that there are a lot of places in the United States, particularly in the South and the West, that are going to be, you know, less habitable and that people are going to be moving. And when that happens, as - there will actually be areas that benefits, the Great Lakes in particular. Why is that?

LUSTGARTEN: Well, the greatest reason is that the Great Lakes has the world's largest supply of fresh surface water. And, you know, throughout global history, people have always found the most sustainable environments in places around an ample supply of water. And as water becomes more scarce in parts of the United States, the Great Lakes will, you know, provide that secure and stable source of water. The Great Lakes region, also the Dust Belt region, you know, is a place that has a lot of urban infrastructure, cities that passed their population primes in, you know, 1970 and have been declining since.

And so they have what some of the researchers I talked to describe as, you know, a capacity. They have housing stock. They have sewage infrastructure and roads infrastructure to support a growing population. They will not experience the same kind of intense climate impacts that coastal areas will from storms or flooding or the same kind of heat increases as the Southern United States. And so they're shielded from a lot of the worst impacts, and they have the capacity to absorb growth. And the expectation is that as people move there, there's, you know, a greater ability for those communities to absorb people and to plan for that growth and perhaps to - you know, to thrive again.

DAVIES: This is maybe a self-interested question. We're in Philadelphia here at FRESH AIR. What's in store for us?

LUSTGARTEN: Sea level rise. I mean, Philadelphia is a pretty temperate environment, and so its risks are not enormous. But it popped up in my book is an example of, you know, one of the East Coast cities that will have to, you know, consider what it means to have, you know, rising water levels that are going to, you know, in a most extreme sense, you know, turn parts of the city into islands, probably require, you know, new highway construction and new bridges and things like that, as well as, you know, all along the northern part of the East Coast are going to see, you know, an increasing likelihood of strong hurricanes from time to time.

DAVIES: What about New York City?

LUSTGARTEN: So New York City faces enormous climate risks, both, storms and sea level rise - the same story. You know, there's - not sure the most current version of the plan to build a seawall outside of the New York Harbor, you know, outside of the Verrazano Bridge. But there was $120 billion plan, last time I checked, to - you know, to build a seawall that might just close off New York from sea level rise. And if that kind of major infrastructure development doesn't happen, then you'll just see rising water levels all around, you know, the New York coastline.

DAVIES: Well, Abrahm Lustgarten, thanks so much for speaking with us again.

LUSTGARTEN: Thank you so much for having me.

DAVIES: Abrahm Lustgarten writes about climate change for ProPublica. His new book is "On The Move: The Overheating Earth And The Uprooting Of America." Coming up, Ken Tucker reviews the new album from rapper and singer Tierra Whack, which he says puts her at the forefront of hip-hop creativity. This is FRESH AIR.

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Dave Davies is a guest host for NPR's Fresh Air with Terry Gross.