The damage from Hurricane Michael is still being cataloged. After the Category 4 storm made landfall in the Florida Panhandle two weeks ago, it ripped through parts of Florida and Georgia, killing dozens and destroying homes and vital infrastructure in rural communities. Residents don’t yet have a full account of the lives and property erased in the calamity, and even when they do, that accounting will only provide a rough estimate of what was lost. More difficult still will be dealing with the intangibles: the exhaustion and mental-health consequences, the frayed sense of security and safety, the missed school days, and the deepening vulnerability among people who faced the storm.
As the country deals with an onslaught of powerful hurricanes and other weather-related events, those intangibles have become more evident, and more and more important. Michael is—according to experts I spoke with—both a harbinger of a future climate and a representative of a class of disasters that in the past few years have exposed the vulnerabilities of local and national institutions. Those disasters have highlighted the role of inequality, civic instability, and poor planning in amplifying the effects of both extreme and mundane weather. The evidence seems to be mounting that not only will the developing climate regime, if sustained, expose the cracks in the American democratic project, but it will also widen them.
The recent report from the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change provides a grim vision of the near future. It finds that major, irreversible effects on ecosystems and natural resources are all but unavoidable, because they will likely occur at a lower temperature threshold than previously estimated.
On a human level, the IPCC report portends a cascade of troubling scenarios unless immediate action is taken: Droughts, floods, rising seas and heat indices, and famines will be disastrous for populations, especially the masses that continue to crowd global urban areas. Coastlines and wetlands will change faster than cities’ abilities to adapt. Human movement will warp boundaries and spark conflict. The report finds that, in the present day, “poverty and disadvantage have increased with recent warming,” and that those disadvantages will increase over time.
Even under President Donald Trump—who has abdicated national climate responsibilities—the global realities of a changing planet have become a part of American security policy. The 2017 defense-reauthorization bill included findings that “climate instability will lead to instability in geopolitics and impact American military operations around the world.” Those conclusions build on quadrennial reviews from the Defense Department that conceptualize climate change as a global security risk. “These effects are threat multipliers that will aggravate stressors abroad such as poverty, environmental degradation, political instability, and social tensions,” states the 2014 review.
Taken together, all of these forecasts envision a world in which major disasters weaken states and deepen conflicts, breaking safety nets and alliances alike. They predict the degradation of governance as economic outputs decrease, people are displaced, and global food resources falter. The Defense Department calls climate effects “threat multipliers that will aggravate stressors abroad such as poverty, environmental degradation, political instability, and social tensions.” As Durwood Zaelke, the president of the Institute for Governance & Sustainable Development, told me, these dramatic scenarios are actually supported by human history, which illustrates the rise of conflict during times of environmental pressure. “This seems almost like a science-fiction scenario, but in fact it’s a well-written thing in the geological and climate record,” said Zaelke, whose Washington-based nonprofit focuses on the future of international governance.
According to several climate researchers, those long-term global trends are already identifiable at the local level. Zaelke told me Hurricane Michael, like other recent storms, provided a sneak peek at the ways that climate-linked disasters are intensified by a lack of political will to mitigate climate change, which can in turn destabilize governments and sap them of the policy muscle needed to adapt. Though Michael hit a storm-prone stretch of the Deep South, this feedback loop is relevant across the country. Climate denialism among Republican policy makers, who dominate at the state and national levels, dictates that even acknowledging changing weather patterns can constitute a political loss, let alone planning for them in advance. When catastrophes hit, lawmakers funnel funds toward recovery, but they don’t invest in measures that could improve future resilience.
And even if state and local governments do want to plan for the future, disasters’ aftereffects are already constraining their ability to do so. “Costs are starting to mount for adaptation and resilience,” Zaelke says. As a 2016 Freddie Mac report about the risks of climate change to housing markets states: “Rising sea levels and spreading flood plains [appear] likely to destroy billions of dollars in property and to displace millions of people. The economic losses and social disruption may happen gradually, but they are likely to be greater in total than those experienced in the housing crisis and Great Recession.”
Property taxation is the foundation of most local governance, and climate risks, in some areas, threaten municipalities’ ability to meet the needs of their citizens. This is already evident in Miami, where the city has spent over $100 million to combat flooding and protect the city from sinking into the ocean—a sum that will only rise in future years and must be diverted from the local budget. And climate change is influencing the property-tax base that fuels that budget, too. As the Miami Herald reports, about $17 million worth of taxes will come from properties that will face regular flooding by 2030. Under current projections, about $100 million worth of taxes will come from properties facing regular flooding by 2100.*
According to the Freddie Mac report, Miami is representative of the threat facing coastal cities across the United States. But property is only one part of the tax-and-local-governance equation. Metropolitan areas also face rising populations, which create a classic supply-demand crisis in housing markets where attrition from climate change and the threat of hurricane damage are becoming more and more burdensome. As a result, “climate gentrification”—involving the inflation of the land value of high ground and the displacement of poorer people from those areas—looms over American cities. As a study this year from Harvard University researchers indicates, the theoretical risk of climate gentrification may already be shaping Miami’s housing market, as preferences for higher ground appear to be emerging.
In Georgia and Florida alike, Hurricane Michael inflicted visible political and economic effects on the hardest-hit counties, which tended to be rural and poor. The infrastructure in many places—like the dirt roads in Jackson County, Florida, or the water and power lines sustaining small towns and hamlets across the region—is incredibly fragile, and the loss of those systems has multiplicative effects in the near and longer term. In the aftermath of the storm, the infrastructure damage remains life-threatening: It’s endangered people who have chronic illnesses, made the work of rescue and recovery that much more difficult, and compounded the other woes brought on by the storm, like reduced access to groceries and clean water. The need to rebuild infrastructure will squeeze cash-strapped counties and could spur more people to move away, depleting local tax bases.
Essentially, both the steady drumbeat of ordinary climate-based problems and the crescendo of exceptional disasters could strain the basic model of how American government works, destroying tax bases, uprooting people, and sending them careening from one vulnerable area to the next. The same framework can be applied in places where sea-level rise isn’t a major threat—for example, inland towns, such as Princeville, North Carolina, that are located on major waterways and see existential risks from floods, or drought-plagued California towns that haven’t built enough of a tax base to fight those dry spells over the long term.
As heat, disaster risks, and rising seas bombard local governments, the ability of those governments to fulfill their basic functions—the delivery of services, the maintenance of the safety net, and managing civil, familial, and educational institutions—could be degraded, too. This could manifest in three distinct phenomena that are already on display in disaster-affected areas: the increased dominance of private and developer-class interests in local politics, the acceleration of existing wealth inequality, and the collapse of institutions dedicated to disaster response.
With the current science available, it’s impossible to tell whether the recent hurricanes, fires, floods, heat waves, and droughts that have affected cities across the United States were themselves caused by a changing climate. But what research does indicate is that a warmer Earth is intensifying, and will continue to intensify, those events, which means stronger hurricanes, storms that grow more quickly before landfall, longer-lived forest fires, and more unpredictable flash floods.
A white paper on Hurricane Sandy from the Superstorm Research Lab sums up the three social phenomena of disasters and describes how they might be intensified, too. “On one hand, the crisis was seen as a weather event that created physical and economic damage, and temporarily moved New York City away from its status quo,” the authors write, referring to the 2012 storm. “On the other hand, Hurricane Sandy exacerbated crises which existed before the storm and continued afterwards in heightened form, including poverty, lack of affordable housing, precarious or low employment, and unequal access to resources generally.”
As Hurricane Sandy illustrated—like Katrina had years before—disasters and hostile climate conditions don’t create inequalities; they exacerbate them. “Disasters do not discriminate on their impact, but when we see differential consequences, that’s [when] we see the disparities in preexisting conditions,” said Erin Bergren, a visiting professor at North Central College in Illinois and one of the authors of the Sandy paper. “The post-disaster conditions are premised on the pre-disaster conditions.”
Vulnerable people—especially racial minorities—are more likely to live in floodplains and have housing that isn’t insured or built to code. They are less likely than people with means to have reliable air conditioning. They are less likely to be able to evacuate, and they have less built-in community and familial resilience to deal with short- or long-term weather shocks than do people in wealthier, whiter communities.
These differences pose existential risks to the lower classes in America. But over the next century, they could also sap savings and wealth, and could hide or reverse any wage gains these communities have made. In other words: If American society is already trending toward greater inequality, this all means that climate change will accelerate that trend. “If disasters are possibilities for social reorganization, then climate change is as well,” Bergren said.
Evidence exists that this social reorganization is already under way. In an August article in the quarterly journal Social Problems, the researchers Junia Howell from the University of Pittsburgh and James Elliott from Rice University indicate that the “two defining social problems of our day—wealth inequality and rising natural hazard damages—are dynamically linked.” The findings are stark. Using data on thousands of families in areas where the Federal Emergency Management Agency has sent disaster aid, Howell and Elliott demonstrate that white families in disaster-prone areas actually gained an average of $126,000 between 1999 and 2013. But black families in those areas lost an average of $27,000, and Latino families lost an average of $29,000. To put it more succinctly: “The more FEMA aid a county receives, the more unequal wealth becomes between more and less advantaged residents, holding all else constant.”
The most immediate consequence of climate change won’t be an abrupt entry into an alien Anthropocene hell. It’s more likely to be a slow descent. Racial wealth gaps will increase. Racial health disparities will be exacerbated. Sprawling metropolises and rural hamlets alike will face steeper and steeper budgetary constraints (and could be forced to rely heavily on fees and fines to keep the lights on, a move that some cash-strapped local governments have already made and one that disproportionately affects poor or minority residents).
Housing markets will continue to realign in favor of displacement and the creation of a migrant, renter class. Marginalized neighborhoods will continue to shoulder a majority of the environmental burden. Trust in government will continue to decline as it proves unable to help people plan for or respond to climate effects. Elections will be disrupted by disasters, fewer and fewer people will have real attachments to local civic life, and even the concept of a local or national shared destiny will suffer as the haves are shielded from consequences. And disasters can and will rapidly push each of these weaknesses to crisis points, even as the rolling disaster of environmental change makes crises incrementally more likely every day.
And underlying every crisis is the threat of autocracy.
My colleague Robinson Meyer has suggested that Donald Trump is the first global leader who embodies the future of climate authoritarianism. This is a persuasive argument. Although the president routinely dismisses climate science, he does have a keen eye on widening social and economic fault lines, and—most critically—he knows how to wield them to his advantage. He instinctively picks up on rising anti-immigrant sentiment, which is spreading internationally and is linked to climate change; identifies burgeoning insecurities about the global distribution of resources; and sells himself as a figure of stability and order amid visions of chaos.
“Insofar as his supporters are drawn to him by a sense of global calamity,” Meyer writes, “and insofar as his rhetoric singles out the refugee as yet another black and brown intruder trying to violate the nation’s cherished borders, Trump is the first demagogue of the Anthropocene.”
In the two years since Meyer wrote that essay, Trump has done nothing to rebut the argument. There’s probably never been an administration in American history more ill-equipped to deal with disasters. Owing at least in part to the administration’s incompetence, the federal response to Hurricane Maria’s devastation last year in Puerto Rico was a disaster. Trump has since abandoned responsibility by claiming that credible reports of thousands of deaths on the island are partisan hoaxes. Since the storm hit, Puerto Rico has felt its own slide into the murky waters of a less-than-democratic future, as its colonial status has clearly limited recovery options and accelerated migration to the mainland, and a new federally mandated austerity program reorganizes the island’s economy to meet the needs of creditors.
At the same time, Trump has only escalated his anti-immigration rhetoric, presenting a strongman figure for his base. His racism and racial divisiveness seem to serve a millennialist view of a world in decline—one where there isn’t enough to go around, where martial strength is the only recourse, and where the rules and niceties of a previous era must be abandoned.
Donald Trump is a character of the moment. He’s a developer with famous properties in New York, New Jersey, and Miami, during a time when developers in flooding areas have been ceded more and more local control. He’s the culmination of a crisis of faith in government and widening racial differences in opinion over the future, both of which can possibly be traced back to the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. The political polarization and gerrymandering that enabled both his ascent and the strength of his party in Congress were most certainly aided by the displacement of people of color from cities over the past few decades. He’s the natural political conclusion of widening class and racial wealth gaps, and the heir to a system in which state and local governments have more regularly faced budget shortfalls. And climate change contributed to, contributes to, or will contribute to each of these in due time.
“It’s a crisis that we can still deal with if we wake up,” Zaelke says. But the awakening doesn’t just mean accepting the science, and in the American context it doesn’t just mean finally overcoming the grip of climate denialism on politics. In the IPCC’s reading, and in the telling of several of the most vocal climate activists, the changes that the world must undertake in order to rein in climate change will be “unprecedented” and will require monumental shifts in governance and economics.
By all accounts, the task ahead is a moon shot. But perhaps the familiarity of the challenges before the country provides an opportunity. The disasters predicted under even the worst-case scenarios aren’t supernatural; rather, they are macro-level disturbances created by millions of local, often imperceptible perturbances. The cracks of inequality that look likely to widen into chasms of autocracy in the next century were all created by humans, and can all be conquered by them, too.
* This article originally mischaracterized the projected property values of flooded areas in Miami. We regret the error.