Ecology + Justice + Culture in the American South

Climate costs, immigration detention, & more lawsuits

A study was published last week that illustrates why this newsletter exists. The American South, particularly its poor areas, stand to bear the brunt and lose the most from climate change. Not only will the region lose coastline, have increasing numbers of wildfires, and see the spread of tropical diseases — this research said it’s also going to lose its wealth, too.

The study, published in Science and done by a team of 25 researchers and experts from the Climate Impact Lab, examined data from 1981 to 2010, looking at weather-driven damages in agriculture, crime, health, energy demand, labor and coastal communities. Researchers ran 29,000 simulations of possible greenhouse gas emission scenarios and found that if nothing is done to curb carbon emissions, the U.S. could lose 6 percent of its gross domestic product by the end of the century. And the further South you go, the worse that number gets.

“The South is really, really negatively affected by climate change, much more so than the North,” Solomon Hsiang, one of the authors of the paper, told The Atlantic. “That wasn’t something we were expecting going in.”

Atlantic coastal communities could see more damage as sea levels rise faster and more hurricanes make landfall. Florida’s coral reefs, which are valuable ecosystems, are in grave danger of warming ocean temperatures and acidification. Agriculture in many Southern counties could take a hit as heat waves and droughts worsen, preventing farmers from growing crops in the same ways. When temperatures increase, crime increases and productivity decreases, the researchers also noted.

Seven of the 10 counties with the highest percentage of projected county income losses from climate change are in Florida, as well as two in Texas and one in Georgia. The county hit hardest on this map is Union County, Florida, where median income would decrease by 28 percent. In South Carolina, several poor rural counties could lose 15 percent of their median income. Though warming reduces mortalities in Northern counties, in the South, it raises them. For instance, in Charlotte, North Carolina, the mortality rate could rise by more than 20 people out of every 100,000.

Mountainous areas in North Carolina and southwest Virginia will see the least economic damage, according to the data. Other than that, counties that stand to benefit the most economically from climate change are in the upper Midwest, the Northeast, and the Pacific Northwest. One researcher said there will be a “transfer of wealth from the southeast to the parts of the country that are less exposed to risk.”

The South is already the fastest urbanizing region in the U.S. and has the lowest economic mobility, and rising temperatures will likely exacerbate that. Overall, this latest study provides evidence for what most people in the region have known for years and what a mounting pile of data suggests: it’s getting hotter, wetter, more dangerous, and income inequality is worsening.

For the last month, I’ve been traveling all over the rural, poor South reporting for various stories. Despite the surprise of these researchers, their findings seemed relatively predictable after being on the ground in some of the places that will be hit hardest. Several people I spoke to about climate change  — despite their political views, their refusal to believe the science, or their disdain for EPA regulations — were incredibly open and concerned about its economic effects, even if that wasn’t their intention. A woman I spoke to in an Army Corps office in southern Alabama lamented the dangerous heat waves that seem to be getting worse, causing her bills to go up. My Airbnb host in Louisiana told me about how common flooding is anymore, and how costly the construction and constant repairs are. He said his whole family is losing money and time on them, but he can’t catch up. Throughout the last few weeks, I also overheard conversations about heat-related deaths, crops at risk of drought, and the shrinking fishing industry.

When I got back home to Kentucky, I was telling my neighbor about my reporting, and during the conversation he unknowingly listed symptoms of climate change he’s noticed throughout his life: heat, drought, precipitation pattern changes, more violent and frequent storms. But then he told me I was overreacting when I called it that. One step forward, two (or more) steps back, I suppose.

Stories worth your time

A striking photo story in Sierra Magazine illustrates Louisiana’s eroding marshes and wetlands from the view of a flying paraglider. The Thomson Reuters Foundationalso has a feature on the dynamics of climate change acceptance in shrinking southern Louisiana, where thousands working in the fishing, oil and shipping industries are wondering whether to stay or leave.

Scientists found an ancient underwater forest off the coast of Alabama, with cypress trees that were up to 50,000 years old, The Washington Post reports. The forest, which is the equivalent of several city blocks long, is a time capsule of the coastline when sea levels were much lower and the continent was covered in ice sheets.

This glimpse into Southern immigration detention centers by Scalawag is gut-wrenching. It focuses on two centers in Georgia and expands on a report released earlier this year documenting the inhumane treatment of detainees: “In the short time between the release of [the report] and Homan’s address to lawmakers, three detainees died in ICE custody. Seven detainees had already died since the beginning of this year; with the recent spate of deaths, total detainee deaths in 2017 climbed to ten.”

News flying under the radar

A Miami doctor is suing in federal court to stop Miami Dade-County from aerial spraying mosquitoes, claiming the pesticide used risks public health and safety.

Environmental groups are suing the EPA for failing to make sure that Mississippi and Alabama prohibit conflicts of interest on boards that enforce Clean Air Act pollution permits.

In the middle of the night last Friday, the North Carolina legislature agreed to cut a controversial proposed wind moratorium from four years to 18 months.

Also: I’m in the market for a new “Southerly” logo, so shout out some names if you have any designers you’d recommend. As always, thanks for reading. See you next week!