Climate Change Literature that Made Waves in 2016

The impacts of climate change are all around us, particularly in the form of floods and sea level rise. See what government reports, research papers and (yes) even novels made it onto my Best of 2016 Climate Literature list.

Welcome to my “Best of 2016” climate change reading list. Climate change is happening and it’s happening faster than expected in many ways. We’re already seeing sea levels rise and floods occurring with alarming frequency across the United States and abroad, and communities are grappling with the all too real effects of a rapidly warming climate.

Because my work at NRDC revolves around the impacts of climate change, particularly the relationship to flooding along our rivers and coastlines, my “Best of 2016” reading list does as well. It includes academic articles, policy papers, and even works of fiction from the increasingly popular climate fiction sub-genre. So here it is, in no particular order.

Effects of Climate Change on People, Housing, and the Poor

The Disaster Profiteers: How Natural Disasters Make the Rich Richer and the Poor Even Poorer, John Mutter

The poorest people are the least able to quickly recover from a flood, hurricane, or natural disaster. Although natural disasters affect everyone, they can also widen the gap between the richest and poorest members of a community. Surprisingly, post-disaster government assistance can contribute to this inequity. Affluent people can more easily access government disaster assistance, while those living in poorer conditions often miss out because they don’t have internet access or can't find temporary housing. Moreover, land speculators and governments have been known to take advantage of a disaster to force poor people from homes destroyed in a flood, hurricane, or other natural disaster. Overall, this book will open your eyes to the inequities associated with the aftermath of natural disasters.

Takeaway: Helping those most in need should be the top priority after a disaster, but we too often focus on helping those who get to the front of the line first.

Climate Change is Already Forcing Americans to Move, Bloomberg — Christopher Flavelle

This article from Bloomberg exposes how flooding and climate change are exacerbating a crisis in public housing. Communities often don’t repair or rebuild public housing in the wake of a flood. After Hurricane Katrina, for example, New Orleans lost 4,534 apartments but only replaced 706 units. That’s not an isolated instance. Some of the poorest members of our communities are rendered homeless by flooding, sea level rise, and climate change. The Inspector General for the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development even found that public housing authorities sometimes neglect to purchase flood insurance and that more than 11,000 public housing units are built in the nation’s floodplains. On top of the displacement of the poor, the destruction of public housing often leads to more affluent people moving into the vacated lots, which is causing “climate gentrification”. This is an eye-opening piece.

Takeaway: Climate change is affecting everyone, but it’s affecting the poor more than the affluent.

Sea Level Rise and Polar Melting

Millions projected to be at risk from sea-level rise in the continental United States, Nature Climate Change — Hauer, Evans, and Mishra

This study estimates that three to six feet of sea level rise will inundate between 4.2 and 13.1 million Americans by the end of the century. Most estimates of future sea level rise impacts assume the same number of people will live on our coasts in the future as there are today, which ignores the trend of people moving to our coastlines. This study projects how many more people might move into coastal areas and put themselves at risk (unless we deter people from doing so).There are a multitude of sea level rise studies, none of which give good news, just varying degrees of how bad it could be. This one’s no different, but gives us a clearer picture of why we need to do things differently…very differently.

Takeaway: The ocean’s getting higher and it’s riskier to live on the coast…so why do so many people still want to live there? Go there for the beach and stay for the…well, um…don’t stay.

The Effect of Rising Sea Levels on Coastal Homes, — Melissa Allison

When a real estate website starts telling you that 1.9 million existing homes in its database are going underwater if sea levels rise six feet, we should all listen. This isn’t some wild-eyed extremist organization cherry-picking data to sensationalize the results; it’s a website designed to sell you real estate for pete’s sake! This report probably brought more press attention to the problems of sea level rise this year than any other because of the scary conclusions and because it was putting out those scary conclusions.

Takeaway: When is worried about sea level rise and coastal real estate, it’s time for everybody to get worried.

Dealing with Climate Catastrophes and Natural Disasters

How the World Breaks: Life in Catastrophe’s Path, from the Caribbean to Siberia, Stan Cox and Paul Cox

When a natural disaster strikes, communities, nations, and societies respond in a variety of ways. This book highlights a lot of do’s and don’ts by closely examining the aftermath of major disasters around the world. And it looks ahead to some potential catastrophes in the making (hellooooo Miami!). It also provides some fascinating insights on how cultures can come together in the wake of disasters, like in the Philippines where more than one major hurricane recently battered the island nation. This outstanding book provides invaluable lessons that we’re all going to need to learn from.

Takeaway: If it’s going to happen, you better prepare for it. If you aren’t prepared for it, you better learn from the aftermath.

Potential Increases in Hurricane Damage in the United States: Implications for the Federal Budget, Congressional Budget Office

This report found that the nation is going to take a pretty big financial hit from hurricanes in the future. About half of the increase in damages is due to climate change and half is due to development in vulnerable areas (why don’t we stop doing that?). According to the non-partisan Congressional Budget Office, hurricane damage will go from an average of $28 billion per year to $39 billion in the year 2075 with the federal government picking up most that tab ($18 billion today vs $24 billion in 2075). And the number of people living in areas with substantial hurricane damage will increase from 1.2 million to 10.0 million as sea levels rise and more people move into harm’s way.

Takeaway: Hey! Stop moving to the beach!

Climate Fiction

Drowned Worlds, Edited by Jonathan Strahan

This collection of climate fiction (or cli-fi) stories is a fascinating and disturbing collection set in a future that’s been altered by climate change. Why is fiction an important outlet for getting people to understand climate change? It turns out that people who read fiction are more empathetic to the plight of others, so readers of cli-fi may very well be more supportive of actions to combat climate change and deal with its impacts. And they’re very entertaining stories.

Takeaway: What stories will be told when the oceans rise? This collection gives you a glimpse.

Everything Change: An Anthology of Climate Fiction, Imagination and Climate Futures Initiative, Arizona State University, Foreword by Kim Stanley Robinson

This free downloadable book from the innovators and thinkers at ASU’s Imagination and Climate Futures Initiative is the result of a literary contest that solicited groundbreaking and (at times) heart-wrenching stories set in our climate future. The stories contained within are well worth the price of the book (it’s free). It also contains an interview with cli-fi superstar author Paolo Bacigalupi (author of last year’s hit novel, The Water Knife), which is reason enough to download this book.

Takeaway: There are some great stories to be told about our future and a lot of creative people telling those stories. Take the time to see for yourself.

The Madhouse Effect: How Climate Change Denial Is Threatening Our Planet, Destroying our Politics, and Driving Us Crazy, Michael Mann and Tom Toles

Okay, this book isn’t fiction. But it’s about people who spin their own version of fiction as climate deniers! Noted climate researcher, Michael Mann, takes us on a tour of the world that climate deniers have helped create, sowing the seeds of confusion and harvesting a crop full of climate inaction in the process.

 Takeaway: Science shouldn’t be something you choose to believe in. When the facts tell you to take action and what actions to take, then you should take them.

ACTION! No really, we are starting to do something about all these problems!

Federal Flood Protection Standards, President Barack Obama

New regulations have been proposed by FEMA and the Dept. of Housing and Urban Development to make the nation safer from future flood disasters, and agencies like the Army Corps of Engineers  are seeking input on how they should implement similar standards. In 2015, the President signed an executive order that updated the flood protection standards that all federal agencies follow when providing funding that supports the construction of any public building, facility, or infrastructure. The standards were originally put in place in the 1970s by President Jimmy Carter and have been continued by every administration since. The updated standards require an additional margin of safety against flood risks and accounts for rising sea levels and other factors that make floods more likely in the future.

NRDC has been a champion for these standards since they first came out. Read more here, here, here, and here. But we’re not alone. The insurance industry, fiscal watchdogs, and floodplain professionals are all supportive of the improved standards.

Takeaway: The federal government shouldn’t be in the business of building stuff that is likely to go under water. If they adhere to these standards, they won’t be.

Opportunities to Enhance the Nation’s Resilience to Climate Change, White House CEQ

What are we going to do about the impacts of climate change that are too late to avoid (and, ahem, will get worse if our President-elect follows through on gutting the Clean Power Plan)? Well, this document lays out a pretty straightforward approach to dealing with the inevitable. Make sure the science is up-to-date and that we understand what the future might look like? Check. Integrate future climate conditions and resilience into federal decisions? Yes. Support community-based efforts to make themselves safer? Absolutely!

Takeaway: The first step to solving a problem is to recognize you have one. The second step is to start doing something about it.

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