Reporting From the Front Lines of Climate Change in Small-Town America
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Reporting From the Front Lines of Climate Change in Small-Town America

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Reporting From the Front Lines of Climate Change in Small-Town America

Jonathan Vigliotti is an Emmy and Edward R. Murrow Award-winning CBS News national correspondent whose work has appeared on numerous platforms, including CBS Sunday Morning, Face the Nation, 48 Hours, and more.

Below, Jonathan shares five key insights from his new book, Before It’s Gone: Stories from the Front Lines of Climate Change in Small-Town America. Listen to the audio version—read by Jonathan himself—in the Next Big Idea App.

Before It's Gone Jonathan Vigliotti Next Big Idea Club

1. Storms have names and so do their survivors, who have lessons to share.

The sheer scale of today’s mega-storms—and the billions of dollars in damage they often cause—make it easy to lose sight of the growing number of Americans living on the climate frontlines. We’ve all heard of Hurricane Katrina, Andrew, and Irma. But what about Becky James and Kevin Reed? They’re just a few of the hundreds of survivors in the field. I met them both after a mile-wide tornado meteorologist called “The Beast” ripped through their slice of Kentucky bluegrass in 2021.

Kevin was a 47-year-old soft-spoken motorcycle mechanic living in Mayfield. Becky was the 74-year-old steel magnolia who owned a diner in nearby Dawson Springs. Kevin and Becky didn’t know each other. Their lives had never Venn diagrammed. But on the balmy winter night of December 10th, 2021, the burnished edges of their southern worlds, along with those of tens of thousands of other strangers, overlapped and were then welded together by just three minutes of chaos. That’s the time it took for “The Beast” to pass over.

According to studies, one in three Americans have been impacted by extreme weather, and in the future, more American strangers will likely be connected by disaster. What if, by listening to stories of survivors, those of us who have been untouched could avoid a similar fate? It’s not a crazy idea.

Just look at all the anti-smoking campaigns often featuring people in some stage of suffering warning the rest of us not to pick up a cigarette. In New York City, a study by the Health Department found for every dollar spent on its campaign, the city saved $32 in healthcare costs. In a recent Ted Talk, Harvard psychologist Dan Gilbert explained how the human brain has the unique ability to help its users imagine experiences before they happen. It’s an evolutionary skill meant to protect us from doing stupid things based on stories from friends, family, ancestors, and strangers. But when dealing with the often-abstract threat of an environmental disaster, it seems like many of us have switched this part of the brain off. Listening to stories like Becky and Kevin’s and understanding their perspectives is the first step to turning the natural defenses in our brains back on. We must remember the storms and their victims, then listen and take action.

2. Before every environmental disaster, there’s a scientist who’s been ignored.

We have a long history of being terrible listeners. Scientists have been warning about the impacts of climate change since the 1800s when the Western world was revolutionized by the invention of fossil fuel burning, CO2-spewing industrial machines. In 1856, amateur scientist Eunice Foot determined an atmosphere with CO2 would “give our earth a high temperature.” Each C02 molecule in the air, she determined, essentially acted like the glass pane of a greenhouse, allowing sunlight through but trapping this heat and threatening all life inside. Sound familiar? Her warnings back then went unheeded.

“Scientific predictions ignored today can become self-fulfilling prophecies tomorrow.”

In 1968, as our atmosphere was rapidly warming as Foote predicted, glaciologist John Mercer discovered the planet’s ice sheets were thinning and warned that parts of western Antarctica would melt in 50 years, leading to sea level rise if nothing was done to reduce CO2. His warnings also went unheeded and as he predicted, severe cracks were discovered in the Thwaites Glacier in 2021.

This pattern of scientific prediction, followed by public apathy, followed by scientific-prediction-coming-true, continues today. However, the deadly consequences of inaction will no longer be decades in the future. Scientific predictions ignored today can become self-fulfilling prophecies tomorrow.

Lahaina on the Hawaiian island of Maui is a perfect example. In 2014, a group of scientists warned that the region’s warming air was causing drought and increasing the threat of deadly wildfires. This report was filed away and essentially ignored by local and state politicians. On August 9th, 2023, 80 percent of Lahaina was destroyed, and at least 101 people were killed in what became the deadliest wildfire in modern American history. While surveying what was left of historic Front Street, I struggled to breathe and had to stop and chug water to rinse my mouth of a metallic taste—the flavor of homes, businesses, cars, and much worse, scorched to ash and inhaled through my nose. While officials described the fire as a “bomb going off,” implying there was no time to act, there was a nearly decade-long fuse that could have been extinguished but instead was ignored. We can no longer afford not to listen. The era of Mother Nature’s revenge has arrived.

3. Carbon Karma is coming back around with a vengeance.

Earth—and the disparate communities that rise from it—are connected by the same atmosphere. This air we all share has become radicalized since the Western World’s Industrial Revolution. While wealthy nations—what we call the “developed” slices of the globe—have disproportionately contributed to the climate crisis, they’ve largely been able to fend off the impacts much better than the poorer developing ones.

Just look at the United States. Our unrivaled industry, infrastructure, and engineering have shielded most of us from the elements we’ve radicalized, giving us a false sense of security. But this Carbon Karma is catching up as Mother Nature outmaneuvers America’s modern tools designed to hold her back.

This comes in the form of every kind of disaster, from tornados and hurricanes to wildfires. Fire has always been a natural part of California’s landscape. Centuries ago, thousands of small fires, usually sparked by lightning, slowly burned each season as a critical component of forest ecology. The flames removed dead plants to make room for new, healthier ones. But in the early 1900s, the National Forest Service established the first group of wildland firefighters whose job it was to suppress fire quickly. These efforts were successful early on, and from these woods, new towns were built on top of what once was a seasonal tinderbox. However, the development of California’s woods reflected the boom in development across the country. As America’s growing population released more greenhouse gases into the air, warming the planet and fueling droughts, those wildland firefighters and all their tools struggled to stop fire. And because of our warming climate and how we altered the habitat by allowing dead vegetation to pile up—when a fire started, it quickly grew into a monster.

Data from the Federal Emergency Management Agency—or FEMA—highlights the evolution of our man-made fire crisis. In 1980, the agency responded to just three wildfires. In 2020, they responded to 83! The growing number of major hurricanes in states like Florida tell the same story of humans losing their grip. FEMA responded to one hurricane in 1980. In 2020, they responded to 30. The cost of these disasters also gives some perspective. In 1980 there were three storms that each caused more than one billion dollars in damage. In 2020, 20 storms individually caused more than one billion dollars in damage.

4. A false sense of security has led Americans to take more risks.

Many factors play into the cost of today’s storms. Research shows that warming air is heating our oceans, which, like tea kettles, release more moisture into the air, which in return fuels the rapid growth of tropical storms into monsters named Harvey, Maria, and Irma.

The other contributor to the cost of a storm is something perhaps even more troubling. More people are choosing to move into riskier areas despite the threats. According to risk mitigation firm AON, in the last four decades, the population in counties along the Gulf and East Coast grew on average by about 160 people per square mile compared to 26 people per square mile in communities further away from water. It’s the equivalent of watching one of those anti-smoking commercials and deciding to start chain-smoking.

“According to FEMA, 40 percent of flood insurance claims between 2015 and 2019 were from people living in areas not considered high risk.”

The Federal Government, which provides flood insurance for most American homes and regulates where and how people build, has been complicit in this trend. The National Flood Insurance Program, overseen by FEMA, is responsible for mapping the nation’s flood zones and establishing insurance premiums that reflect the real risk based on their findings. The problem is that their findings are only based on previous cases of flooding. The program does not take into account future projections based on science. This means many people are moving into homes unaware of the looming threat. According to FEMA, 40 percent of flood insurance claims between 2015 and 2019 were from people living in areas not considered high risk. FEMA is in the process of updating its flood maps, but those maps still do not factor in climate change forecasts, meaning many people are unknowingly building homes directly in harm’s way.

5. Fixing our climate will take decades. Fixing our habitat will buy us time.

So, how do we reverse the impact of our radicalized weather and save our communities? Scientists haven’t only been warning us about looming disaster for nearly two centuries, they’ve also been prescribing us medicine that we haven’t been taking. Reducing our greenhouse gas emissions is drug number one, but because Earth is connected by the same atmosphere (meaning what’s put into the air by China, America, or India impacts all life on Earth), this drug requires international approval, which hasn’t been easy.

Even if every nation cut all emissions today, it will take decades to see a positive impact on our climate. Sticking with this drug analogy, it’s just like how aspirin doesn’t immediately cure a headache.

Fortunately, there’s another remedy that has near immediate effect and only requires individual communities to swallow: returning our habitats to a more natural state. Scientists have found that healthy habitats are more resistant to the impacts of extreme weather. Remember that 2014 wildfire study in Lahaina, the one local leaders didn’t implement? That report wasn’t just a warning. The same scientists suggested measures to prevent disaster, including restoring wetlands and reducing dry vegetation killed by drought. The Federal Government would even help fund these mitigation efforts. While the local government didn’t follow the doctor’s orders, one resident did listen and take action. The resident changed their property, including removing dead vegetation and clearing plants that were too close to the house—what’s known as creating defensible space. The “home with the red roof,” as it’s now called, was one of the only buildings to survive in a miles-long stretch of destruction.

Until climate scientists—our planet’s doctors—are listened to and their prescribed changes are made, another fuse in another American town will be lit, and it’s anyone’s guess when time will run out. We still have the power to act—and we must—before it’s gone.

To listen to the audio version read by author Jonathan Vigliotti, download the Next Big Idea App today:

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