The Great Climate Migration with Abrahm Lustgarten
Abrahm Lustgarten, a Pulitzer Prize-nominated environmental reporter, talks to us about climate migration, one of climate change’s biggest looming threats. Rising temperatures, rising sea levels, and ever-increasing natural disasters are forcing people to abandon their homes and their ways of life to seek safer ground. As the planet heats up, the number of climate refugees will just keep swelling, up to 3 billion people — a third of the global population — by 2070.
Please note: For seasons 1 and 2, we were known as “Let’s Talk About Water,” so you may hear that title in this episode. Don’t worry, it’s still us!
Abrahm Lustgarten is a senior environmental reporter, with a focus at the intersection of business, climate and energy. He is currently covering changes at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, and working on a project about pollution at U.S. Defense sites. His 2015 series examining the causes of water scarcity in the American West, “Killing the Colorado,” was a finalist for the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for national reporting and received the 2016 Keck Futures Initiative Communication Award from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. Lustgarten co-produced the 2016 Discovery Channel film “Killing the Colorado,” and has previously worked with PBS Frontline, including on the 2010 documentary “The Spill,” about how BP’s corporate culture of recklessness and profiteering led to the Deepwater Horizon tragedy. That film was nominated for an Emmy. His early investigation into the environmental and economic consequences of fracking was some of the first coverage of the issue, and received the George Polk award for environmental reporting, the National Press Foundation award for best energy writing, a Sigma Delta Chi award and was honored as finalist for the Goldsmith Prize.
Before joining ProPublica in 2008, Lustgarten was a staff writer at Fortune. His work has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Atlantic, Scientific American, Wired, Salon, and Esquire, among other publications. He is the author of two books; “Run to Failure: BP and the Making of the Deepwater Horizon Disaster,” and also “China’s Great Train: Beijing’s Drive West and the Campaign to Remake Tibet,” a project that was funded in part by a grant from the MacArthur Foundation. Lustgarten earned a master’s in journalism from Columbia University in 2003 and a bachelor’s degree in anthropology from Cornell.
- Learn more about what Abrahm does here!
- Or check out his books: Run to Failure and China’s Great Train
- The Great Climate Migration articles
- National Academy of Sciences Proceeding on the Future of the human climate niche
- UN’s World Food Program
- World Bank Report on Human Migration Response to Climate
- Brian Jones, Researcher & Assistant professor at Baruch College, and developer of the model to understand human climate migration; visit his webpage for more information, publications and books.
What I found with the issue of climate change and migration is that one in three people on the planet in 2070, nine billion people population, will have to make a difficult decision about whether they either persevere and continue to live outside of that habitability niche or move.
Welcome back to Let’s Talk About Water. I’m your host Jay Famiglietti. Okay. Let me start by naming a few phenomena that most likely have been capturing a lot of your attention these days, extreme flooding, catastrophic drought, rising temperatures, devastating wildfires, sea level rise. These are the issues that are shaping our future on this planet, and they are integral parts of the climate change conversation.
But another equally important component is, what happens when certain parts of the planet become unlivable? Well, the answer is the focus of today’s episode. It’s climate migration. Ultimately in some places, people will have no choice, but to up and leave their homes and head to… Well, that’s the big question.
My guest today is Pulitzer prize nominated senior environmental reporter at ProPublica Abrahm Lustgarten. Abrahm’s latest works on climate migration were recently published in three parts in the New York Times magazine and in ProPublica. And we’ll be talking about those works today. Abrahm it’s great to have you on Let’s Talk About Water.
Hi Jay. Thanks for having me.
I wanted to start by asking you about your almost academic approach. I was really struck by the fact that you read and you cite journal articles, of course you work with scientists, and you and I have even talked about collaborating. That seems atypical to me. Are you an anomaly? How did you settle up on this approach?
I don’t think it’s entirely unique to me, but maybe it’s uncommon. I work for ProPublica, which is geared towards accountability and investigative journalism. And if you want to report on the criminal justice system, then that has a fairly obvious meaning or even environmental crime where you can look backwards.
But if you want to report on issues like climate change or environmental scarcity, it’s a real challenge. And so, I try to find that depth in the work or some kind of investigative angle by moving the conversation forward. And what I found with the issue of climate change and migration after a couple of months of reporting is that there’s a consensus view that climate induced migration was going to happen and it was going to be really big and really important. But it kind of stopped there.
There wasn’t really any agreement about how significant it would be, how big, what numbers of people specifically, where they would start from and where they would go. And our ambition was to be able to answer those questions. And so the way to do that was to get right down, roll up our sleeves, and try to get involved in the scientific process, which I’m not really trained to do, so we find partners to help along with that and partnering up with some academic institutions. And it’s a different way of providing new information. We don’t discover it. We go out and find it.
Well, it seems to be working well, at least from reading this latest series. It’s extremely well done. So, let’s get to it.
What have you been finding about the topic of climate migration? Can you give us a briefing on how big it is globally? What’s the scope? What’s driving it?
Yeah. So in terms of scope, I mean the most impressive thing that I found is this research that was published earlier this year in the proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. And they found that globally for the past 6,000 years, people have mostly lived in a very narrow band of temperature and precipitation. That is to say that there’s an ideal range of climate where most people live, not exclusively, but the vast majority of the global population.
And they found that over the next 50 years under a fairly severe warming scenario, that band is going to move substantially northward and southward. And it doesn’t predict migration. But what it essentially says is that one in three people on the planet today, one in three people on the planet in 2070, nine billion people population, will have to make a difficult decision about whether they either persevere and continue to live outside of that habitability niche in a place that for 6,000 years has really supported human life very well, or move. And for sure, 3 billion people won’t choose to migrate in response to climate.
But that’s how many people will probably have to make a decision about whether or not to move. And some smaller fraction, a very, very large number will. And that really gives us overall sense of scale of how the planet’s population might be reorganized.
Yeah, it’s pretty mind-boggling. So it’s interesting because what I really want to get at today is what are the forces that either encourage people to move or leave them no option or allow them to stay in place? And in your articles, you have some human interest stories, some case studies about people in different countries, in central America versus what’s happening in the United States, that have chosen to move or have had to move, had no choice, or have opted to stay.
So, what are some of those big picture constraints on people that either keep them in place or allow them the freedom to move or actually require that they move?
I mean, the first thing that I learned about human migration is that it’s unbelievably complex. And it’s hard to get people to agree on who is a migrant and also who is an environmental migrant, whether environment or climate is the driving factor or a subtle factor.
People move because they see economic opportunity or they face economic hardship, or they face crime and violence, or they can’t grow food, or they don’t have enough water. And sometimes all of these things combined, and it’s a question of which factor is kind of the straw that broke their back and forced them to make that ultimate decision.
In the end, I arrived at the opinion that it didn’t matter. If climate was a factor weighing in that big basket of burden, then people were a climate migrant of some sort. And you see that in the data and some of the modeling that we did to try to predict movement on a general scale. But we also wanted to see it or wanted to understand on a personal level on the ground.
So as you said, I went to Central America last summer and spend a lot of time trying to understand how people would make decisions about whether or not to move, what factors would push them to consider changing their lives and really what was happening. And we went to Central America because obviously there’s enormous pressure from Central America on the US border. And we had the caravans of migrants coming towards the American border last year, thousands of people streaming, walking through Mexico and up to the United States.
And mostly that movement was attributed to a lot of things unrelated to climate. It was attributed to the violence and gang warfare in El Salvador and instability and parts of Southern Mexico and all of those things.
But I suspected there was a climate component as well because that region has been suffering from extraordinary drought and just really unpredictable conditions and wild El Nino patterns that don’t really fit the historical pattern.
So we went down to a number of small villages in rural parts of Guatemala, and just spent time with small families, subsistence farmers, to try to understand what they’re dealing with. But in general, I was just astounded to learn the degree to which they weren’t processing pros and cons to make a quote unquote decision the way I had imagined. I wanted to kind of reverse engineer their thought process.
And what I found instead is that by the time a migrant moves because of climate, they were really moving out of sheer desperation. There were no other options. It was life or death. So I found these families that were starving or right on the verge of starving or feeding their kids one tortilla a day, maybe with a pinch of lime or salt on top of it. They hadn’t been able to pull off a productive crop of maize or beans in three or four seasons straight. They had already borrowed or mortgaged, whatever assets they had, if they had money to do that. They’d already used it and leveraged whatever opportunities they had.
And by the time they moved, or made the decision to move, they usually send the man, the head of the household, to the United States. It was just an act of sheer desperation.
And it gets at one of the other major points of migration, which I think is really misunderstood, which is that most people don’t want to move or migrate. By far, the forces of inertia around the world are for people to stay home, and then to stay as close to home as possible when they do ultimately decide to move. And so, it’s really a force of desperation for large numbers of people to move over large distances.
Yeah. I thought that was really enlightening because I think in the US, the current perspective is that these people want to be here because it’s a better place. And in the case of many migrants and especially people that are climate refugees, they don’t necessarily want to move. And I think your articles made it clear that they had to move.
It was clear to me what you talked about, especially in Central America and in particular in Guatemala and El Salvador water driven, so flooding, drought, to the point where subsistence farming was no longer possible. There were no other options. Is that right? I mean, do water play that bigger role?
Yeah. I mean, it’s all about water. There’s either too much of it or too little of it. And either one of those are driving extraordinary food scarcity around the world. And it’s that food scarcity that’s going to drive people from their homes.
In Central America it was a challenge from a reporting perspective because as you know, it’s very difficult to attribute any one individual decision or any single phenomenon to climate change. And so it was really about proving the thesis that people would move in response to environmental change. But the data and the science points to increasing water scarcity in that region going forward. And so, the assumption or the connection in my work is that if they move due to observed environmental conditions now, then they’re more certain to move and follow those same patterns as the climate driven drought or water scarcity takes hold in the future.
Well, I’m glad that you brought that up because I wanted to ask you about that. And I don’t think you really covered it in your stories. In poor countries, in the developing world, there is a lack of governance, right? There’s a lack of water management. And I find myself wondering if entities like the World Bank or the wealthier countries like the United States, for example, or Canada, were to invest in water management and building capacity that might have a real profound impact on migration from those regions in particular. I’m thinking about Central America right now.
Yeah. I mean, there’s agreement across the board that foreign aid, American aid into these regions specifically for programs like you described both shore up governance and infrastructure development, but also specifically to shore up farming and stabilize environmental conditions would have a dramatic effect on people’s welfare and wellbeing and as a result on the flow of migration.
That’s not really a mystery to both government and academic researchers that I talked to so long as their sympathies politically kind of lie in that direction. I mean, if we have an administration now that is dismissive of all of that and an advocate for just disclosing the border. But that’s not really in line with what the science and research says.
In my reporting down there, I spent a lot of time with the UN’s World Food Program. We were in some rural mountainous areas outside of San Salvador and also places very close to the region I was in and Guatemala suffered from the same drought. It’s the dry corridor of Central America. And farming had been equally tough there as where I just described in Guatemala. But for something like $30,000 in this village, the World Food Program had provided a greenhouse tent and a misting irrigation system and a water capture system, a really large plastic jug, basically, that sat on this piece of land, nothing fancy, no canals, no pumps, very little power demand, but set up this system for one of these small towns. And I visited it and it was thriving. I mean, they just had the most luscious vegetable crops inside. Their food supply for this small community was bountiful.
They were selling their extra and had more income than they had before. And three of the people that I interviewed there described their lives very similarly to those that I interviewed in Guatemala and said that migration was one of the things they were contemplating, whether that was to San Salvador to look for a security job or onward to someplace like the United States, they were on the verge of packing their things. They didn’t need to do that. They preferred not to do that. They were perfectly happy. And, again, the cost to the World Food Program for this particular little project was so minimal, just so tiny. And to think of the migration averted as a result of it was extraordinary. And so, those are the types of programs that need to continue. But the United States cut off a lot of its foreign aid for programs like that in 2017. And those programs are drying up.
Pretty dire situation, but that particular story is encouraging. And I think maybe a nice template or a case study for some of the development banks and NGOs to think about. So I want to turn our attention now to a wealthier country like the United States, and was the focus of the second of your stories that were in the New York Times magazine. And I wonder if you can share with us, what are some of the differences that are happening in the United States? What’s the perspective? And I guess most importantly, are you seeing people on the move? And why are they on the moon?
Yeah. The effects of climate change will not be as severe for the United States as they will be for parts of Central America or the African Sahel. But they will still have dramatic effect and will change our lives. And that was basically the premise of looking at the same question for the United States. Because it might not be movement in response to climate might not be driven by the same degree of desperation, but it was sure to happen. And when it happens, to have a really transformational effect on American geography and American culture.
But I’ll tell you, this story just published, that I just did about Americans moving when the premise of how I might write it was first conceived back then, it was a more playful premise than it is now. By the time two more fire seasons went by through the course of reporting and writing this story. It’s a very real consideration.
I don’t know how to put my finger on the likelihood that we’ll pack up and move. But it’s substantial. It’s a daily conversation in my house. It’s a daily conversation in my community amongst my friends and the people I know. And it’s a difficult decision because on paper it looks kind of clear cut. But spreadsheets and financial evaluations can’t quantify all the subjective things about home. So, it’s a painful premise. I am just like those I interviewed in Guatemala in a way, though obviously far more privileged. But I don’t want to move. And if I do in response to this, it will be something that is sort of forced upon me.
So my own story, which you and I have talked about before, in my case, I think that climate was a part of it. I mean, we had moved to the foothills of the San Gabriel mountains. And in one of our past episodes, we talked about those fires across California, including Southern California. And like you, you can sit on your front porch and see the flames and the mountains dangerously close.
If we were still living in that house that we lived in, in California, we would have evacuated. This is because of the Bobcat fire. We would have had to evacuate. And so in our case, it wasn’t the factor, but it was becoming extremely hot. The fires were pretty scary and unhealthy. So that, in combination with a job opportunity up here to this job here at the Global Institute for Water Security, climate and getting away from there and getting away from the drought and all of the stress of the drought related work that I was doing, all factored into our discussion.
So, it makes me think that urban planners, city and regional planners need access to forecasting models. And so maybe that’s a nice pivot for us to talk about some of the modeling work that you did. Can you explain it to us and maybe some of the strengths and weaknesses?
Yeah. So we built a model in partnership with the City University of New York [inaudible 00:18:07] college, a researcher named Brian Jones. Brian had been developing a model to look at migration, and then migration related to climate for 10 years or so, and had used that model with the World Bank to do a global study of human migration response to climate. The model projects population movement in response to climate change under several socioeconomic scenarios as defined by the United Nations. And so, a more closed approach, a less globalized approach, basically leads to large population growth in those developing countries, deepening poverty and worsening conditions.
And on the flip side, maintaining the kind of globalized system that we’ve pursued over the last couple of decades, including more open borders and allowing more free movement of people, generally leads to less pressure on those cultures. So not only the movement of people into the United States, but the improved welfare and economic improvement of the systems in Central America where people originate from.
All of those models are based on these basic assumptions about how people move in response to environmental change. I was describing about what I learned from talking to farmers in Guatemala. The thing that was really crazy when we went to try to do a similar modeling project for the United States is that none of those rules really apply here. And so we couldn’t continue that modeling to predict how and where Americans would move in response to the climate. The modeling, it just doesn’t work. And it doesn’t work because Americans basically don’t follow the logical pathway that most other people in the world do in response to changing conditions.
Americans tend to move towards risk. We’ve moved into this desert Southwest, despite a lack of water. We moved to the coastline of Florida, despite the growing hurricane risk and clear knowledge of sea level rise. And we in California, move into wild-land interfaces in the foothills of the mountains, where fires are most likely to burn down our communities.
And we’ve done that because there’s a whole host of perverse incentives that have encouraged that behavior. So cheap insurance, mandated insurance by States that don’t want the economic decline of the commercial insurance companies pulling out, subsidized water, an issue you’re familiar with. So if you took those systems and those subsidies away, then Americans might respond the way Central Americans do to climate. But we couldn’t model movement in the United States. We could only model the specific climate perils, the environmental perils and not people’s response to them.
So what I find really interesting, and it’s something that you brought up in the article on the United States, when that switch flips and insurance is no longer available in those most vulnerable or high risk regions. Right? And, or the groundwater hits rock bottom, or the price just goes through the roof, when those subsidies end, then the migration could be huge.
Yeah, absolutely. And I think that that is what’s beginning to happen now. And so the question is how quickly does that happen? American’s relationship to the environment in general is characterized by this issue of externalizing costs where we really don’t calculate the true environmental costs or consequences into whatever our decision-making or funding processes or policy-making process. And what we’re talking about here is a form of those externalized costs suddenly becoming internalized costs for individual households, right?
So when you have perverse incentives and insurance availability that’s cheap and easy, it tells people, tells homeowners, it tells citizens that the decisions that they’re making are okay, and that they are still cheap. And as insurance, for example, becomes harder to come by, it will make it more expensive or more financially dangerous for homeowners to live in a wildfire prone area, for example.
And that’s not necessarily an extraordinary change in the external environment. It’s not only that it’s actually becoming more dangerous to live in California. It’s that those externalized costs are suddenly being forced upon individual homeowners, individual people. And what the research suggests is that the more individual people have to face the full range of consequences, both for their own decisions and of a change in climate, that they’ll start to make different decisions, or there’ll be forced to make different decisions, including whether or not to move.
The kind of tipping point that experts I quote in my article talk about, or the flipping of the switch, that risk is that there is, from a real estate perspective, when you talk about American homeowners, or the solid middle-class slice of the country that has equity in their property, that there’s a sort of an infectious effect, that it’s not just the real cost of real dangers for where a home or property is located. But the mounting perception that everything in the surrounding area is also threatened and the precipitous drop in value that can come with that, sort of a lot like the mortgage crisis we saw in 2008 where all home values dropped, even those that were still owned by financially stable owners. And that’s the kind of thing that could lead sort of a climate driven tipping point, financial tipping point that would really change the equation.
It was a pleasure having you on the program today. Again, thanks so much for being on Let’s Talk About Water. Let’s keep in touch.
My pleasure. It’s great to see you and great to chat. Thanks for having me on.
Abrahm Lustgarten is a Pulitzer Prize nominated senior environmental reporter at ProPublica. He has recently published a series on global climate migration in partnership with ProPublica and with the New York Times magazine. Now you heard Abrahm talk at length about the UN World Food Program and the great work they’re doing in Central America promoting water conservation that keeps farmers growing food and staying on the land instead of having to migrate with their families.
Well, literally, while we were recording this interview, news was breaking that the food program had won the Nobel Peace Prize. Of course, that’s really awesome, but in particular it shows everyone how something as basic as promoting a healthy environment, including water conservation can stop wars and lead to a more peaceful bountiful world.
We’d like to know more about how the World Food Program does this. So we hope to talk to them soon on an upcoming episode of Let’s Talk About Water. Please, stay tuned for that.
And that’s it for another week of Let’s Talk About Water, which comes to you from the Global Institute for Water Security at the University of Saskatchewan. It’s a production of the Walrus Lab. I’m your host, Jay Famiglietti. Thank you to all of those who helped put the show together, including Mark Ferguson, Laura McFarlan, Amy Hergott, Jesse Witow and our producer San Prpick. And as always special, thanks to Linda Lilienfeld.
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