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The Dust Bowl and the Rust Belt

Q: You know where the next Dust Bowl will occur? A: The same place the last one happened.

Texas is doomed, we’re blessed, but will it matter?

Remember back to 2008? That was the momentous year in which the financial crisis happened simultaneously with a speculator-driven spike in oil prices and the triumph of banker-backed Barack Obama over banker-backed John McCain. It was also the year Brian Fagan published The Great Warming: Climate Change and the Rise and Fall of Civilizations, which predicted that catastrophic drought will once again happen in places it happened long ago in geologic time, but also not so very long ago in historic time, too. Century-long droughts occurred millions of years ago in what is now the American Southwest, but a century-long drought occurred there just a thousand years ago, too. Fagan, in 2008, said that such extreme drought will recur in Arizona, and in the Mediterranean, the Near East, North Africa, Brazil, and elsewhere on the planet.

Three years ago, the political conversation did not include climate science. Today, with a catastrophic “Octimber” storm leaving millions without power on the Atlantic coast, only months after unprecedented rainfall in Upstate New York and New England, climate issues are nudging their way into politics. The general question is this: Will the conclusions of scientists be compelling enough to change the dynamic of politics, or will the discourses go back to being disconnected? The specific question for Rust Belt folks is much more precise: What does it mean that we have water and the Sun Belt not only doesn’t but won’t?

That question arises because a new report in a peer-reviewed scientific journal asserts that the Dust Bowl is coming back to the same place in which the first Dust Bowl occurred. The report in the journal Nature is more a collation of studies than a ground-breaker itself, but its focus is on our ability to produce food under adverse conditions not in some faraway place but in the American heartland. For the past year, Kansas, Oklahoma, and Texas have been experiencing drought and heat not seen since the 1930s. The scientists’ models—which can be viewed on the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration website (—show it getting worse.

In October, the Nature paper was published more or less simultaneously with the new conclusions of a Berkeley professor who had previously self-identified as a climate-change skeptic, and who had been the hero of climate-change deniers. The Berkeley Earth Surface Temperature study was led by physicist Richard Muller. Its conclusion: Burning fossil fuels is making the world measurably hotter, and man-caused or “anthropogenic” climate change is a reality which will cause worse floods in wet places and worse droughts in dry places.

It’s no news that not a single Republican presidential candidate believes that the ongoing loss of soil moisture from Texas to California is caused by human activity. The politics is still disconnected from the reports that say it’s happening. Jumping from politics to science, though, is not going to be a long jump at all, because politics and science are joined by a bridge called policy. Here are the two ways that bridge is going to be built: Either the powerful states of Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas, New Mexico, Arizona, and California will command the federal government to pump fresh water to them from wherever the fresh water happens to be, on the theory that those places must be sustained through what politicians like Rick Perry already call a “temporary” drought; or we in the places where the water happens to be will jump up and protect our supply, and become, along the way, the new American destination for capital, migration, and development.

Politics and science, locally and globally

The science and the politics of climate change are barely connected now. The closer they intertwine, the more uncomfortable our politics are going to become, because the policy issues are very tough. Scientists can be anywhere on earth when they engage in the polite, measured to-and-fro of checking each other’s work in peer-reviewed journals. But politicians all represent distinct geographic constituencies. If the science says that one place will lose while another will win (which is what the climate scientists are saying), we’re going to have some impolite, unmeasured fights. The last time science completely changed geography was when a handful of physicists and engineers, working under J. Robert Oppenheimer, took the obscure work of Albert Einstein and Niels Bohr and created a global calamity that changed everything.

Climate scientists, and physicists like Robert Laughlin, whose new book Powering the Future speculates about what kind of energy we’re going to use after the fossil fuels run out, may be the new Einsteins and Bohrs of our time. But absent some cataclysm, they’re not going to reshape the public policy of nations. Unlike Oppenheimer, whose team created the unprecedentedly destructive atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Joe Romm of the Nature report has a blog, not an explosive device. Richard Muller wrote an op-ed piece in the Wall Street Journal announcing his science-based about-face on the reality of climate change. But neither of these scientists has a tool or a demonstration by which they can change politics and thus policy.

Policy is going to continue to be shaped by oil companies and by the bankers who work with them. Scientists do not form a lobby powerful enough to purchase political influence. The only avenue for science to influence politics is through shaping public discourse, i.e., by issuing report after report, writing blog post after blog post, that repeat the same findings that have been around for years.

Sadly, elected officials, who in the main are not scientists, are going to have to be the change agents. The most we can expect from today’s elected officials is a shift in the debate. Maybe we’ll stop hearing denialists versus scientists and start hearing economic arguments for pumping northern water south. The Great Lakes Compact that was finalized in 2009 is supposed to prevent that from happening, but the political and economic power of the water-seeking areas of the US will sorely test that document, especially during 2012, when the presidential candidates all cope with what is expected to be an even drier year in Texas, the southern plains, and the Southwest.

Who will stop the politically powerful but dry states in the South and West from sticking a straw in the Great Lakes and sucking them dry?

Great Lakes states have a lot of other issues to face up to, and in 2012 will be doing so with smaller congressional delegations. In the Buffalo area, where the median household income is low and dropping, where Food Stamps reach one-sixth of households, where even our great public university continues to follow the paradigm of enriching entrenched insiders while the 99 percent literally stand out in the cold, the issue will doubtless be how our candidates address economic distress.

Meanwhile, as the climate scientists note, a warmer planet means that there is more water vapor in the air, which in turn means that while Texas and the southern Plains will get drier, some places, the wet places like where we live, will get more violently stormy weather—and more precipitation.

On the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration webpage, which collates what climate scientists project and meteorologists observe, the future of the Great Lakes looks pretty green. Upstate New York looks particularly green. It begins to look like a rationale for the public policy must-do’s of the Great Lakes cities should happen quickly, while there’s time to ready ourselves for the inevitable disruptions that the climate will lay on us. We have long needed regionalized government, and land-banking, and locally powered public transportation, and of course we already desperately need, in Buffalo, Cleveland, and every other Lake Erie city, a better way to manage all the new rainfall we’re already getting than to keep flushing it with raw sewage into our blue puddle.

Climate change is edging into the national political discourse. It needs to become part of our local political discourse. It needs to become part of our economic development discourse. Futurist Joel Kotkin joins the US Census Bureau and other demographers in predicting that 100 million more Americans will arrive by 2035, by which time the climate scientists say that the Dust Bowl-ification (Joe Romm’s new peer-reviewed term) of Texas, the southern plains, and the Southwest will be well underway.

Preparing to grow?

So which of the dozens of cities that dot the shorelines of Michigan, Huron, Erie, and Ontario will become destinations for new water-seeking people? Will being a pretty, preservation-friendly city help Buffalo attract new people?

As climate change makes the Rust Belt into the Green Belt, the winners will probably be the places that have cheap land, capable governance, good infrastructure, workforce-training universities, and the so-called “soft” attractions, like good recreational and cultural amenities. But there are lots of potential places to go in the Rust Belt. Milwaukee and Chicago, which like Buffalo are governed as stand-alone cities inside patchwork-quilt metro regions, have lost population within their municipal boundaries, just like Buffalo has, but their economies are quite a bit stronger than ours, and they, too, have space for lots more people. They also have far better reputations than other Great Lakes cities. Hollowed-out Detroit has lots of space, and it’s a big metro area with powerful industries. The snow-hammered western shore of Michigan, which will have plenty of water and not very many people, lies between Chicago and Detroit. Cleveland and Pittsburgh are regional powerhouses already; their sprawling metros may once again become nationally strong if their populations reverse the current trend toward further shrinkage that demographers at Penn and Cornell both predict. (How ironic that the folks at Penn’s Wharton School, who in 2006 published a national county-by-county population prediction for 2020, found a strong correlation between adjacency to one of the Great Lakes and population loss; but their model did not include a variable for having lots of water versus having none.)

What will be the barrier to re-migration northward? The simple answer is this: Investors probably can’t imagine putting a nickel into places that have Rust Belt problems. Though scientists say that the Sun Belt is becoming the Dust Bowl, here’s what scares everybody about Rust Belt cities: concentrated poverty in their cores, schools sorted by race and income, aging sewer systems that soil the waters and that will demand billions to fix, and surface transportation systems that range from decrepit to inadequate. These are all policy challenges that need decisive, long-term change, and state-level leadership on them today is nowhere to be found.

Thus, without a local political renaissance, the new water-seeking migration will probably bypass Rust Belt cities in favor of Rust Belt exurbs, dooming these regions to unmanageable sprawl, unless long-identified problems are faced up to, addressed, and solved.

While we wait for that to happen, the least that should happen before the dry Texas summer of 2012 arrives next March, or at the latest April, is this: The Great Lakes governors of Wisconsin, Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and New York should jointly send a letter to the president demanding reaffirmation of the Great Lakes Compact. Not because it’s our damned water, but because pretty soon it may be the only damned water.

Bruce Fisher is visiting professor of economics and finance at Buffalo State College, where he directs the Center for Economic and Policy Studies.

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