Still Hurting In The Heartland: The Historic Drought Continues

by Bill Becker

Superstorm Sandy may be remembered years from now as the pivot point in the United States’ response to global climate change.  Politically speaking, Sandy’s true power was not its wind and water; it was the fact that it hit the principal center of America’s population, finance institutions and media.

It was another wake-up call, but with more people in high places hearing the alarm. Network news anchors are now acknowledging that climate change may be the common denominator in all the weird and destructive weather we’ve seen in recent years. Mitt Romney’s view that we don’t need FEMA is now unthinkable, and Congress should be getting the message that climate change is a budget buster – that investments in mitigation are far cheaper than paying for damages.

The Paul Reveres of climate change may find New Yorkers and New Jersyans joining their ranks. This is a case where “fugetaboutit” should become “do something about it”.

While the spotlight is on Sandy, however, let’s not forget the weather victims who’ve become yesterday’s news.  The people who lost their homes in Colorado’s super-fires are still hurting. Wildfires burned a record 8 million acres in the United States last year and more than 6 million acres through August of this year. NASA scientists say wild fires will get worse in the years ahead.

The historic drought is still underway. In the mountains of Colorado where I have a home, wells are running dry. The drought is affecting 80% of the country’s farmland, bankrupting farmers, ranchers and small businesses, destroying crops, and killing livestock. The U.S. Department of Agriculture says families everywhere will start to feel the ripple effect next year with higher prices for beef, pork, poultry and dairy products. Meanwhile, water levels are still dropping on the Mississippi River, impacting billions of dollars freight normally shipped by barge.

In parts of New Orleans, the damage remains depressing seven years after Hurricane Katrina. In the Lower Ninth Ward, citizen groups are working to restore their neighborhood, but there are still more boarded houses and empty lots than new homes. Last August, Hurricane Isaac flooded communities along the Gulf Coast in Louisiana and Mississippi.  Communities in the Midwest and Southeast are still putting themselves back together after the outbreak of monster tornadoes last spring – the year’s first billion-dollar disasters.  Joplin, Mo., still hasn’t recovered from the tornado that tore it apart back in May 2011.

In his first post-election news conference last month, President Obama said he plans to begin “working through an education process…the conversation across the country about what realistically we can do long-term to make sure (the impact of climate change) is not something we’re passing on to future generations…”

That conversation should start now on the heels of Sandy. The President should take a national climate change tour, visiting with the folks that Grist’s David Roberts respectfully calls the “mushy middle” – American citizens in teachable moments created by this year’s weather disasters.

A climate tour would give President Obama a chance to check on the well being of this year’s disaster victims and to hear their insights on how the federal government can combat climate change while helping communities better prepare for its impacts.

He should visit the mushy middle in red states as well as blue, including states whose congressional representatives remain among the most stubborn opponents of climate action.  For example, more than 90% of Oklahoma is suffering from extreme drought conditions right now. Yet one of its U.S. Senators, Jim Inhofe, the ranking Republican on the Senate environment committee, still insists that climate change is a hoax and fights every attempt to address the issue.

The entire congressional delegation from Kansas cosponsored legislation last year to forbid the federal government from regulating greenhouse gas emissions, and to limit the power of states to do so. Today, severe drought is underway in 100% of Kansas; in 78% of the state, the drought is ranked “extreme.”

While Congress has refused to enact a climate bill, states have been America’s leaders in policies to reduce global-warming pollution and increase the use of clean energy. The Center for Climate Strategies reports that U.S. greenhouse gas emissions are on track to be 23% lower in 2020 than we estimated seven years ago. The biggest factor is not the economic recession or the conversion of coal plants to natural gas; it’s eight policies being implemented at the local, state and federal levels. According to CCS president Tom Peterson:

Our study shows that actions from the city to federal level are working; these programs are already lowering greenhouse gas emissions and helping better protect our country from climate change-related impacts…These are practical approaches that not only help fight climate change but also create new markets and investments, protect our national energy security, and make communities safer and more sustainable.

Among those policies are renewable energy portfolio standards. Twenty-nine states have them. But as Stephen Lacey reports on Climate Progress, some conservative organizations are fighting to repeal them, with funding from fossil energy interests.

In his news conference last month, the President made clear that he can’t give the American people the message that he’s going to “ignore jobs and growth simply to address climate change.” But as weather victims in the heartland would tell him, climate change is intimately connected to economic stability, down to a very personal level. He should talk to the farmers who’ve lost their farms, the homeowners who’ve lost their homes, the small businesses owners whose flood losses have forced them to lock their doors forever, the companies that can’t ship their goods by barge, and the middle-class families facing higher food prices when they’re already struggling to cope.

The transcendent moment during the presidential campaign this year was Gov. Chris Christie’s example of putting politics aside and people first in times of crisis. Climate change has become one of our most politically polarized issues, generally breaking along partisan lines. But at root, the sustained effort by carbon interests to politicize the climate makes as much sense as politicizing gravity. Global warming is foremost an issue about the relationship between human societies and natural systems. Climate impacts are foremost an issue about the safety and well-being of people, families and communities.

That’s the spirit with which President Obama should visit with and learn from the victims of extreme weather. He will find that the national education process he promised during his recent news conference is a two-way exchange. He can give the victims hope that their President is ready to mobilize all his powers to pull us back from the climate cliff. The victims may help awaken the President’s courage, compassion and conviction to be that kind of leader.

Bill Becker is the Executive Director of the Presidential Climate Action Project. For more specific information about the Soldiers Grove experience and its lessons for other disaster-affected communities, see Becker’s report,  “Rebuilding for the Future”.


20 Responses to Still Hurting In The Heartland: The Historic Drought Continues

  1. prokaryotes says:

    Climate change adds to Mississippi’s toll

    For the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, whose lands straddle the North and South Dakota border, river water means drinking supplies. For Illinois farmers, it’s irrigation for their crops.

    Rivers also power hydro-electric plants, provide recreation for boaters and give coal companies inexpensive access to export markets with barges to New Orleans.

    Balancing these competing demands on the nation’s water resources has never been easy. Global warming, linked to near-record low water levels on the Mississippi River this year as well as last year’s severe floods along the Missouri River, is making the task even harder.

  2. Leif says:

    … “Congress should be getting the message that climate change is a budget buster – that investments in mitigation are far cheaper than paying for damages.”

    “Investment in mitigation” is just that, Investment that rewards the individual in many ways. We buy our own green energy from our community that is locally produced. Those with renewable resources available have a cash cow that eats no hay on their property to help with the basics. Jobs are produced manufacturing and installing said products. Rewarding jobs for Sons and Daughters. Not burger flippers. Or gunking out communities after disasters. Perhaps, if we work really hard, even sustainable planetary life support systems for the Kidders. Only the GOP and Fossil Barons are selfish enough to not let the transition become reality. This is not “Class Warfare,” this is wanton death to multi-millions and eventual suicide to the remainder.

  3. Robert In New Orleans says:

    What if this current Midwest drought is part of the “New” normal and continues on ad infinitum?

  4. Paul Klinkman says:

    Drill Baby Drill becomes Auction Baby Auction when farmers can’t pay off their mortgages.

    In the end the neo-desert states will probably see half of their population dry up and migrate away, as their grandparents had neighbors who migrated in the Dust Bowl.

  5. David Lange says:

    This is a very serious situation that well into a crisis stage, it demands focused attention by the citizenry and the government assets. No more excuses for quick action.

  6. David Lange says:


  7. David Lange says:

    Misinformation abounds, President Obama, at his November 14 press conference, in regards to fuel efficiency standards on cars and trucks, stated, “That will take a lot of carbon out of the atmosphere”. He also said,” And we continue to invest in potential breakthrough technologies that could further remove carbon from our atmosphere.”
    I don’t believe it’s physically possible for either scenario to “take” or “remove” carbon from Earth’s atmosphere. Once the carbon is created, injected, or dispersed into the air, it stays there, and there’s too much carbon already there.
    Were the President’s advisers lucid that day? Were they trying to help, or hinder, the President.
    I have no trust in any potential breakthrough anything. It’s without substance, pure fantasy.
    We live in the present, we will die in the present, but more to the point, we inject carbon into the atmosphere, in the present.
    David Lange

  8. Most likely it will get worse, with the drought morphing into a dust bowl. Learn to grow your own food.

  9. riverat says:

    ” … we can do long-term to make sure (the impact of climate change) is not something we’re passing on to future generations…”

    It’s too late for that. All we can do is try to limit the damage as much as possible.

  10. John McCormick says:

    Unless one lives on the fifth floor of an apartment building in New York City or other habitation that does not accomodate farming. I have a 12′ x 24′ garden in northern VA and growing food is not as simple as you make it sound.

  11. fuerdo says:

    I live in south-central China now and people garden every spare inch-centimeter of ground avaliable. Gardening is a lot easier than you think unless your trying to grow spotless heirloom tomatoes. If nutrition is your goal learn about hardy veggies and stop throwing away edibles, i.e. dandelion leaves, pumpkin stems, etc…

  12. It’s not simple….that’s why I said, “learn to grow…”.

    We have a 300 sq. ft. garden in which we grow almost all of our vegetables and 350 pounds of surplus to give to the local food bank each year. We’re constantly experimenting and learning — there is plenty to learn about gardening.

    On the other hand, it’s not rocket science (although it is climate science, after a fashion). Humans invented agriculture before they invented writing.

    I’ve been recommending a national program of victory gardens since the Great Recession got started in 2008. Can’t just keep moving money around to solve all of our problems, as they are becoming more and more physical, as opposed to fiscal.

  13. Robert in New Orleans says:

    Mr. Becker:

    What part of Colorado do you live in and how as the climate changed during your residence there?

  14. Carol says:

    Alison Krauss and Union Station with their version of the Peter Rowan song, (We’re all) Dust Bowl Children:

  15. Solar Jim says:

    RE: “working through an education process…the conversation across the country about what realistically we can do long-term to make sure (the impact of climate change) is not something we’re passing on to future generations…”

    This is a statement of a very ignorant or disingenuous man, or one from 1984 or Alice In Wonderland. The hypocrisy is staggering.

  16. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    I remember Bill Mollison, one of the creators of Permaculture, showing how you could grow quite a bit of food on a balcony.

  17. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    We already know that climate derangement is ineluctable for the next millennium or so, we only are unappraised yet of how bad it will become.

  18. wili says:

    Given the original topic of the thread, the advise should be: “Learn to grow your own food WITHOUT WATER!”

    Good luck with that.

  19. Mulga mumblebrain says:

    Cuba provides a good example of what can be done with communal and urban food gardens.

  20. Bill Becker says:

    Robert, I live in Golden, CO., about 20 miles west of Denver at about 6,200 feet. The mountain home I refer to in the post is a small cabin in southern Colorado at 9,200 feet. I’ve lived in Colorado since 1995. I don’t think wild fires have ever been uncommon here, but they do seem to be more frequent and extreme due to our prolonged drought. And pine bark beetles, proliferating because of Colorado’s warmer winters, have killed 4.5 million acres of mountain forest here in the last decade, leaving vast expanses of vertical tinder waiting for the next fire.

    This year, the reservoirs that provide much of Colorado’s water look as though they may become mud puddles. And as I wrote, wells in the area around my cabin — including mine — are producing much less water. Last summer, we set the all-time record for consecutive days above 90 degrees and tied the record for consecutive days above 100 degrees. I haven’t lived in Colorado long enough to have witnessed our long-term weather patterns, but the natives agree: It ain’t our father’s Colorado any more.