We’ve known for years that climate change is accelerating more rapidly than anyone thought and that the urban poor will be hit worst. More of them will die, more will get sick, and more will face excess heat, increased floods, and economic disaster with no way to escape. But the media, until last week, mostly yawned.
That’s because of a dirty little secret in mainstream media newsrooms: if research shows an audience isn’t interested in a topic, then that subject will hardly ever make it on the air. Before November’s midterm elections, polls showed only six percent of voters said one of their top concerns was climate change.
Chris Hayes, a host on uber-liberal MSNBC, tweeted the truth about global warming, public opinion, and the media in June: “Almost without exception, every single time we’ve covered (climate change) it’s been a palpable ratings killer, so the incentives (to cover global warming) aren’t great.”
We, the audience, are the problem because we don’t care. That dynamic changed dramatically the day after Thanksgiving, when the Trump administration tried to bury a horrifying scientific report on climate change by dumping it late Friday on a four-day holiday weekend. But the report by hundreds of government scientists is so apocalyptic that the lengthy study made headlines and got TV coverage for days.
The public ignores stories that don’t affect them personally. This one does. And a deep dive into the document reveals the Midwest will suffer the most from deaths related to heat and bad air quality, illnesses like asthma, and economic dislocation. Zooming in on Missouri, and St. Louis, presents a pretty clear picture of what things will look like as our infant children and grandchildren grow old.
For example, the study finds that, by the end of the century, Chicago will suffer anywhere from 10 to 40 days a year over 100 degrees. Right now, Chicago averages zero days above 100. St. Louis, 300 miles south, already averages two to five 100-plus days every year. Based on the likely Chicago scenario, you can safely predict that, unless we take drastic and immediate action to fight climate change, St. Louis by the 21st century’s end will see anywhere between 15 and 50 days a year over 100 degrees every year.
Split the difference and say St. Louis will have 30 days a year over 100. That’s twice as many as El Paso, Texas currently has and will turn St. Louis’ miles of brick buildings into a giant heat island. The elderly, infants and toddlers, and people unable to afford skyrocketing electric bills to run air conditioning will die first from heat exposure. According to a 2014 report from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the Oak Ridge National Laboratory, rising temperatures will short out huge swathes of the electric grid, potentially cutting off electricity and air conditioning to tens of millions of people at a time.
As temperatures climb, air quality will get worse, especially in cities like St. Louis, surrounded by river valleys and already known for wicked humidity. As increased heat and humidity trap polluted air, people will get sick and die from respiratory illnesses. The Asthma and Allergy Foundation already ranks St. Louis as the sixth worst city in the country for asthma.
Because of inability to afford regular health care and the indoor pollution in older inner-city apartments and homes, African Americans already suffer from asthma at three times the rate for the overall population. That means the urban poor, already the least able to withstand rising temperatures, will be the first to become seriously ill from declining air quality.
The government scientists’ report also predicts a drastic increase in severe storms and floods. For the St. Louis region, that means floods along the Mississippi and its tributaries that will regularly inundate hundreds of thousands of low-income people, almost exclusively black, that live in the flat-as-a-pool-table flood plain that runs miles inland on the Illinois side of the river.
The urban poor have always been the first to feel, and the worst affected by, economic downturns. The report predicts the entire U.S. economy will shrink by 10 percent due to climate-related effects by the end of the century. In Missouri, agriculture will take the first and biggest hit because it will be too hot to grow either corn or soybeans, the state’s two biggest crops. Their most likely replacement is temperate sugar cane. (If you saw the movie “Interstellar,” it opens in the near future with Kansas farmer Matthew McConaughey tending his sugar cane crop.)
Economic decline and physical survival are tied together. The study predicts that over 2,000 people a year in the Midwest will die prematurely from the cascading dominoes of high heat, poor air quality, and declining quality of both the food and the water supply.
The biggest threat to public health, and especially the health of the urban poor, will come from new diseases that have mutated in the fecund climate of global warming, and from diseases carried by a population forced into mass migration.
If St. Louis will have the climate of El Paso, El Paso will have the climate of Hell, and millions of Americans with the resources to do so will migrate north from areas either too hot or too flooded to support much human life. People from Missouri looking for a climate like the state used to have will end up near the Canadian border.
Unless we go on essentially a war footing to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, this is the future. And it was caused by polluters supported by conservatives who denied science, profiteered from oil and coal, and installed as a matter of tribal faith the right-wing claim that none of this is happening.
Until it does.
Charles Jaco is a journalist, author, and activist. Follow him on Twitter at @charlesjaco1.