It was another sweltering day in Phoenix, and Tommy Espinoza, an Arizona native and president and CEO of Raza Development Fund, knew something was different. He was right. While Arizona’s summers have always been hot, August 2020 was the hottest month ever recorded in Phoenix, and the city’s temperatures topped 110 degrees for more than 50 days in 2020.
“[T]here are times when they close the airports and ask people not to go out. We have offices downtown, and I’ve crossed the street when the black tar moves beneath you since it’s 119–20 degrees. You cannot ignore this anymore. I was not a big climate change believer—but now you’ve got to say, wait a minute, you really cannot ignore this,” Espinoza said.
Welcome to America’s Heat Belt, the southernmost part of the country and home to the fastest-growing and most diverse population in the country—as well as some of its highest temperatures and most costly disasters. While we can’t say that this week’s staggering cold temperatures in Texas and elsewhere in the South were caused by climate change, it is certainly a harbinger of the wild and unpredictable weather that altering the Earth’s climate will bring. The future has arrived early for this part of America, and despite the pandemic and other simultaneous crises, communities here are increasingly motivated to set aside partisan politics in order to implement a broad spectrum of climate policies. But the scope of the issues and the required scale of the response necessitate a decisive role for the federal government, one guided by the unique encounters and opportunities of those living on the front lines of change.
We spoke to Espinoza as part of a project to explore conditions related to federal climate policy in this part of the country. New America partnered with Arizona State University’s Ten Across initiative, which engages the U.S. Interstate 10 corridor, from Los Angeles to Jacksonville, Florida. (ASU and New America are partners with Slate in Future Tense.) Together, we convened community leaders in many of the cities within and adjacent to the Ten Across transect to discuss what it means to be on the forefront of the environmental, economic, and social changes imminent for the rest of the country.
Many interviewees told us they are particularly concerned about the increasing frequency and intensity of the various climate change threats—heat, drought, wildfire, hurricanes, flooding. These mounting threats force Heat Belt residents to take temporary refuge elsewhere or, in a growing number of cases, to retreat permanently from areas that were once relatively safe. Since 2016, Houston has had three 500-year rain events. In 2020 alone, Phoenix did not simply surpass days above 110 but did so by 40 percent. California’s 2020 wildfires scorched twice the number of acres as the previous record, and Louisiana experienced an unprecedented five hurricanes in a single season.
Hurricanes and other natural disasters exact a heavy toll. In fact, 2020 was a record-breaking year, with 22 disasters costing more than $1 billion each. The previous record was 16 billion-dollar disasters. Many of the top counties for Federal Emergency Management Agency emergency declarations are found in the Heat Belt, and the region now accounts for 65 percent of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s total estimation of historical U.S. billion-dollar weather and climate disasters. The region also has some of the highest state poverty rates in the country. All of this translates to large populations suffering the worst cost in lives, livelihood, and stability, while struggling to recover from each successive shock. In a climate-changed future, the most vulnerable will likely become permanently displaced people looking for new homes and, in turn, placing pressures on communities that may have previously been spared.
Climate change is increasingly a lived experience for those Americans who call the country’s Heat Belt their home. Our interviewees suggested that personal encounters with mounting risk is eroding any remaining sense of climate skepticism. For many in this region, climate change has already arrived, requiring immediate action to sustain their community, even if that means retreat. As John Davies, CEO of the Baton Rouge Area Foundation, observes, “People who live in this world see it every day outside their windows: where there used to be land, there is now water. They understand.” Many interviewees spoke of leveraging this growing sense of urgency to prepare for what are now predictable extremes.
The Gulf Coast, for example, has seen a wide range of catastrophes over just the past few decades, prompting the creation of planning documents like Louisiana’s Coastal Master Plan and the formation of organizations like the Greater Houston Flood Mitigation Consortium and the Water Institute of the Gulf. These collaborative initiatives translate the latest science into politically neutral and durable tools that empower local decision-makers.
Local, state, and federal actors are collaborating in such efforts to relocate the mostly Native American population from Louisiana’s Isle de Jean Charles in Terrebonne Parish, where “subsistence, erosion, and sea-level rise” have caused the community to lose 98 percent of the land surrounding their homes. As Andrea Calvin, chief scientist at Adaptation Strategies, mentioned to us, the state’s Coastal Master Plan helped drive projects to move these communities, and a Department of Housing and Urban Development grant helped enable the realization of those projects. These local initiatives are concrete demonstrations of how the urgent motivations and insights of local stakeholders can drive federal resources toward meaningful action.
Similarly, in the West, an impending crisis pressed local stakeholders to begin addressing the realities of living in the drier, hotter realities that climate change is already delivering. Nearly 40 million people rely on the Colorado River system, which is experiencing a historic 16-year dry period with models suggesting that flows could fall by as much as 55 percent by 2100. In response to this mounting emergency, the federal government used its convening power to bring the seven Colorado River basin states and Mexico together over a seven-year period to develop the Drought Contingency Plan and with its adoption in 2019, a critical stopgap measure in anticipation of looming water shortages.
Locally led approaches to addressing climate change acknowledge the values and realities closest to the community. Understanding what they need, building the public will and receptivity, and creating durable solutions all rely significantly on the human element—something state and local officials are well positioned and equipped to accomplish. Tallahassee’s Chief Resilience Officer Abena Ojetayo explained, “We build capacity by looking first to the most vulnerable. When you do, you can’t help but talk about equity and cohesion, distribution of infrastructure, and access to opportunity. If you take care of those, you often solve the problems of resilience for the community at large.”
Many who joined our conversations in this part of the country echoed the need for consistent and coordinated federal leadership and financial support on issues their communities are already tackling but often struggle to find the means to fully realize. This effort must acknowledge and build upon the efforts of these state and local jurisdictions that are not allowing conventional boundaries, sectors, or precedent to limit their thinking or their actions. As Camille Manning Broome, who heads the Center for Planning Excellence in southern Louisiana, puts it, “Climate change leadership will come from the local level, where it’s actually felt. We have so much need and opportunity in our transition. It’s so big that we need commitments and resources at a national level. But the changes and the motives—those are local.”
Based on our interviews, we believe policy driven from the bottom up is perhaps the most efficient and effective route to necessary, durable change. These stories and the countless others like them must inform policies that overcome the limitations of arbitrary borders and political constructs. This is the chance to recommit to the value of governance at the federal level, to the benefit of all citizens—especially those in communities that are conspicuously vulnerable and can alert the rest of the country to what lies ahead.