Extreme heat, flooding and wildfires: How climate change supercharged the weather
Washington Post reporter Brady Dennis warns our aging infrastructure systems weren't built to withstand the stresses of climate change: "There is a certain amount of suffering that we can't avoid."
TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Today marks the end of summer, another summer of extreme weather. This one ended with a catastrophic hurricane, Fiona. August brought extreme rain and flooding in eastern Kentucky and Saint Louis. Flooding caused a drinking water crisis in Jackson, Miss. In many places, rainfall amounts that previously would have taken days poured down in a matter of hours. Parts of the West have been experiencing the opposite extreme - drought and massive fires. The principal climate scientists at the Union of Concerned Scientists says some scientists have started to refer to the warm season as danger season.
My guest, Brady Dennis, has been writing about the dangers we're already facing from climate change and ones we're likely to face in the near future. He's a national environmental reporter for The Washington Post and was part of a team of reporters at The Post that won a Pulitzer Prize for explanatory reporting in 2020 for, quote, "a groundbreaking series that showed with scientific clarity the dire effects of extreme temperatures on the planet."
Brady Dennis, welcome to FRESH AIR. I want to start by just talking about extreme rain. And let's use, you know, the storm that became a hurricane, Fiona, which dumped around 30 inches of rain in parts of Puerto Rico. I can't even imagine how much rain that is. So lots of places have been experiencing extreme rain. Why is climate change, warming, causing this calamitous rain?
BRADY DENNIS: That's a really good question, Terry, and one that I've spoken to a lot of scientists in the past few months about as we've seen these really almost indescribable record rains. Some of the places you mentioned, Kentucky, Eastern Kentucky and St. Louis, Texas, and now with Fiona in Puerto Rico and the Dominican, you know, in some ways, it comes down to physics is what the scientists tell me and what the literature says, which is a warmer atmosphere holds more water. A warmer atmosphere allows these storms that may have happened anyway to become supercharged in a sense. And so you see these events. And we've seen more and more of them that just dump, you know, insane amounts of rain on places. I think St. Louis was maybe 7 or 8 inches in the span of a few hours. Other places have seen, you know, a foot or more in a day. And there's just really no system and no infrastructure that we have to deal with that kind of water coming out of the sky in that time frame.
GROSS: You know, as you point out in your articles, a lot of America's infrastructure is old and it's decaying. It's out of date. But even if it was in better shape, it was not built for the climate we're living in now. It was not built for the extreme weather that we're experiencing. So what are some of the problems in our current infrastructure, especially like in - well, I was going to say especially like in older cities, but it's really like in rural areas, too. What are some of the reasons why rain just can't drain quickly enough and causes flooding?
DENNIS: I mean, on the broader sense of our infrastructure not being able to handle this, you're absolutely right. I mean, I had one scientist who studies extreme weather tell me, you know, the infrastructure we have is not only built for another century, it's also built for a different atmosphere and a different climate than we've had in the past. And I think at the core of it, that's kind of the main problem we're wrestling with and will very much wrestle with into the future, which is the storms of the past, the rains of the past, the floods of the past are not necessarily indicative of what's coming.
And so unless we build our infrastructure and update our infrastructure in ways that anticipates what we're likely to see, then these problems, we can only expect to see more of them. There's another side of that, though, which is, as you mentioned, in rural places, in historically poor places, a lot of times in minority communities, you have layered on top of that decades of disinvestment, you know, problems that were driven by white flight or racist policies that have left, as we've seen in Jackson, the infrastructure already so fragile.
And so, you know, it's probably not fair to blame climate change for all these catastrophes, but climate change often seems to be the tipping point. It seems to be the event that is pushing some of these places and some of this infrastructure over the edge and creating, you know, bigger disasters than we might have seen in the past.
GROSS: Yeah. Jackson, Miss., is an example of what some people are starting to describe as the plumbing poor. Can you talk a little bit about that?
DENNIS: Yes. I mean, you can just see, you know, first off, it's important to point out that, as I mentioned, in Jackson, climate change is not the only story. Climate change is one in a litany of problems that that city and its people are facing, you know, decades of deferred maintenance. The mayor has talked about this. He said when this problem came to light, the most recent one, he said, you know, it was not a matter of if our system was going to fail but when. And so you see these places like Jackson - I've spent a lot of time in Flint in the wake of the water crisis there - in a lot of cities that have seen disinvestment or have seen their populations shrink.
A lot of times, that goes hand in hand with fragile infrastructure, with sewers that overflow easily, with water systems that have problems treating the water properly and maintaining safe drinking water. And when you start to get really extreme storms, heavy rains, flooding, that puts stresses on these systems that would stress any system, even in the best of times, and certainly in a place that doesn't have the resources to prepare for it can really lead to catastrophe.
GROSS: So some of the problem that you're getting at - a shrinking tax base when the population shrinks.
DENNIS: Yeah. One of the things I've learned covering climate is that there are all these sort of effects you don't think about when it's - when a hurricane hits necessarily or when, you know, the wildfire burns through a place. Those are horrific and tragic events. But then there's always the question of what comes next. And often, you know, houses are gone. People leave and go elsewhere. Tax bases shrink. And then there becomes a real economic crunch. And cities can't maintain these systems. And it's a bad cycle. It's probably one we're going to see more of. And it's a real challenge for our country going forward and also for many others.
GROSS: You quote the American Society of Civil Engineers as giving our nation's drinking water infrastructure a C-minus on its latest report card. And the U.S. storm water infrastructure was graded even lower. Engineers warned that few systems could afford the high cost of retrofits to address flooding that's linked to climate change. So it's starting to feel like we're a developing nation - you know what I mean? - a developing country when it comes to water. Like, we've seen, you know, several different cities having to resort to bottled water because the city's water is just undrinkable. And, you know, I keep wondering, like, what city is going to be next? What kind of warnings have you been hearing about what we're facing in terms of a water crisis in the future?
DENNIS: I mean, all kinds of warnings that this could happen anywhere and has happened, as you mentioned, in a growing number of places. I mean, we do have, in the most general sense, a pretty aging water infrastructure in this country. That's without adding the effects of climate change to it. I think what you're seeing is an acknowledgment by the Biden administration that this is a real issue. And, you know, the bipartisan infrastructure act from last year and the Inflation Reduction Act includes, you know, tens of billions of dollars to do the kinds of things that you're mentioning - to upgrade storm water systems, to, you know, upgrade drinking water systems, and to try to make these sort of infrastructure improvements so that at the very least, we're not on the brink of crisis in a lot of these places.
But there is very much an equity and justice component to this. I mean, the biggest problems we have seen have come in historically minority and low-income communities. And so as this money goes out, I think it's going to be a question of whether we can make sure that those are - the places that are most in need are the places that get those investments and how quickly can that happen and how thoroughly we'll have fixed the problems. I mean, it's just a massive problem and one that's really not going away. Because in many places, this infrastructure has been under the ground for 80 years, hundred years, maybe in some cases more. And that is just a huge undertaking, to think about redoing that. We don't see it day to day, so it's not always at the front of mind, and it's literally out of sight. But it's something that affects literally every corner of the country.
GROSS: And we're all going to complain when the roads are dug up so that the infrastructure can be updated. But, you know...
DENNIS: That's right.
GROSS: It's, you know - that's, I think - I assume that's one of the reasons why it's so hard to do it.
DENNIS: It is. I mean, where do you start, right? And so, you know, every community probably has a wish list. But a lot of communities - I think these infrastructure investments that we're seeing, both in the bipartisan infrastructure bill from last year and the Inflation Reduction Act - you know, I think what they're trying to spur is the kind of infrastructure investment and building that this country really hasn't done for generations.
Now, I think it - to be - you know, to do that on a national scale is a huge undertaking. And there are questions of, can we do that? Will we do that? On what time frame will we do that? And will we not repeat the mistakes of the past? Will we not - will we make sure that if we build, you know, new roadways, that they don't cut Black neighborhoods in half? And, you know, so there are all these other questions that are related to climate change and making things resilient enough to weather the storms we know are coming. And also, can we do that in a way that is equitable across America?
GROSS: What have you been hearing from planners and civil engineers about whether last year's infrastructure bill and the recent Inflation Reduction Act are addressing the issues of infrastructure in a way that might actually be effective?
DENNIS: Yeah. So I think on the whole, most folks would agree that these are historic investments. These are - this is money that, really, the scale of which has not been available in the U.S. for a very, very long time. And it spans a lot of things. I mean, as I said, $50 billion or so for the EPA to help communities upgrade storm and water systems. You know, NOAA gets millions, if not, I think, billions, to help, you know, make coastal communities more resilient to the changes that are coming and to help, just as importantly, forecast some of the flooding so that we can get people out of harm's way.
You know, there's money for Indigenous communities. There's money for states to move highways out of flood-prone areas and actually to move entire communities that wish to move out of some of these places. So that's just a small sample of the money that is going to go to different parts of the country for these things. Is it enough? Based on what we need, probably not. I think maybe the better way to think about it as - is as a down payment on preparing for what's to come.
And I think it's an explicit acknowledgment both of the age of our infrastructure, but also the fact that climate change really is not some distant worry but something that we're already dealing with now. And so the open question to me is how we spend that money. I mean, obviously, it goes from the federal government to the states to the localities, and that always raises questions about how it ultimately gets spent and if it's done in the smartest way. But there's no doubt that it's really an unprecedented amount of funding for these kinds of things.
GROSS: Let me reintroduce you here. If you're just joining us, my guest is Brady Dennis, and he's a national environmental reporter for The Washington Post. We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with national environmental reporter for The Washington Post Brady Dennis. He's been writing about the dangers we're already facing from climate change and ones we're likely to face in the near future.
You did a fascinating piece about something I was totally unaware of, and that is ghost forests. And the piece was reported from a North Carolina peninsula. Tell us about the location. And what is a ghost forest?
DENNIS: Sure. This story was from a place called the Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge, and it's just across from the Outer Banks of North Carolina, a little bit inland, right on the Albemarle-Pamlico Sounds. And this was a story that fascinated me, too, Terry, and something that I had not been very familiar with before I went to see these forests. And what they are is these beautiful forests in a wildlife refuge that have stood for a very long time, right? But when you go now, you really can't mistake that something's not right there.
There are these - how to describe it? The trunks of old pines and cypress and other trees are just standing, the trunks of them, like totem poles, but without - often without branches, without greenery, just sort of standing there, I think. Like tombstones, I think I described it. And it's very clear that the forest is dying. And the reason it's dying out and the reason a lot of folks in the environmental world are worried about this in this corner of the country and in others is because what it says about climate change. It's really sort of one of the most obvious symbols we have of what's happening along the coasts.
GROSS: What does it say about climate change?
DENNIS: Well, it tells us that the sea is rising, and that saltwater is is finding its way into these forests that really should not be submerged in saltwater. And so that's what's killing the trees slowly but unmistakably. And you can just see a world transitioning if you stand there. I mean, I stood there with a fellow, Scott Lanier (ph), who is the manager of this wildlife refuge, and he's been there for decades. And he just said, look, like - what happened to the trees, where did they go? - as he stood and looked out over this place early one morning. And what's happening is that where he was standing, you know, used to be he was waist deep in water or near where it was waist deep in water.
And forests that were once full of, you know, big, towering pine trees and red maple trees, sweet gum trees, they've now transitioned to more like shrub land. And stretches that were shrub were are now transitioning to marsh. And things that were once marsh are now just the ocean because they've been taken over. And so you can basically see in these spots, the sea is claiming back this land. And this does happen along the coast. This is not unprecedented. But it tells us a lot about what's happening there along the coast. And just in the most straightforward way, it's not good for the climate to lose all these trees. And that's happening up and down the East Coast.
GROSS: Yeah. It's this, like, feedback loop where the climate change is killing the trees and the death of the trees is accelerating the rate of climate change. Can you talk about that, that feedback cycle, that negative feedback cycle?
DENNIS: Well, trees, you know, we can think of trees as sort of the lungs of the earth, right? The trees soak up - on a global scale, soak up huge amounts of carbon emissions of our greenhouse gas pollution every year. And so if we lose forests and they disappear, well, that's fewer tools we have to fight climate change. And in this place, the experts are studying this, but they haven't found a way to save the trees that are already dying or to replace them. And so what they're doing primarily is trying their best to slow down the transition of these forests for now so that there are forests for as long we can keep them that way.
GROSS: How are they slowing it down?
DENNIS: Well, they're doing some plantings of other types of trees that might take root there. They are doing various experiments. Some, I think, involve artificial oyster reefs that can sort of slow the creep of the rising waters, you know, that can sort of hold back the water in some ways, in a natural way. You know, different ways just to slow that transition a little bit. But every scientist I spoke to in that story, none had an illusion that they could stop this transition. This is something that's happening. And I remember walking out into the water with one probably 40, 40 feet or so. And he said, when I first started doing research here not that long ago, this was dry land. And we looked backwards. And there were just tree stumps as far as we could see. And he said, those were all standing, those were all trees. And then he said, you see the trees that are beyond there? Like, they're next. And so the scientists know what is happening here, and they're just trying to figure out ways to slow it down.
GROSS: If he remembers all the trees being there, that's really rapid change.
DENNIS: Yeah. Yeah. I mean, you know, this part of the East Coast - and the East Coast in general, in fact - is a place that seas are rising. You know, one of the fastest rising places around the world is the East Coast of the United States.
GROSS: You know, the forest, the ghost forest that you're talking about, it's not just the trees that are dying. It's going to affect the whole ecosystem.
DENNIS: It's definitely going to affect the whole ecosystem, and it is affecting humans as well in different ways. One of which a colleague of mine did a wonderful story on is farmers. This saltwater intrusion, as they called it, is not just creeping into forests, it's creeping onto farmland. And there are people who are - there are farmers who are either, you know, abandoning some of their fields or moving elsewhere and just having a really rough time, not only in North Carolina and other places with trying to grow crops, as you can imagine, in salty soil is not a good thing. And so, yes. And as far as the forest transitioning, you know, as one forest disappears, so do the things that live in it. And so that has a really profound effect on biodiversity and wildlife as well.
GROSS: Well, let me reintroduce you here. If you're just joining us, my guest is Brady Dennis. He's a national environmental reporter for The Washington Post. We'll talk more about the dangers we're already facing from climate change after we take a short break. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I am Terry Gross. Let's get back to my interview with Brady Dennis, a national environmental reporter for The Washington Post who's been writing about the dangers we're already facing from climate change and the ones we're likely to face in the near future. He was part of a team of reporters at The Post that won a Pulitzer Prize for explanatory reporting in 2020 for, quote, "a groundbreaking series that showed with scientific clarity the dire effects of extreme temperatures on the planet."
Hot places are getting even hotter. And you write about a growing number of cities now that have a chief heat officer to focus on the risks posed by hot temperatures. And this includes Miami, Phoenix, Los Angeles. What's the job description if you're a chief heat officer?
DENNIS: Yeah, that's a good question. I think the job description - not to be flip about it, it's to save lives because heat, as we know, is really the most deadly impact of a warming climate. We just, as humans, can only deal with so much heat. And not only are the days getting hotter in a lot of places, relentlessly so - we've seen obviously triple-digit temperatures more and more - the nights are getting hotter. So there's often fewer chances, especially in places like Phoenix or Miami or these places that are historically hot already - folks don't have a chance to cool down. Their bodies - our bodies can't cool down even at night. And you can imagine if you lack air conditioning or a reliable place to go cool down, that can really start to be a scary issue.
And so I think these cities that have gone forward with hiring people to focus just on this issue, you know, they're doing things like making sure there are enough cooling centers. But they're also trying to make sure that cities plant more trees so that there's more shade and that there's more warnings when a heat wave is coming so that people know to prepare for these things. And so it's a range of things. But I think at the end of the day, the idea is to get people out of harm's way to the extent that we can.
GROSS: You've written about how many popular places to live - by the shore, in nice, warm climates - are becoming unlivable because of rising oceans and extreme heat waves, droughts, fires. What are some of the areas in the U.S. that you think are likely to become uninhabitable in the near future that are quite popular and even very expensive right now?
DENNIS: I think this is a really - a fundamental question and something that we're going to really have to reckon with. Even as someone who covers climate change, Terry, one thing that was really startling to me earlier this year in covering - and last year in covering the most recent reports of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the IPCC, which is essentially the smartest several hundred scientists in the world studying this, giving the assessment of where we are and what we know about climate change - what was very startling to me in there is that there are changes we can't avoid, things that are going to come no matter what we do as far as cutting our greenhouse gas emissions in the years ahead.
For instance, seas are going to keep rising for some time even if we aggressively transition away from fossil fuels tomorrow. We have warmed the earth enough that the seas are going to keep rising for a period of time, for quite a while. Temperatures are going to increase for some time to come. We can expect storms to get stronger. You know, there is a certain amount of suffering that we can't avoid. There is a lot we can avoid, but there is a certain amount that's sort of baked in. And I say that not to be alarmist, but just that we know that now, that scientists are quite confident in this.
And so to get to your question, I think a real question both for our country and many others is, what do we do with that knowledge, right? We know that in a lot of places, the flooding is going to happen more and more and the fires are going to happen more and more. And so do we, as a society and as governments - do we choose to not let people develop in these places and to move to these places? Or do we just kind of continue with this patchwork of, like, you know, it's up to the local authority or - however we deal with it, we will be dealing with it with the knowledge that what we're seeing already is going to get worse.
And so to your question, I don't know whether there are places, you know, in the next several years that will become, quote-unquote, "uninhabitable." But I think a lot of times people focus on the uninhabitable part or the fact that, like, we just can't live anymore in this place. I think it's sometimes more subtle than that. In a lot of coastal areas and in these areas where wildfire is such a problem, you probably can still live. But, you know, what is the quality of life when you're - the main road to your house floods 40 days a year, you know, or you can't get to the hospital or the grocery store or you lose power, you know, constantly because of these issues?
GROSS: Or you've rebuilt after a hurricane or rebuilt after a fire and then another hurricane or another fire comes along and destroys your home. What do you do?
DENNIS: Yeah. I mean, or have you rebuilt numerous times? Which one is the one where you say enough? And so I think in a lot of places we're starting to see that. I actually was just in someone's - in multiple people's (ph) living room a few days ago who live in a flood-prone part of the country - had been flooded again and again. And they had just decided enough was enough. And they were packing up and taking a buyout that was offered by the local government to leave.
And so I think that obviously is a very personal choice for people. Your home is your home. And it's - there's a lot tied up in that, financially and emotionally. But also, in a lot of these places that are so beautiful and are so popular, we are going to start seeing sort of these hard questions become unavoidable, both from a livability standpoint, as you mentioned, but also from a financial standpoint. You know, will the coast of Florida be as attractive if you can't get a 30-year mortgage at some point? So I think that's some of the questions that lie ahead.
GROSS: Well, let me reintroduce you. If you're just joining us, my guest is Brady Dennis, and he's a national environmental reporter for The Washington Post who's been writing about climate change. We'll be right back after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF CHARLIE HADEN'S "EL CIEGO (THE BLIND)")
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with Brady Dennis, who's been writing about the dangers we're already facing from climate change and the ones we're likely to face in the near future. He's a national environmental reporter for The Washington Post.
I think it's really interesting that in some places, governments are offering buyouts for residents to leave and relocate. Is that because it's becoming so expensive for local governments, as well as the federal government, to help bail out communities that have been severely damaged, catastrophically damaged, by fire or flood?
DENNIS: That's certainly part of it. There are places - I have done some reporting about places through the National Flood Insurance Program, for instance, that have been rebuilt six, seven, eight, 10 times. And so, you know, we have some - we have historically had some pretty perverse incentives about rebuilding versus relocating people. I think some of those conversations are shifting when it becomes pretty clear that a place is just going to flood again and again or a place is just so prone to fire that it's not safe to be. But these are difficult situations. I mean, when you face down what's happening with climate change, you have several options. I mean, the main one is to, quote, unquote, "mitigate it" - right? - to stop adding carbon to the air, to stop heating the planet so that we can stop, you know, these impacts from getting worse. That's the overarching goal if you want to ultimately stop these things.
But in the meantime, you can adapt. You can try to live with the effects. Or you can retreat. And retreat tends to be a very, in some places, controversial and, you know, contentious thing in a lot of communities because also, you know, we tend to, in some places, buy out lower income housing or people, you know, in certain communities versus others. And so I think there are certainly places in America that we will and already are moving away from danger and just letting go back to nature. But I think it's also important to be thoughtful about where and how we do that.
GROSS: What are some of the equity questions that are coming up surrounding taxpayer dollars paying for rebuilding homes that are clearly in dangerous places - for example, expensive homes on the coast or in zones that are prone to wildfires?
DENNIS: Right. I think there's a lot of questions. I think at the core of that is the question of, how much should others be on the hook for the people who own those kind of things? And I think there are - there is a big push - in fact, I just was speaking recently to a former director of FEMA who said, you know, what we really need are stronger building codes in certain places and the courage to not allow people to build in certain places. But often, we don't have that because no one really ever got elected on stronger building codes or, you know, zoning. It just tends - you know, it's not what you run and get elected on. But in these coastal communities and in places that are very prone to wildfire, again, I think it's only going to become more clear where, maybe, people should not be. And how do we deal with that because in the past, maybe we didn't know as much about, you know, building big homes on barrier islands, but now we do. And so what do you do with what is already there is a huge question. And what do you not allow or allow going forward is also a huge question.
And these are - you know, these are intensely local fights. So it's really difficult for, say, the federal government to swoop in and say, you can't build there. Or we're not going to - you know, we're not going to pay for you to rebuild if you build here. I mean, that is happening in places. I think that will continue to happen. But again, you know, people's property and people's homes are sacred. And we often treat it as such. And so these are really thorny problems, especially as more and more places fall into those categories of vulnerable. And there are also equity questions in that. Like, who do you try to force to leave? And even in some places, some communities, if you want to leave, where do you go? Can you afford to move? I mean, there are a lot of very human questions wrapped up in this issue of climate and extreme weather.
GROSS: You've been reporting from North Carolina, where you recently moved. And you've been doing a lot of on-the-ground reporting. In previous years in covering climate change, part of what you did was, you know, you covered the Environmental Protection Agency. You covered the climate talks in Paris, the climate accord there. And just in terms of the impact on you and what your perceptions are when you're covering climate change from a policy perspective and you're going to conferences and talking to officials, versus when you're, like, on the ground and you're standing in a ghost forest, in a forest that used to have trees and now has just tree stumps, and you're going to other places that are experiencing the extreme effects of climate change.
DENNIS: I have learned a lot in all those settings, right? I have stood, for instance, last fall, in Glasgow, Scotland, at the U.N. climate summit, where one world leader after another stood up and made promises, you know, to stop deforestation or to stop - you know, to really cut back on greenhouse gas emissions, you know? Leaders of rich countries promised to do more to help folks in vulnerable countries and on small islands to adapt to what we're seeing, you know, to problems that they didn't cause, you know? And so - and then you see in the real world where those promises are just, so far, largely not being kept. And on a national level, you can see - I covered the EPA toward the end of the Obama administration and also throughout the entire Trump administration, in which a lot of environmental and climate regulations get rolled back. And now, under Biden, there's a real push to be a leader on this again and to treat this as a national priority.
But then you go somewhere - like, I did a story this summer in the mountains of North Carolina about one of the billion-dollar disasters. It involved flooding last summer. And I wanted to show, first off, that this is not just a problem of the coasts. This happens high up in the mountains as well. These impacts from extreme precipitation. And also, a billion-dollar disaster isn't just a huge hurricane that has a name. Sometimes it's a storm that doesn't have a name or is just a tropical depression or whatever.
And so to answer your question, what's been really interesting to me, to be more on the ground, is to see sometimes that these promises and these policies take a long time to filter down, that the folks in the North Carolina mountains who had their homes swept away, you know, there's no answer yet for the next storm, right? There's no policy that's going to prevent that water from rising again - yet. Maybe that money gets there, but it takes a long time. So I think I have now some more perspective about sort of the urgency of the problems for a lot of people who live them And also, in a local sense but more in a global sense, other countries that are really dealing with issues even more acute than we are, that the rich countries of the world are not living up to their promises. And so it's just this sort of, like, sense of distrust and broken promises on the ground in some of these places.
GROSS: Well, let me reintroduce you. If you're just joining us, my guest is Brady Dennis. He's a national environmental reporter for The Washington Post. We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF THE BEATLES SONG, "WITHIN YOU WITHOUT YOU")
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with Brady Dennis, who's been writing about the dangers we're already facing from climate change and the ones we're likely to face in the near future. He's a national environmental reporter for The Washington Post.
You were part of a team that won a Pulitzer Prize in 2020 for explanatory reporting for a series that showed the dire effects of extreme temperatures on the planet. And for the series, you went to a couple of places. You went to a series of islands off the coast of Canada and to Minnesota. So Canada's up north. Minnesota's pretty far north. What were you looking for in those places? Why did you go there?
DENNIS: Yeah, so just to explain the series very briefly, what we did - some colleagues of mine had this very smart idea, which was to look at data about temperatures. You know, there are temperature stations all over the world, some of which have been there for more than a century, recording temperatures all the time. And so on average, as I had said earlier, the world has warmed about one degree Celsius since the Industrial Revolution began. But when you look over time at all these temperature stations, what emerges is that that's not evenly dispersed across the world. There are places that are already above two degrees Celsius warming, some as much as three or four. But there are already many places, a growing number of places, above two degrees, which is the threshold that leaders around the world have promised not to cross on a global scale.
And so what we wanted to do was say, well, what's happening in these places that are warming faster than the average? And as one scientist put it to us, you know, these places are sort of like glimpses of the future in the present, which I thought was a very wise way of thinking about it. I went to the islands off - in Canada, the Magdalen Islands, where, you know, these folks are on these beautiful set of islands but pretty isolated in the middle of the Gulf of Saint Lawrence. And they are gorgeous, but they have the misfortune of being made out of sandstone, essentially, which as the seas rise and the storms get more intense, are chipping away at their island, are basically making their island home crumble into the sea.
I remember talking with a woman in her house, and she said, I never go in the backyard anymore because I'm afraid I'll fall into the ocean, which was 60, 70 feet below. And her yard had steadily been falling into the ocean. There are fishermen there worried about how the warming waters are changing what they're going to be able to catch and their livelihoods. So that story was about this society, you know, dealing with what they're already seeing and worrying about what's yet to come.
GROSS: What did you find in Minnesota regarding climate change?
DENNIS: In Minnesota, there are beautiful forests. You know, boreal forests, one of the only places in America where you could go see a boreal forest with these towering pine trees and many other species of trees that, from a climate perspective, are super important to the environment. I mean, they are also important to the economy of Minnesota because, you know, there is harvesting of trees, and there's other uses. But from a climate sense, these forests soak up huge amounts of carbon. But these trees are under stress because they are at the far edge of the boreal forest, where it becomes something different. And as the world warms, that sort of - the line, the area in which they're able to survive, is moving north, you know? And so the trees either have to find a way to move north themselves, which, as you can imagine, is difficult for trees, or they will die out. And that land will become something less good for the climate, something like shrub land.
And these scientists are there doing many experiments, but one of the ones I wrote about was trying to bring in - they call it assisted migration. And they're trying to bring in other species to plant in these forests to see what might survive as these forests change so that they can still be forests, so that they can still be beneficial, both for recreation but also to help soak up carbon in the atmosphere. And they fear that if we just let nature take its course, as it is right now, that these forests will become something totally different entirely. You can already see the stress that they're under. And so it's a bizarre feeling to be there because you're in the middle of this beautiful place. But these scientists very much feel like they're in a race against time to help these forests hang on.
GROSS: So you grew up in North Carolina. You're living there again. Can you see any differences between when you were young, growing up there, and now since you've moved back in terms of issues related to climate change?
DENNIS: I mean, it's early days, Terry. I've been here a couple of months, so I think I'll have a better answer for you later on. But the but is even in the few stories I've traveled for in these past months, the landscapes of my childhood are very much familiar and eerily different. And I'll use this as an example. The ghost forest that we talked about earlier, I traveled to the Outer Banks and to the coast as a kid, you know, to go fishing with my dad and grandfather. And those were just forests then, right? Unremarkable to me as a kid.
Now, it's just - I drive through there and I see something entirely different and an unmistakable mark of climate change. I go to the Outer Banks, and there are houses, you know, crumbling into the ocean. Just this spring, a couple of homes fell in Rodanthe on the Outer Banks. And I've spoken to the owners of one of those homes. That was always a risk when I was a kid, so much more of a risk now, and I think we're going to see more of it going forward.
You know, I'm from near the mountains in North Carolina. And to go do the story about these mountain communities flooding, similar to, I think on a smaller scale, what's happening in eastern Kentucky, yes, there have always been floods. There have always been rains. There have always been the remnants of hurricanes that blow through. But it feels in some way fragile in a way that I don't remember it. The infrastructure feels fragile. The sort of - the safety net feels fragile if you lose your homes in one of these events. And I can only think and I hope to understand better in the months and years ahead how that's happening in other parts, you know, in Louisiana and Texas and Florida.
And I just - I think it's important to document this moment and how people are being impacted and how people are sort of wrestling with these things in real time, because covering climate change is difficult in the sense that you're covering something that in human terms happens in slow motion a lot of times. But I want to go find the spots where we can see it. Sometimes it's very much in your face with a Hurricane Harvey or something, but - or Hurricane Fiona, as we're seeing this week. But sometimes it's more subtle than that. And I think there's value in documenting this, the subtle changes in people's lives.
But I think one thing that I would also take away from spending so much time and so many years on this topic is that very much the future is not set in stone. You know, humans, we still have it in our grasp to shape a better, more livable future for our kids, for our grandkids. And I think what is really interesting about covering this in this moment is that some of those decisions are being made now. And what we have - what we do today will really shape the future, whether we live to see it or not, the future for those who come after us.
GROSS: Brady Dennis, it's been a pleasure talking with you. Thank you so much.
DENNIS: Thank you so much, Terry.
GROSS: Brady Dennis is a national environmental reporter for The Washington Post. If you'd like to catch up on FRESH AIR interviews you missed, like this week's interview with Sterlin Harjo, co-creator of the series "Reservation Dogs," or Geoffrey Berman, whose new memoir is about serving as U.S. attorney in the Southern District of New York, and how Trump's Justice Department pressured Berman to achieve legal outcomes favorable to the administration, check out our podcast. You'll find lots of FRESH AIR interviews. And to see what our producers have to say, subscribe to our newsletter by going to our website - freshair.npr.org.
FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our senior producer today is Sam Briger. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Roberta Shorrock, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Ann Marie Baldonado, Seth Kelley and Susan Nyakundi. Our digital media producer is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Thea Chaloner directed today's show. I'm Terry Gross. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.View this story on npr.org
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