When geography comes up in politics, it’s frequently framed in adversarial terms—urban versus rural, coasts versus heartland, red states versus blue states. But the climate change era calls for a more nuanced and holistic understanding of the United States’ physical and social characteristics, as a digital atlas launched today shows.
The 2100 Project: An Atlas for A Green New Deal, a website produced by researchers from the University of Pennsylvania’s McHarg Center for Urbanism and Ecology, features easily accessible data and graphics about our country’s geography—“tools to help us understand the spatial consequences of climate change—not so that we may be frightened by them, but so that we may be mobilized around a response to them,” the website states.
The proposed response is the Green New Deal, which is not a specific policy but rather a framework for shared goals and ideals to help decarbonize our transportation and energy systems, build sustainable infrastructure, and create millions of jobs for frontline communities across the country. While some progressives have embraced the idea of a Green New Deal and are proposing policy based on it—like the recent Green New Deal for Public Housing bill that would invest $180 billion over 10 years in hiring public housing residents to retrofit buildings with energy-efficient technology—political consensus has yet to coalesce. By analyzing climate change at the scale of the entire country, the atlas is intended as a step toward a shared understanding of the complexity of the problem and urgency for action.
“We’re showing how dramatic and totalizing the effects of climate change will be,” Billy Fleming, director of the McHarg Center, tells Curbed. “We’re turning away from this imagining of climate change as mostly a sea level rise problem. Anyone who spends more than five minutes with the atlas will see that.”
Climate change results from the scientifically proven warming of the planet caused by the accumulation in the atmosphere of greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide, primarily from the increased combustion of fossil fuels. Though climate change is often framed as primarily a problem of melting polar ice caps that will affect coastal cities, it also contributes to extreme weather that will impact every single region in the United States, and the world. Climate change is flooding in the Midwest, it’s extreme heat in cities, it’s more violent hurricanes, it’s wildfires in the West, it’s risks for all built land.
The atlas’s maps show present-day physical characteristics, like the location of indigenous tribal lands, how we use land (e.g., agriculture, forests, urban land), where we get our water, distinct ecological regions, and any regional environmental risks. The maps also depict social and demographic data, like internet connectivity, income distribution, race and ethnicity, and migration patterns; infrastructure, like power stations and transmission lines, ports and airports, and military bases; and projections about how climate change will affect average annual temperature, energy expenditure, and economic growth. And, crucially, there’s a map of “Big Ideas” listing localized design and infrastructure responses to issues competing land uses, like local infrastructure, housing, and urban planning projects from the Resettlement Authority, the Tennessee Valley Authority, and the National Urban Policy and Community Development Act.
Some areas of the country have felt the impact of climate change more acutely and more swiftly than others, such as South Florida with its chronic inundation by seawater. But local climate change impacts will have ripple effects that will be felt nationally. For example, Hurricane Maria led to mass migration from Puerto Rico to the mainland U.S. Midwest flooding presents a risk for food security everywhere.
Political responses have been uneven. Some cities are adopting aggressive climate policies, like New York City’s energy efficiency bill, and have the resources to do so. At the same time, though, some so-called “climate mayors” who have pledged to reduce carbon emissions are advancing contradictory agendas, like widening highways. And politicians in many regions could be doing much more to address the needs of their constituents. By showing how some of these regions—Appalachia, the Corn Belt, and the Mississippi Delta in particular—will be affected by climate change and what their opportunities are to adapt, the atlas has potential to rally more supporters for the Green New Deal. The effects of climate change can feel so abstract, but these simple maps lay out information in an accessible way, like showing exactly where agricultural fields are most poised for growth (the northwest) and damage (the midwest and south).
“If you talk to farmers, they get this in ways we don’t give them credit for,” Fleming says. “In the Midwest, they’re in the fourth or fifth year of having their harvest wiped out, they can’t afford new equipment because the steel tariffs are high, and they’re squeezed in all directions from political and economic forces. If they are not part of the coalition, there won’t be a Green New Deal.”
Then there’s the added pressure of population growth. The Census Bureau expects U.S. population to increase by 100 million people by the 2060s, creating new demands for development, transportation, energy, and water. In addition, we could be forced to accommodate as many as 13.1 million U.S. residents who will be displaced by sea level rise by 2100.
“The Green New Deal is going to require a lot of built stuff,” Fleming says. “We have a lot of social and political choices to make about density and connectedness.”
Fleming, who worked on urban policy development for the White House Domestic Policy Council during the Obama Administration, predicts a major stimulus package in the coming years to address economic and environmental challenges. (Economists predict a recession in the next decade.) Fleming hopes this atlas spurs forward-thinking research about what a future stimulus might fund.
“It’s important to show how many people, how many landscapes, and how many things will be affected as a result of climate change,” Fleming says. “We imagined this atlas for neighborhood-level, city-level, and metro-level actors putting plans together for the future. Now is the time to get projects ready for the next stimulus.”
The Obama stimulus—an $832 billion spending package authorized in 2009—was “poorly played out with respect to the built environment,” Fleming says. “A lot of funding went to infrastructure, public works, and the built environment and it all went to projects that had been sitting on the books for five, 10, 20 years. The work was intended to be shovel-ready, which had good intentions, but in practice it was building things people didn’t want.” For example, the money was spent widening roads, repairing bridges, and repairing roads, but not the long-term thinking needed for en energy independence, environmental sustainability, and social cohesion.
Could a future stimulus package be constructed as a Green New Deal? Perhaps. And this atlas is a powerful tool to show us why everyone in America could benefit from policy that centers climate change and economic justice—and get regions thinking about how they would like to self-determine their future.
“The Green New Deal is framed by good-faith and bad-faith actors as something that will primarily benefit coastal cities,” Fleming says. “There’s plenty in the Green New Deal for all of us.”