Madeline Ostrander

Climate Inaction Comes Home to Roost

Air Date: October 24, 2022

Science journalist Madeline Ostrander discusses her new book “At Home on an Unruly Planet: Finding Refuge on a Changed Earth.”


HEFFNER: I’m Alexander Hefner your host on The Open Mind. I’m delighted to welcome our guest today, Madeline Ostrander. She’s the author of the new book “At Home on an Unruly Planet: Finding Refuge on a Changed Earth.” And she’s an accomplished science journalist. Welcome Madeline.


OSTRANDER: Thank you, Alex.


HEFFNER: Let me ask you when you started this project and how you came upon it and the particular communities that you profile.


OSTRANDER: It’s a project that I’ve been, been thinking about for a number of years. I think that when I first started reporting on climate change, which was about 15 years ago, or so, a lot of people weren’t talking about it in a way that was easy to grab a hold of. It was often talked about in a way that was far away and distant and would affect people in the future. And it was framed in terms of data and melting ice somewhere far from where we live. And I think that as a, a journalist and as someone who had a lot of science background, I understood this would affect all of us in our own communities. And I would sometimes imagine how it would affect me at home in Seattle. And so I began looking for places where people were also beginning to reach that understanding. And I think the four communities that I picked in the book are places where people really have confronted the kinds of risks that we’re all facing and have tried to think about how they’re going to deal with those risks and cope and manage the future.


HEFFNER: Tell us about those four communities.


OSTRANDER: Well, so they reflect four different aspects of the climate crisis. One is a community pretty close to where I live. It’s just a drive over the mountains. It’s called Okanogan County in Washington, and there’s a number of rural communities that have dealt with really catastrophic wildfires over and over again. Another community is Newtok, Alaska, which is a native Alaskan community that is trying to relocate across a river that they live alongside because there’s so much coastal erosion and permafrost erosion that the place that they have lived for a number of generations now is pretty much collapsing into the river. And so they’re having to try to negotiate a move. Another place is St. Augustine, Florida, which has dealt with a number of pretty serious hurricanes, and also is having a huge increase in the amount of, you know, just rainy-day flooding and tidal flooding because of sea level rise. It’s also one of the most historic communities in the country. And so I thought that it was a really interesting place to contemplate home and history and how do we protect the things that matter to us? And then a fourth community is Richmond, California, which is a frontline fossil fuel community that’s had to deal with the impacts of our fossil fuel use at home because they’re based alongside a huge hundred-year-old oil refinery. And they’ve had a lot of pollution impacts from that refinery. And they’ve been trying to think about what would it mean here to move beyond oil?


HEFFNER: And, you know, you, you wrote about all four of them. What unified them in terms of these particular climate induced challenges or problems and what was disparate about them?


OSTRANDER: I think what unified them was that in each place I found people who cared really deeply about their community and who wanted to take action to try to protect that place. And what I noticed was that people who felt that way who were really ground in their community, often rose to a place of taking a lead and, you know, organizing things for other people to get together and figure out, you know, how do we confront this crisis? And that was a very powerful motivator. I mean, there’s a lot of things that are disparate about them. I really did want them to be representative of the different kinds of crises that we’re facing around the country because of the climate change and the different kinds of communities, because I wanted the book to convey that this is affecting all of us at home. And so here are different places where people are grappling with that. But there is also a kind of, a kind of narrative structure that unites the book in in the sense that in the first half of the book, each community recognizes that they’re dealing with a particular kind of crisis or risk that’s new. And in the second half of the book, the community reckons with what they do about that and looks for solutions.


HEFFNER: I do want to hear about the problem and solution. I did want to just respond to your contention before that the holistic picture of climate induced crises is represented from sea to shining sea. It brings to mind in early exchange I had with James Hansen. He’s a native of Iowa. And I asked him about if, and when either flooding or droughts in his native home would lead there to be a wider awakening of the climate crisis. And obviously we’ve seen it play out more extensively since he was on The Open Mind some years ago, whether that’s extreme weather events, heat, hurricanes. But my question to you, and, and then I do want to get into the solutions in these various communities, is, will some people read your book and see the communities that you decided on and say, well, that’s still the coast? You know, that’s still basically the coast and not, you know, representing the heartland. Now I know that seems off to you and it is off, but it still will be a certain prejudice that people have when discussing the climate issue, like, well, here in central Iowa or Nebraska or South Dakota, we don’t have the same concerns. And I happen to know having traveled frequently to South Dakota in the last several years that there were significant flooding issues in South Dakota. I can’t speak to Iowa because I haven’t been there recently. So I’m simply responding to your contention about the representation to see if you relate to that or you think that’s not fair?


OSTRANDER: Well, I think in terms of public opinion for instance the Yale the Yale Program for Climate Change Communication has done a huge amount of public opinion pulling on climate over the years. And they’re now finding that a majority of Americans feel that climate change is going to affect them at home or their family or their community. So I think people do see a connection between themselves and what’s happening in other places. I’ll also say that I’ve done some pretty extensive reporting in the Midwest. I did a story a few years ago, for instance, in Minnesota, where I reported on a project called the Rural Climate Dialogues, where they were going from community to community and talking to people about how the impacts of climate change were affecting Minnesotans. They’re getting more and more heatwaves in Midwest, as in every other part of the country, as, as you said, parts in Midwest are getting more and more flooding from precipitation. So I don’t think that it’s a huge leap to make a connection between what’s happening in the Midwest and what’s happening in rural Washington. I guess I would also note that Okanogan County, which is in my book is not a coastal community. It’s a mountain community and it is also quite conservative community, one of the most conservative communities in the state.


HEFFNER: Fair enough. I’m glad to give you that opportunity to confront that on its head. I mean, it’s true. Your communities profiled are not all coastal. The states could be argued or are all coastal states, in effect. But that’s more of a question of public perception. So take us through these communities and their political composition, each one of them, and then how they’re attempting to forge ahead with public policy solutions that can adequately address the problem.


OSTRANDER: Yeah, so Okanogan County, Washington is pretty conservative, but it also has a lot of really impressive leadership and scientists who live out there and firefighters and people who are experts on forest restoration. And I think the thing that I profile in the book is really a huge recovery movement that happened out of Okanagan County. So in 2014 one of the, or the largest on record wildfire in Washington State hit that area and burned down a huge number of houses and really was devastating for a number of communities, including this town named Pateros, which is along the Columbia River. And there was a firefighter living there. She had been fighting fires for 17 seasons at that point. And she really rose to become a very important leader in that community and organized a recovery effort all around the county. And that recovery effort was a combination of trying to gather resources for people so that they could rebuild their lives and, you know, helping people organize themselves so that they could clean up their yards and, you know, literally clear ash and burn stuff out of their backyards.


And then also just, you know, kind of create a system and a framework and support for people so that they could deal with the trauma of having gone through this disaster. And so they came up with kind of a model, which is now being replicated all over the country. Carlene Anders, who’s this mayor, or former mayor now. And while, the Wildlands firefighter that I mentioned is now going to other communities like Paradise and, and many communities across the west that have dealt with wildfire and talking to them about what do we do when we’re hit by disaster? How do we recover? And then also, how do we prepare for the fact that we’re living in era of increasing wildfire? So that’s one place. And I will also say that the Methow Valley, which is a part of that region is having a really active conversation about climate change and about how they plan for the impacts and also how they rethink things like transportation so that their emissions can go down.


Another community, as I mentioned, is a living alongside an oil refinery and that community is Richmond, California. They’re having a really interesting active conversation about what would it look like if this refinery shut down? Because I think the assumption is that it will, at some point, if California wants to meet its own climate goals, eventually some of the refineries, especially great big old ones, like this will have to transition to being something else or will have to be retired. And for a community like Richmond, the question is, you know, how do you clean up a site that’s this toxic. And also, how do you move our economy away from being so dependent on this one corporation, that’s providing a huge amount of the tax base and move it over to things that are greener and create more opportunities for local business and create ways for people who have, you know, lived in poverty or who’ve had a lot of economic constraints to lift themselves up and find new opportunities and create jobs for themselves and others.


So that’s happening there. And I would say that the political makeup of Richmond is quite progressive. But it’s also interesting because for many decades, the politics of Richmond were really defined by Chevron. Chevron funded a lot of the political campaigns and Chevron really influenced what kind of conversation was happening in the community about oil and the future of refining and the future of energy. And that has changed really dramatically. And a lot of the Chevron supporters were voted out of the city council. And there’s now a lot of progressives who are in leadership there. And so that’s changed the kinds of conversations that can happen in that city. And then St. Augustine, Florida is, you know, I wouldn’t say that it’s super conservative or a super, I mean, it’s fairly centrist, but I would say that Florida in general is pretty conservative about climate change.


And some of the residents are, you know, not necessarily all that comfortable having a conversation about global warming and they’re not necessarily deep green in their political leanings. But the city is really trying to have an active conversation with people about how do we deal with flooding and how do we protect our city? And you know, what steps can homeowners take and what steps can the city take and how can those things come together. And then Newtok of course, is an Alaska native community. And I would hesitate to put them in any kind of political sort of spectrum in the same way that you would talk about folks on the lower 48, because I think indigenous communities have their own particular culture and politics and ways of thinking about the world. But they have been working to imagine really a whole new community on the other side of the river. And how do you build infrastructure that can withstand the kinds of climate impacts that are happening now in Alaska.


HEFFNER: It’s really amazing the territory you cover. I mean, it’s an extraordinary feat, the book, so congratulations again.


OSTRANDER:  Thank you.


HEFFNER: What I am really interested in, in light of the fact that we are told by at least the mainstream reporting of this recent tax and climate bill that was passed, that it is historic, that it is the most significant investment in climate solutions, possibly ever, if not of the century, since we really adopted the understanding of this as a problem, if not a crisis. So how is this historic legislation going to help if at all? And hopefully it would, any one of these four communities.


OSTRANDER: It is historic climate legislation. And I mean, in a lot of ways the biggest significance is that we’re committing to 40 percent, what’s estimated to be a 40 percent emissions cut by 2030, which is huge, and also is not quite where experts say we need to get. They say, we need to get to 50 percent by 2050. One study that I was looking at recently had looked at what the community impact could be, or rather how communities could impact our national admissions picture. Which is to me a really interesting question, because we talk a lot about how people can influence climate change as being either at this big scale, like put pressure on your politicians or, you know, influence things federally. Or we talk about it on a very micro, individual scale. Like, you know, are you eating beef or are you eating tofu or like, are you driving a car or, you know, riding a bike. But this study suggested that communities can actually have a huge impact on emissions. And if you look at the current local state and business level commitments toward acting on climate change, that could actually come up with about half of the emissions cuts that we need to make across the country. So I think if communities keep mobilizing and pushing in the way that the communities in my book are doing, I think we could get long way toward what we need to be doing in order to reduce emissions in this country.


HEFFNER: How about the more tangible, less high, you know, high, pie in the air, not to diminish what you’re saying at all, but the more tangible things, and there may not be enough of them. But part of the reporting of this bill now, or soon to be law, is that it incentivizes consumers to take responsibility themselves and to be able to afford electric vehicles or solar panels. I mean that when it comes to immediate ways that the citizen of any one of those states or municipalities can take action, let’s take the forest fire example. Is there anything tangible that they could do with this new legislation that’s passed? I mean, electric vehicle, theoretically should help, if not mitigate wildfire, you know, basically be part of the answer. You know, it strikes me that is this legislation not going to be another example, not to be a “Debbie Downer” – of inflation sort of taking over and, and not enabling citizens who are going to get these rebates and discounts for smart, green, environmentally friendly purchases. I’m concerned about the fact that we’re calling this a historic investment, and yet there’s relatively, the lay person can do him or herself in response to this new climate law.


OSTRANDER: I mean, I think there’s a few ways I could answer that. I mean, one is that I think that, as I said a moment ago, I think we put a little too much emphasis on what individuals can do. I think it is really important for the federal government to incentivize the things that individuals can do because many people can’t afford to do things like put solar panels on their house or swap out their old heater for a more efficient one, without government incentives. You know, electric cars are out of reach for a lot of people. So I think those things do need to be incentivized. I think in a lot of ways, especially for communities that are vulnerable, the community-level solutions are really more important. So things like infrastructure that can help reduce some of the most flood vulnerable, you know, reduce flooding in some of the most flood vulnerable areas is going to be more important. I think that things like changing how transportation is planned and making transit more accessible to a lot of people is in a lot of ways more important than whether everybody and their brother gets an electric car. And I’m not saying that electric cars aren’t part of the transition they are. But I think that we need to think more holistically.


HEFFNER: Understood. So as a result, I’m led to ask kind of, if not those provisions of the new legislation, do you think that these individual communities are going to be most reliant upon their own construction of watersheds, or their own community fire departments? I mean, the solutions that are going to be most instructive and helpful in keeping those communities safe, because that was the point that I was making with James Hansen when I hosted him some years ago, that it’s about national security and community security. And each one of your examples, there is an element of fear for livelihood and safety as a result of climate induced challenges. So are these communities equipped to do enough at the municipal and state level to make a real profound difference in preserving and protecting them?


OSTRANDER: Well, I think the federal government is always going to have a role in that and has already, to date, even before this legislation St. Augustine for instance, was looking to the Army Corps of Engineers to see if they could get assistance with both studying and, you know, perhaps building some infrastructure that would be bigger, that would help control floods. And, you know, it’s not clear whether that will happen, but, but I think that a lot of these communities have turned to and needed some help from the federal government. Disaster assistance has been important in welfare-affected communities and in communities that have been hit by flooding. in Pateros Washington, the community that I profile in central Washington State, they weren’t able to get individual FEMA disaster assistance, but they were able to get federal assistance to rebuild things like water towers and other public infrastructure. And that’s still going to be really important to a lot of communities. A lot of these projects are big and expensive, and recovery is big and expensive. So certainly this is going to have to happen at all scales.


HEFFNER: And, as we close thinking about the communities and the impact of climate, you were making a comment on Florida, maybe St. Augustine specifically, or Florida broadly, and folks not wanting to necessarily hear, I think in the, it was, it was a kind of contemporaneous observation you’re making, not a historical one that still right now, even with the threat of extreme heat and hurricanes and superstorms that there is still this sentiment of, you know, not wanting to embrace the consciousness required of what these climate threats are. Is that what I was hearing you say that in your reporting there still is this reluctance or resistance?


OSTRANDER: Mm-Hmm, particularly from residents, but not just from residents. There was a former mayor of St. Augustine who said, you know, we don’t talk about emissions here. Some conservative communities are reluctant to talk about the emissions part of climate change. They want to talk about the adaptation part because that’s more politically acceptable. But that’s obviously really problematic. We have to be doing both at once. We, communities have to be adapting at the same time that they’re rethinking their emissions and how they’re planning in terms of emissions. So I think that, you know, communities would need to have more tangible conversations about how both of those things fit together. And maybe that leadership comes locally. Maybe it, you know, comes from leaders in the community. Maybe it comes you know, certainly I think the federal government has a role in providing some of that kind of moral leadership as well, but it is a really important conversation.

HEFFNER: And of the immediate threats that you see and that you chronicle, wildfire, flood, extreme heat. Do you feel as though, and maybe this is your bias because you live near one of these communities, but does one pain you the most to report about and, and feel as though it, it, it will be the central climate induced threat of our time?


OSTRANDER: I mean, they’re all really hard, I think in terms of reporting on them. I mean, it is, you know, as a reporter, it’s a lot to kind of continue to work with stories about trauma and about disaster. I would say that one that I think is really underestimated is heat waves. We just had a huge heat wave here in Seattle. Much of the country has been through heat waves recently. And the death toll from heat waves is often higher than from other more dramatic natural disasters. And I think that people really need to think about how they cope with heat and the kinds of warning systems and facilities and planning that communities need to do to help people get through heat waves and the kinds of behaviors that we all need to adjust to deal with heat waves in places like Seattle, where we’re really not used to heat. And so it’s even more problematic in some ways.


HEFFNER: It’s safe to say, though, you feel strongly that the, the elements in nature that are changing are not just in Washington State, Alaska, Florida?




HEFFNER: You believe that the phenomenon that these four communities have experienced are well, ones that are already being experienced in places like Iowa.


OSTRANDER: Absolutely. Yeah. NOAA.


HEFFNER: We are about out of time; do you have a final thought on that?


OSTRANDER: Well Just NOAA has been tracking the number of billion-dollar weather disasters, and it’s been a record number in 2020 and 2021, and that’s happening all across the country. So I don’t think anyone is really exempt from these kinds of impacts. And I think we all have to think about how we manage them.


HEFFNER: Madeline Ostrander, author of the new book “At Home on an Unruly Planet: Finding Refuge on a Changed Earth.” And many of our viewers may have seen James Hansen’s research or other climatologists. But if you want a real-life documentation of this, you have to read Madeline’s book. Thank you for your insight and your time today, Madeline.


OSTRANDER: Thank you so much. Thank you for having me on.


HEFFNER: Please visit The Open Mind website at to view this program online or to access over 1,500 other interviews. And do check us out on Twitter and Facebook @OpenMindTV for updates on future programming.