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Climate change means big trouble for small town America

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Small towns across America face an existential threat from climate change. Unlike their urban counterparts, these communities often lack the resources to cope with the multiplying challenges – wildfires, water scarcity, agricultural disruption, extreme weather events, and skyrocketing insurance costs.

Wildfires, fueled by hotter, drier conditions, are scorching vast swaths of land. These infernos devastate not only homes and businesses but also the natural resources that sustain rural economies—timber, grazing land, and wildlife habitat. Rebuilding after such disasters can be financially crippling for small towns with limited tax bases.

Water, the lifeblood of agriculture, is becoming an increasingly scarce commodity. Erratic rainfall patterns, with periods of intense drought followed by flash floods, disrupt traditional water management practices. This threatens not just crop yields but also livestock production, a major source of income for many rural families.

Extreme weather events like heatwaves, tornadoes, freak hailstorms and blizzards are becoming more frequent and intense. These disrupt transportation networks, damage infrastructure, and leave communities reeling. Rural areas, often with older infrastructure, struggle to recover from such events, further straining already tight budgets.

The increasing frequency and severity of these events have a domino effect on insurance costs. Property insurance premiums skyrocket, making it difficult for residents and businesses to afford coverage. This can lead to a vicious cycle. Fewer people insured means a smaller pool to distribute risk, pushing costs even higher.

Small town America is a land of resilience, but climate change presents a unique challenge. These communities need support in adapting to the new normal. Federal and state grants can help upgrade infrastructure, invest in drought-resistant crops, and develop early warning systems for extreme weather. Fostering collaboration between rural communities allows them to share resources and expertise in tackling climate challenges.

The future of small-town America depends on our ability to mitigate climate change while also helping these communities adapt. By working together, we can ensure that the spirit of resilience that defines rural life continues to thrive in the face of a changing climate.

CBS News national correspondent Jonathan Vigliotti has seen that crisis unfold for himself, spending nearly two decades reporting across the United States (and the world) documenting the people, communities, landmarks, and traditions we’ve already surrendered. Vigliotti shares with urgency and a personal touch the story of an America on the brink.

Jonathan Vigliotti is the author of Before It's Gone: Stories from the Front Lines of Climate Change in Small-Town America. He is an Emmy and Edward R. Murrow Award–winning CBS News national correspondent whose work has appeared on numerous platforms including CBS Sunday Morning, Face the Nation, 48 Hours, and more. His reporting has taken him to more than forty countries and territories across six continents.

"The Source" is a live call-in program airing Mondays through Thursdays from 12-1 p.m. Leave a message before the program at (210) 615-8982. During the live show, call833-877-8255, email thesource@tpr.org.

*This interview will be recorded on Wednesday, April 3, 2024.

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David Martin Davies can be reached at dmdavies@tpr.org and on Twitter at @DavidMartinDavi