Climate refugees add to camp crush

The growing prevalence of battered RVs and tents as housing of last resort, crowding city streets, public lands and commercial campgrounds, has been recognized for some time as the inevitable byproduct of soaring rents and gentrifying real estate. But it’s not just higher costs that are contributing to America’s housing immiseration. A growing horde of climate refugees—a phenomenon long associated with Third World countries—also is becoming an inescapable part of the landscape, driven by extreme weather events that are growing in both number and intensity.

Last week the American Red Cross, which has among the most comprehensive overviews of national crises, reported it had responded to more than 80 separate disasters over the previous 100 days—some, it averred, accelerated by the climate crisis. “In the 1980s, we had an average of three billion-dollar disasters each year, while over the past five years the country has seen a six-fold increase and now averages 18 of them annually,” said Brad Kieserman, vice president of disaster operations for the Red Cross. “We’re now running major disaster operations nearly continually throughout the year, as our climate changes and extreme weather increases.”

The Red Cross’s observations were buttressed by a survey from the U.S. Census Bureau that concludes an estimated 3.4 million people in the U.S. were forced to evacuate their homes last year by extreme weather—some never to return. The estimate was extrapolated from 68,504 responses to a survey conducted Jan. 4-16 and is still considered “experimental,” as the bureau first started tracking displaced people only in 2020 and is still refining its methodology. Still, the scale of the problem it reveals has surprised and even shocked some observers.

“These numbers are what one would expect to find in a developing country. It’s appalling to see them in the United States,” Michael Gerrard, director of the Sabin Center for Climate Change Law at Columbia University, told NBC News last week. “The United States is not in the least prepared for this. Our settlement patterns have not reflected the emerging risks of climate change to the habitability of some parts of the country.”

High on that list for 2022 are the Gulf Coast states, where hurricanes displaced almost a million people in Florida—7% of the population—and twice that percentage in Louisiana. More than 22,000 homes were destroyed or received major damage just from Hurricane Ian. Meanwhile, atmospheric rivers on the West Coast displaced more than 250,000 in California, while tornadoes and other severe weather displaced hundreds of thousands more—more than 380,000 just in Texas—across the South. Indeed, the National Weather Service already has confirmed 123 tornadoes in the U.S. in 2023.

Most public officials, however, have not risen to the occasion—or have made the homelessness problem even bigger. In battered Florida, for example, where rents last year increased an average 24% in the largest metro areas, state legislators repeatedly diverted money from a trust fund meant to support affordable housing programs for other purposes. Meanwhile, the Orange, Osceola and Seminole school districts reported a one-year increase of 45% in homeless students, and a tent city of dozens of people has sprung up next to downtown Orlando.

Final 2022 figures for the U.S. overall are still being tallied, but it’s sobering to realize that in 2021, more than 40% of all Americans lived in a county that was struck by extreme weather that year. That percentage will almost certainly grow, and as it does, the population of suddenly homeless people will grow in lock-step. Some—perhaps a majority, for now— will be able to rebuild, but those with inadequate or no insurance, or whose livelihoods have been demolished along with their homes, will not.

And as this dynamic evolves, many recreational campgrounds will more closely resemble refugee camps. It’s already happening, in slow motion. And it’s not something “over there,” in an earthquake-devastated Turkey or a flood-swamped Pakistan, but right here at home.

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RV chickens coming home to roost

This may sound harsh, but the campground industry has an enormously uncomfortable relationship with Mother Nature: like the victim of an abusive spouse, it prefers not to acknowledge that there is a dark and sometimes violent side to its partner.

Two days after passing around a tin cup for donations to help campgrounds getting swamped on the West Coast, the National Association of RV Parks and Campgrounds (ARVC) was at it once more, this time on behalf of campgrounds at the opposite end of the country. Proclaiming yet again that “When natural disasters strike, it’s in our nature to help,” the solicitation summarized the situation as follows:

At least eight people were killed on Thursday as severe storms and tornadoes left a trail of damage across the South. Ferocious winds sent residents running for cover, blew roofs off homes and knocked out power to thousands. The storms damaged power lines, severed tree limbs and sent debris flying into streets in Alabama, Georgia and Kentucky, where at least 35 preliminary tornado reports were recorded as of Thursday evening, according to the Storm Prediction Center.

All of which undoubtedly was true, as was a similarly generic recitation about the West Coast disaster—but in neither description was there any mention of an actual RV park or campground. The reader is left to assume that campgrounds were damaged, which is quite likely, but how many campgrounds or to what extent is left to the imagination. There are no human faces put on the tragedies for which ARVC is seeking a compassionate response, for the simple reason that ARVC doesn’t know them—nor does it really want to know them. Much better to leave this all on an abstract level.

That may sound harsh, but it speaks to the enormously uncomfortable relationship ARVC, and perhaps a majority of its members, have with Mother Nature. Like the victim of an abusive spouse, the campground industry prefers not to acknowledge that there is a dark and sometimes violent side to the relationship. Yes, there are problems, but we’ll keep those to ourselves—regardless of how unsustainable that may be—while presenting only a sunny face to the public. Anything else might be bad for business.

What throws this dynamic into sharp relief is the ironically concurrent news in the journal Science, published yesterday, that scientists at ExxonMobil “predicted global warming correctly and skillfully” more than 40 years ago. The peer-reviewed study found that Exxon’s scientists made remarkably accurate projections of just how much global warming would be increased by burning fossil fuels—“as accurate, and sometimes even more so, as those of independent academic and government models,” reported the New York Times this past Thursday.

Exxon’s corporate suite, no surprise, quickly put the kibbosh those several decades ago on its own research, casting doubt on its scientists’ work and cautioning against any move away from carbon-based fuels. Global warming projections “are based on completely unproven climate models or, more often, on sheer speculation,” the oil company’s chief executive assured a company annual meeting in 1999. “We do not now have a sufficient scientific understanding of climate change to make reasonable predictions and/or justify drastic measures,” he wrote in a company brochure the following year

ARVC, whose members rely on customers who drive vehicles of unenviable gas consumption, was only too happy to fan the embers of skepticism. Calls to reduce greenhouse emissions were premature, it declared in a 1998 policy, because of the “considerable uncertainty surrounding the theories on climate change.” What was needed, ARVC contended, was “more research, data collection and scientific analysis”—although presumably not by scientists employed by ExxonMobil. And guess what? Nearly a quarter of a century later, ARVC’s policy remains unchanged, as mired as ever in “considerable uncertainty,” even as its members watch helplessly as their campgrounds get inundated, leveled and swept away by pounding seas, tornadoes, mud slides and thousand-year storms.

And the tin cup gets passed around yet again.

To be clear, asking help for those unfortunate enough to be home when the chickens come to roost is both admirable and necessary. It’s just not enough. Aside from the disproportionate ratio of need to available resources, it doesn’t deal with the underlying problem. It doesn’t answer such fundamental questions as: who’s at risk? can that risk be managed? if not, what’s the alternative? is the current campground business model sustainable? if not, what changes—if any—can make it so? It essentially ensures that without such questions being asked, the pleas for help will only grow more bigger and more frequent.

One place to start changing this vicious spiral would be for ARVC to create a reporting system so it can quickly identify which campgrounds and RV parks may be affected by the latest extreme weather disaster—to put a face on the victims. Another would be to revisit its 1998 policy, in light of the past 24 years of “research, data collection and scientific analysis,” and figure out what a meaningful revision might look like. Yet another would be for ARVC to promote discussion among its members of a common threat, so it’s no longer seen as a taboo subject, the bogeyman whose name must not be uttered.

Most of all, it would help if ARVC and its members simply acknowledged that the love of their lives is sometimes abusive. The first step on the road to recovery, as any 12-step program participant will tell you, is to acknowledge that your life has become unmanageable.

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RV meetings will ignore the elephant

Private campground owners from around the country will descend on Orlando, Florida the next couple of weeks for two of the year’s biggest annual conventions, hosted by the National Association of RV Parks and Campgrounds (ARVC) next week and Kampgrounds of America (KOA) the week after. And next week, at least, the subject most prominently on the agenda–as it was last year–will be electric vehicles (EVs) and how they “are poised to be a major factor in the future of outdoor hospitality.”

How prominently? For openers, a plenary panel led by ARVC president Paul Bambei on Tuesday morning will provide “a vision of the future where EVs play an integral role in outdoor hospitality.” Immediately following will be a lunch panel, “Your Campground’s EV Road Map,” described in early convention programs in language exactly the same as used for the earlier panel. Apparently this will not be a fast-charging discussion.

Two predictions about this confab. Number one, the elephant in the room will be completely ignored. Number two, while convention-goers will be urged to start installing EV chargers at their campgrounds, little to no attention will be paid to the costs of such an amenity. While much will be made of how EV chargers are a necessary accommodation for a changing customer base (ARVC already is claiming that EV owners are currently twice as likely as everyone else to be campers), to which will be added the observation that campgrounds offering such chargers will have a competitive edge, any analysis of the costs that face campgrounds going the EV route will be sketchy at best.

It’s not that the charging station itself is prohibitively expensive: figure $500 for the equipment and possibly a like amount for installation of a Level 2 EV charger, which is sufficient for a full recharge overnight. (Level 3 “fast” chargers are commercial grade and therefore in an entirely different price category, starting at $20,000 per charger.) Assuming, therefore, that a campground wanted to ease into the EV world with half-a-dozen Level 2 chargers, it could do so for $6,000 or so, which won’t break anyone’s bank.

The problem is how to recoup the “fuel” costs. The amount of EV traffic into RV parks is still nominal, prompting most campgrounds that offer charging stations to simply absorb the cost as a goodwill loss-leader. But as more EVs start hooking up to a campground’s grid, that nominal expense will become a growing hit against the bottom line–inevitably prompting campground owners to wonder just how much of an increased cost they incurred and how they can start charging for the energy they’d been giving away.

The answer, alas, is “it depends.”

Electricity sales, unlike gasoline, are monopolized by electric utilities operating under rules that vary from state to state, with billing practices that vary from one utility to another. Most states, for example, don’t allow resellers of electricity to make a profit in doing so–all they can do is pass along their costs. And while such restrictions are gradually loosening up, seven states still regulate EV charging as the exclusive domain of electric companies, as described in a recent Politico article.

A second variable is what’s known as a “demand charge,” which homeowners don’t encounter but some business owners–including those who own campgrounds–know all too well. Demand charges are meant to compensate utilities for providing enough delivery infrastructure to meet spikes in demand caused by businesses with a lot of highly variable consumption–such as campgrounds. The demand charge is a base fee that is multiplied by the kilowatts consumed at peak demand each month, and is in addition to the per kilowatt cost of the electricity itself.

The problem for campground owners is that there is no one standard demand charge across the country: such charges vary wildly from one utility to another. And while Level 2 charging stations are not consumption black holes like Level 3 stations, they nevertheless can add an incremental boost to peak demand that will have a disproportionate effect on the final bill, as the higher demand charge will be multiplied across all of that month’s kilowatt consumption.

(Campground owners, for these and other reasons, should completely abandon any idea of installing Level 3 charging stations. As Politico reports, “Electrify America, a leading charging provider, says that demand charges are up to 80 percent of the cost” of operating Level 3 charging stations.)

Sorting out such cost complexities requires a lot of study and possibly the advice of a consultant, and undoubtedly will not be something the ARVC panels explore in any meaningful fashion, if at all. But back to that elephant. The other subject the convention won’t address–my second prediction–is the growing vulnerability of RV parks and campgrounds to climate change and extreme weather.

It’s ironic, actually, that ARVC will be meeting in a state that only weeks ago was battered so severely by Hurricane Ian that several dozen campgrounds were shut down, some permanently. Horrendous as the destruction was, and as inevitable as it is that similarly extreme storms will strike not just Florida but many other states, not one mention of the climate threat appears in the convention’s program. The cost and availability of flood or property insurance, best practices in fire- or flood-prone areas, how to determine when it no longer makes sense to rebuild–all these and a host of other pressing topics never made it into the program.

It’s likely that the KOA convention will be just as mum on the subject, since the industry’s “thought leaders” seem incapable of actually leading on so threatening an issue. One might wonder how much longer they can ignore the elephant in the room, but the fact that they’ll be doing so in Florida suggests their myopia cannot be overestimated.

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Col. fire should be a wake-up call

Nearly a thousand Colorado homes just burned to the ground, not in a California urban-woodland interface but in an area far more typical of suburbs anywhere in the United States. That causes a problem for climate-change deniers, for whom it’s an article of faith that California’s devastating forest fires have nothing to do with extreme weather and are simply the result of poor forestry management. If only the state did a better job of thinning out its underbrush, they argue, those fires wouldn’t have occurred, or at least would not have been as extensive.

But what do you say about a wildfire that had nothing to do with poor forestry management because no forests were involved? A wildfire that occurred in December, far outside the “normal” fire season?

Unfortunately, where there’s a will there’s a way–and the will among this group is to deny any facts that would require, if actually confronted, some changes. Perhaps some personal inconvenience. Maybe even some expense, to finally pay for what the economists call “negative externalities,” like pollution and resource consumption. Because when you get right to it, what much of the climate-denying comes down to is, “I’m going to do what I want and no one is going to tell me otherwise, because I know what’s best for me.” Note that this stance makes no mention of you or the next generation.

A recent case in point is California’s recently passed legislation to ban the sale by 2024 of small, off-road gasoline engines, such as those found in lawn mowers, pressure washers and leaf blowers. The ban would then be extended to portable generators by 2028, as the latest step in the state‚Äôs aggressive effort to transition toward a carbon-free economy–carbon, as most people understand, being the biggest contributor to greenhouse gases and global warming. And small engines, it turns out, are enormously more polluting than car engines, which have become much more efficient (and therefore less polluting) after years of tightened emission standards.

How polluting? The California Air Resources Board calculated that operating a typical gas-powered lawn mower for an hour emits as much pollution as driving a car from Los Angeles to Las Vegas. Operating a backpack leaf blower for an hour emits pollution comparable to driving that same car from Los Angeles to Denver. In recent years, total particulate emissions from small engines began to exceed that of all of the state’s passenger cars.

Many RVers, however, understood only that their ox was being gored because of the coming ban on portable generators. When RVtravel.com ran a story about the legislation it got almost half-a-million hits, or ten times the readership of its usual most-read stories. The comments that flowed were so vituperative and obscene that the site’s moderators called it quits after cleaning up the language in more than 200 responses, announcing, “Comments are closed. Too many of you are just bashing each other. Take it elsewhere, please.”

Wading through the emotional maelstrom in an effort to understand its underlying logic is to scrape at a collective id of mewling self-entitlement. “I pay for the national parks in California and they are trying to restrict my personal use of them,” complained one reader, saying he wanted to find a lawyer to file “a federal suite [sic] against California on a pro bono basis,” which is nonsensical on its face. “The environmental nuts are going to cost us huge amounts of money, ruin our lifestyles and livelihoods with this totally unnecessary push to go green,” added another, who went on to claim that his air in Phoenix is just fine without such measures, thank you very much. Anyone who has been in that city during a temperature inversion knows better.

And then there was the curiously paradoxical response from a woman who wrote: “The elected officials in California couldn’t care less what the general public says.” Pause to absorb that, then: “Most of the people who live there voted for this crap, so they aren’t going to want any change.” And then, just for good measure: “Climate change is another scam, like the covids.”

There’s a lot more like that, and not much sense in pawing at it except to note that these kinds of non-factual temper tantrums make the difficult job of responding to climate change even more fraught. It’s all about the carbon, and keeping as much of it out of the atmosphere as possible, and yes, that’s going to require lifestyle changes–which, for a certain segment of the population, amounts to a transgression of personal sovereignty. It’s too bad that a disproportionate segment of the RVing public seems to come from that mind-set, because ultimately their self-serving ignorance could tarnish all RVers.

Next post: the inherent contradiction in boondocking

Who will speak for the RVers?

If there is a third rail in RV world, it’s climate change.

Yesterday I published a piece in RVtravel that was too wonky by far, but which tried to make the point that no one is fighting on behalf of RVers in today’s great climate-change battles. More specifically, there has been no one representing RVers and RV campground owners in the weeks of intense negotiations over the Build Back Better proposal (often referred to simply as “the reconciliation bill”) that has been stymied, in large part, by a U.S. Senator invested in the fossil fuel industry.

There are, I pointed out, two national industry groups that embrace the outdoors. There’s the Outdoor Industry Association, which despite having more than 1,200 members across the full spectrum of outdoor activities and equipment makers includes only one RV campground owner, Kampgrounds of America. And then there’s the Outdoor Recreation Roundtable, which encompasses nearly three-dozen trade associations–including the Outdoor Industry Association–and the three largest RV industry representatives: the National Association of RV Parks and Campgrounds (ARVC), the RV Dealers Association (RVDA) and the RV Industry Association (RVIA).

As I further wrote, the Outdoor Industry Association has been lobbying the past several weeks on behalf of the Build Back Better proposal because of its significant commitment to combating climate change. Only by adopting such an ambitious agenda can we “ensure the success of the outdoor industry and the American economy and protect the health of the planet,” the association has argued. But the association clearly has been unable to convince the rest of its peers to follow its lead, and for the past several months the roundtable has studiously avoided any reference to climate change. It has not lobbied for passage of the Build Back Better proposal. It has, for all practical purposes, left the RVing community sidelined in one of the most, if not the most, urgent environmental struggles of the age.

That’s the point I tried to make. In retrospect, I did a poor job of it. As my RVtravel editors pointed out, the piece drew a near-record low readership. Few RVers wanted to read what I had to say–and of those who did, only a couple responded with favorable comments. The preponderant unfavorable responses, meanwhile, either largely missed my point (for which I take the blame) or are still mired in antediluvian talking points, claiming we’ve always had climate change, or confusing climate with weather. And some simply didn’t give a damn, such as the reader who assured us, ” I have no qualms in my Class A burning diesel all over the US, and will continue to do so as long as I can.”

A more sophisticated response came in an email to me from a representative of the Outdoor Recreation Roundtable, who felt that what I had written was “very disappointing and factually inaccurate.” To substantiate that latter point, he appended four PDFs of letters and statements that supposedly reflected the roundtable’s work on “climate resilient infrastructure.”

It was a mixed bag. Two of the PDFs spoke to the infrastructure bill that got strong bipartisan support months ago and was not at issue in my column. The other two were copies of letters sent in August and September to House and Senate committee chairs, neither of which mentioned climate change and both of which urged even more infrastructure funding than had been allocated in the infrastructure bill itself. Requested were “additional funds for the U.S. Forest Service Legacy Roads and Trails Program, improving trails that serve underserved communities, funding capital maintenance projects, restoring ecological integrity, creating sustainable recreation infrastructure, expanding access, promoting tourism and more.”

In other words, more of the same.

As I responded in my answering email, “My disappointment with the ORR is that while it lobbies for making the outdoors more accessible to the general public, it sits on the sidelines of a climate change debate about an incomparably more fundamental need, which is a reduction in greenhouse gases. Overworked though the metaphor may be, the ORR is lobbying for more deck chairs and a bigger brass section in the shipboard orchestra while there’s a furious debate in the control room over what to do about that iceberg looming on the port bow.”

It should go without saying that for most RVers and most campground owners, the compelling attraction of what they do is being in the great outdoors, of getting closer to nature and the environment. That environment is being transfigured before our very eyes, day by day and week by week, into something ugly and hostile to human life–and that transformation is a direct result of human action. If we are to restore and reclaim the environment we love, the very first step will be to acknowledge that we are at fault; and being at fault, we will have to change our behavior to regain what is slipping through our fingers.

That means calling the problem by its name: climate change, catalyzed by human production of greenhouse gases. And it means accepting that climate change cannot be stopped, much less reversed, without significant changes in our habits and behavior–and there’s the rub. For who wants to do that? Yet the inescapable physics of it all is that, sooner or later, change will be forced on us nevertheless. Nature will see to it–unless we get ahead of it by initiating change on our own.

To do that, however, we need to start talking–and so far, the RVing community hasn’t found its voice.

Cognitive dissonance, part 2

The article in Woodall’s Campground Management that I mentioned in my previous post, regarding efforts by California campgrounds to “stay on top of” the wildfire situation, includes an interesting aside that underscores why we seem incapable of making any headway against extreme weather-driven calamities.

Interviewing Dyana Kelly, president of the CampCalNOW RV Park and Campground Alliance, the article notes that a “recent win” for the trade group was an exemption from a state rule that would have required Class A diesel pushers to participate in an annual emissions inspection and maintenance program. First unveiled this past March, the rule drew an instant and sharp response not only from CampCalNOW, but also from ARVC and RVIA, two national trade groups that declared their mission was to “protect the public” from “overly burdensome” regulations on motorhomes.

The new regs, which remain applicable to commercial truckers, create a smog-check program to ensure that diesel engines in the state have properly functioning emissions controls. Improper control systems, it should go without saying, add to the atmosphere’s greenhouse gases, which further increase global warming and thus exacerbate California’s drought and the wildfires it promotes. In other words, a campground industry that idealizes the environment for recreation is simultaneously doing its damnedest to block efforts to protect that environment from its own depredations.

There’s no question that California’s motorhome owners would have been somewhat inconvenienced by having to trundle off to an emissions inspection station once a year. And there’s also no question that some of those owners would have been hit with the financial costs of repairing or upgrading equipment that failed the smog test. But keeping any equipment in working order is the cost of ownership, and that cost should be borne by the actual owner, not by the broader public–which is what unchecked polluters are imposing. “Protecting the public” should mean all of the public, not just the motorhome-owning portion of it.

Instead of knee-jerk opposition to any regulatory attempt to control the external costs of private actions, the campground industry’s lobbyists and trade groups would do everyone a service by acknowledging reality and working toward alternatives. In Europe, for instance, which is hard at work on eliminating all diesel engines, the RV industry is years ahead of the U.S. in moving to alternative power sources. German-based Erwin Hymer Group, as one example, is developing not just electric motorhomes, but travel trailers–powered in part by roof-top solar panels–with electrified axles that reduce the amount of power needed by tow vehicles. How cool is that? And how not American. . . .

Ironically, Erwin Hymer was acquired by Thor Industries a couple of years ago, which might lead one to think such cutting-edge technology would quickly show up on this side of the Atlantic. Guess again. Apparently, it’s easier simply to lobby for the status quo, regardless of the greater social cost that entails, and celebrate successful obstruction of change as a “win.”

Lazy, hazy, crazy days indeed

Remember when Nat King Cole would croon about the “lazy, hazy, crazy days of summer”–almost 60 years ago? That refrain was a hymn to a particular experience that no longer exists, and perhaps never will again. These days the “crazy” would refer to an endless procession of hurricanes and tropical storms, while the “hazy” can only mean a sky filled with smoke from millions of acres of burning forest .

You might think such an apocalyptic scenario would be provoking a spirited discussion within an industry whose success is most closely tied to the environment. You’d be wrong. Even as campgrounds and RV parks are bursting at the seams with Covid refugees eager to get out into the world, those organizations most critically positioned to address the issues confronting them are completely silent about climate change, extreme weather and how the campground industry should be responding.

The National Association of RV Parks and Campgrounds, for example, is the only nationwide representative of campground owners, yet the top post on a website largely devoid of anything topical is focused on the hot topic du jour, online reservation systems. Woodall’s Campground Magazine, probably the leading industry publication, dedicates issue after issue to one product line after another: park models in September, wi-fi systems in August, liability insurance in July, pet products in June. Kampgrounds of America, the largest campground franchise system in North America, is so beside itself over the record numbers of campers swarming its campgrounds that it can’t talk about anything else.

Take your pick: maybe that head-in-the-sand outlook is crazy, or maybe it’s just lazy. Either way, it’s ultimately suicidal.

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