It’s easy to look at climate change as an eventual problem instead of a current one. The reality, though, is that climate shifts and weather events are already driving people all over the U.S. — and the world — out of their homes, forcing them to relocate to areas where the weather tends to be less extreme. It’s a concept known as climate migration, and in the coming years, we could see a huge shift in moving patterns because of it.
What Is Climate Migration?
Climate migration is the act of moving away from areas that are prone to extreme weather or weather events and seeking refuge in areas with more moderate climates. Climate migrants will often flee their home regions due to repeated environmental disasters such as floods and wildfires, or due to persistent concerns like drought conditions.
Climate migration exists at the global level. There are people all over the world who are being forced out of their homes due to repeat destruction following weather events. In fact, Gaia Vince, a climate migration expert and author of the newly released book, “Nomad Century: How Climate Migration Will Reshape Our World,” calls climate migration “the biggest human crisis you’ve never heard of.”
But the problem has, for years, been hitting close to home in the U.S. In 2021 alone, the U.S. experienced 20 separate billion-dollar climate and weather disasters, according to the NOAA National Centers for Environmental Information. In 2020, there were 22 such events. And as these events become increasingly frequent and widespread, we can expect even more people within the U.S. to permanently abandon the areas that are most susceptible to them.
How Soon Will Climate Migration Really Take Off?
It’s easy to talk about climate migration like a future situation in the process of unfolding. But Anna Weber, a policy analyst at the Natural Resources Defense Council, says it’s already happening.
In 2018, more than 1.2 million Americans were displaced due to climate issues, reports the Urban Institute. And as extreme weather continues to intensify, that number is likely to grow.
Which Parts of the U.S. Are Climate Migrants Abandoning?
Coastal areas pose a high risk when it comes to extreme weather events, as they’re prone to flooding. And in recent years, cities like New Orleans and Houston have seen catastrophic flooding from major hurricanes.
In the wake of Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans’ entire population of 455,000 was forced to leave the city and settle elsewhere, according to the National Center for Biotechnology Information. And several months after Katrina, the city’s population was still whittled down to one-third of its pre-Katrina volume.
But it’s not just southern states, including Louisiana and Florida, that residents are increasingly fleeing due to climate issues. Numerous coastal towns in Alaska are also being impacted, as diminishing sea ice exposes them to storms, and rising temperatures thaw the ground and put countless structures at risk. And in the wake of Hurricane Sandy, many residents were forced to leave coastal areas of New York and New Jersey.
“It’s almost like a science fiction situation,” says Weber. And worse yet, many people who wind up displaced due to climate issues don’t even realize the risks they took on in the first place by purchasing homes where they did. That’s because the rules regarding flood zone reporting aren’t nearly as airtight as they should be, she says.
“In about half of U.S. states, you don’t have to report a previous flood, or even have to say that (a home is) in a flood zone,” says Weber. And while FEMA does put out a flood insurance map that homebuyers can consult, that map only considers existing risk — not future risk.
Where Are U.S. Climate Migrants Going?
Many people who are displaced due to climate prefer to stay as close to their home regions as possible, says Weber. So often, people in coastal areas will stay in their state but simply move inland.
That said, there’s been a large shift in U.S. residents flocking toward the Midwest due to it being less susceptible to major weather events. And a recent report by Scott Bernstein, founder of the Center for Neighborhood Technology, finds that some of the safest areas in the U.S. lie within the Appalachian Mountains and western Michigan. The interior West, which includes Utah, New Mexico, Nevada, and Idaho, is also flagged as a relatively safe option.
Meanwhile, Jesse Keenan, a Tulane University associate professor who studies climate change adaptation, estimates that 50 million Americans could eventually move to regions like New England or the Upper Midwest to escape severe climate. And given that U.S. coastal sea levels are expected to rise by as much as a foot by 2050, he thinks that migration will likely happen sooner rather than later.
The Great Lakes in particular could see a massive influx of migrants in the coming years given that they comprise about 21% of the world’s supply of surface fresh water, and 84% of North America’s supply. And as people become more conscious about air quality, migrants may increasingly flock to Massachusetts and North Dakota, both of which are known for having exceptionally clean air. Hawaii actually ranks first in the U.S. for air quality, but relocating there may be cost-prohibitive for the non-wealthy.
And speaking of Massachusetts, it, along with Delaware, Connecticut and, perhaps surprisingly, California are the least vulnerable U.S. states to drought, according to the NOAA. By contrast, Oklahoma, Montana and Iowa are considered the most vulnerable due to factors outside of just rainfall, or lack thereof, such as percentage of land used for farming, existing irrigation systems and adaptability to drought-like conditions. That’s apt to be a consideration for those who rely on farming and agriculture as their livelihood.
What Are the Benefits of Climate Migration?
The benefits of abandoning areas prone to weather-related disasters are multifold, says Weber. First, there’s the savings associated with not having to make frequent repairs or purchase flood or hurricane insurance.
But as just as importantly, Weber says, those who move get peace of mind. Repeated exposure to weather-related damage can leave people with lasting PTSD and health issues, she says. Once they move, they no longer have to be scared every time it rains.
Plus, climate migrants can benefit from access to fresh water, clean air and land that’s suitable for farming and growing food. They can also lead more comfortable, healthy, stress-free lifestyles in the absence of extreme weather and air pollution.
What Are the Drawbacks of Climate Migration?
For many people, abandoning an area where they’ve planted roots can take a toll, says Vince. When people migrate to different parts of the country, they often give up their jobs, social networks and support systems.
It’s also worth noting that the ability to simply up and move isn’t equally available to everyone impacted by weather events. “The folks who have the option to decide to just move someplace safer are likely to be people with wealth, savings and good job prospects, leaving people who don’t have those opportunities trapped,” says Weber.
There are some government buyout programs whose purpose is to provide financial incentives for residents to abandon flood-prone areas and rebuild elsewhere. But often, these programs merely “sound great on paper,” as Weber puts it.
Often, in a government buyout, the price offered for a repeatedly flood-damaged home will be based on its pre-flood value, says Weber. But as home values rise naturally through the years, property owners could end up getting lowballed in the course of a buyout.
[READ: How to Prevent a Flooded Home.]
Vince, too, is concerned about the less well-off having limited options when it comes to escaping extreme weather. “As people move away, the places they’re abandoning can become less desirable. It becomes a cycle of poverty.”
Climate migrants also have the potential to squeeze the markets they flock to. Midwestern cities that aren’t yet overpopulated, for example, risk getting increasingly overcrowded as coastal areas become less desirable.
And it’s not just crowding that could become problematic. There’s also the issue of property values. As climate-friendly parts of the country become more desirable, the cost of real estate there could soar. And while that’s a good thing for existing property owners who stand to see their home values rise, it’s a bad thing for resource-constrained, first-time buyers who want to plant roots in the towns they grew up in but can’t due to affordability issues.
In the wake of the pandemic, increased migration to the South and West drove home prices up in those parts of the country, according to Freddie Mac. It’s fair to assume that climate-driven migration is apt to have a similar impact on the areas more people flock to.
Can At-Risk Areas Minimize the Impact of Weather Events?
Some can, says Vince, but for others, it may be too late. Ultimately, she insists, to prevent a mass displacement of people due to climate events, everything has to change, from our food to our manufacturing processes — and soon. That means we need to change our approach to farming and agriculture via crop rotation and adaptation to new food sources. We need to rethink the way we construct homes and buildings while retrofitting existing ones with high emissions. We need to rethink our energy sources and rely more heavily on windmills and solar panels. And finally, we need to accept that climate migration is happening — and find ways to make room for people who need to move by redesigning cities.
“This is something we’re going to have to deal with in the next few decades,” insists Vince, “whether we like it or not.”
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What Are Climate Migrants and Where Are They Moving? originally appeared on usnews.com