Many years ago, in this blog’s toddler years, I wrote a little about the advantages of being motivated not just by fear of the future we want to avoid, but also by hope for the future that we want to build. While that fear is valid, if it’s our sole motivator, we’ll be too busy looking over our shoulder to pay attention to where we’re going. Most of the time, when I’ve talked about this, the focus has been on the kind of society we want to build, and how being proactive could head off disaster. At that point, I wasn’t thinking much about politics, economics, and power, but I I think the overall idea holds true there as well. What I hadn’t really considered was how literal the metaphor of running away could end up being.
I suppose it’s obvious, in hindsight, and it’s not like the subject of climate refugees hasn’t been discussed. I had assumed that if people were leaving an area because of climate change, if they had a choice in where to go, they’d factor climate change into their decision. After all, if you’re moving away from hurricanes and killer heat waves, you might not want to move to somewhere that’s having a problem with drought, heat waves, and an ever-worsening fire season, right? Right?
Americans are leaving many of the U.S. counties hit hardest by hurricanes and heatwaves — and moving towards dangerous wildfires and warmer temperatures, finds one of the largest studies of U.S. migration and natural disasters.
The ten-year national study reveals troubling public health patterns, with Americans flocking to regions with the greatest risk of wildfires and significant summer heat. These environmental hazards are already causing significant damage to people and property each year — and projected to worsen with climate change.
“These findings are concerning, because people are moving into harm’s way—into regions with wildfires and rising temperatures, which are expected to become more extreme due to climate change,” said the University of Vermont (UVM) study lead author Mahalia Clark, noting that the study was inspired by the increasing number of headlines of record-breaking natural disasters.
Published by the journal Frontiers in Human Dynamics, the study—titled “Flocking to Fire”—is the largest investigation yet of how natural disasters, climate change and other factors impacted U.S. migration over the last decade (2010-2020). “Our goal was to understand how extreme weather is influencing migration as it becomes more severe with climate change,” Clark said.
‘Red-hot’ real estate
The top U.S. migration destinations over the last decade were cities and suburbs in the Pacific Northwest, parts of the Southwest (in Arizona, Colorado, Nevada, Utah), Texas, Florida, and a large swath of the Southeast (from Nashville to Atlanta to Washington, D.C.)—locations that face significant wildfire risks and relatively warm annual temperatures. In contrast, people tended to move away from places in the Midwest, the Great Plains, and along the Mississippi River, including many counties hit hardest by hurricanes or frequent heatwaves, the researchers say.
“These findings suggest that, for many Americans, the risks and dangers of living in hurricane zones may be starting to outweigh the benefits of life in those areas,” said UVM co-author Gillian Galford, who led the recent Vermont Climate Assessment. “That same tipping point has yet to happen for wildfires and rising summer heat, which have emerged as national issues more recently.”
One implication of the study—given how development can exacerbate risks in fire-prone areas—is that city planners may need to consider discouraging new development where fires are most likely or difficult to fight, researchers say. At a minimum, policymakers must consider fire prevention in areas of high risk with large growth in human populations, and work to increase public awareness and preparedness.
I want to say that I’m not blaming these people, as such. There are a lot of factors that go into deciding where to move, and very often the “choice” is no choice at all. You have a job in California? You move to California. We live where we can, not always where we’d like to.
I am blaming the federal government, and the largely corrupt crowd that comprises it. This is the result of inaction. This is what neoliberal, laissez-faire policies, gets us. Why are there no programs to help people resettle somewhere with more water? Why haven’t we already been moving people out of the Colorado River Valley? Because it would threaten fossil fuel profits, of course, but also because most politicians in both major parties view government action as essentially evil. Some Democrats view it as a necessary evil, and a handful are mostly focused on the good it can do, but as a party, they mostly seem to serve the same agenda as the GOP.
We will be seeing more climate refugees as the temperature continues to rise. Literally the only way to prevent that would be to find a way to get them to move to a safer place before disaster drives them. Instead, we have a borderline useless federal government, and a disorienting fog of misinformation about the issue. People are left to figure things out while navigating a ruthless housing market that’s increasingly controlled by big corporations, with a government whose advisors are advocating an increase in unemployment. This kind of crisis is exactly what society is supposed to be for, but our world is run by people who want to convince everyone that society shouldn’t provide us with any real benefits.
Beyond the aversion to hurricanes and heatwaves, the study identified several other clear preferences—a mix of environmental, social, and economic factors—that also contributed to U.S. migration decisions over the last decade.
The team’s analysis revealed a set of common qualities shared among the top migration destinations: warmer winters, proximity to water, moderate tree cover, moderate population density, better human development index (HDI) scores—plus wildfire risks. In contrast, for the counties people left, common traits included low employment, higher income inequality, and more summer humidity, heatwaves, and hurricanes.
Researchers note that Florida remained a top migration destination, despite a history of hurricanes—and increasing wildfire. While nationally, people were less attracted to counties hit by hurricanes, many people—particularly retirees—still moved to Florida, attracted by the warm climate, beaches, and other qualities shared by top migration destinations. Although hurricanes likely factor into people’s choices, the study suggests that, overall, the benefits of Florida’s desirable amenities still outweigh the perceived risks of life there, researchers say.
“The decision to move is a complicated and personal decision that involves weighing dozens of factors,” said Clark. “Weighing all these factors, we see a general aversion to hurricane risk, but ultimately—as we see in Florida—it’s one factor in a person’s list of pros and cons, which can be outweighed by other preferences.”
For the study, researchers combined census data with data on natural disasters, weather, temperature, land cover, and demographic and socioeconomic factors. While the study includes data from the first year of the COVID pandemic, the researchers plan to delve deeper into the impacts of remote work, house prices, and the cost of living.
For most of my life, climate change has been talked about as some kind of future issue. It has also been talked about as something that will hit poorer countries first, and hardest. While there’s some truth to that latter point, I hope it’s obvious to all of you by now that it’s happening now, and it’s hitting everywhere. It will get worse, of course, but we have entered the Age of Endless Recovery, and part of that is the endless, weary movement of people trying to find that one place where maybe they can live in peace.
This doesn’t have to be our future.
We could, if we can build the collective power to do so, stop prioritizing endless war and the indulgence of bottomless greed. We could build quality public housing in places that are likely to have plenty of water going forward. We could pay people to do ecosystem support and management work, or to clean up pollution, or to work on indoor food production, or any number of a hundred other things that society needs people to do.
We could, in short, respond to this crisis by proactively building a better world, with the changing climate in mind. We have the resources and knowledge to do this, and we’ve had them for a long time. What we lack is political and economic power among those who actually want the world to get better, because the people who currently hold that power? They would rather see the world burn around their bunkers than allow for systemic change.
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