The Arizona Republic
How climate disasters create new migrants
After a few chapters of Jake Bittle’s new book, readers may start to dread meeting his characters. That’s not because they’re unpleasant. Most are quite relatable. But with each turn of the page, it becomes more clear that this story will likely not end well for them.
In “The Great Displacement: Climate Change and the Next American Migration,” published Tuesday by Simon and Schuster, no one is safe from becoming a migrant. The real people whose stories become the building blocks for Bittle’s chronicle of how rising average temperatures are reshaping our national human geography are themselves surrounded by buildings that are constantly crumbling under the weight of climate-worsened disasters.
In the Florida Keys in Chapter 1, Patrick Garvey holds on to his dream of nurturing a tropical fruit grove as long as he can, long after rising salt water begins to poison the soil and relentless, super-charged storms wipe the land clean of livable structures, neighbors and even his own family, who opt for a climate haven farther north.
Along the Neuse River in North Carolina in Chapter 2, a family sits on a stoop in a historic Black community to watch firefighters burn the house their father built, as a practice exercise after a federal buyout program pressured residents to relocate away from increasing flood risk. Ceded to freed men by white landowners who didn’t make any special effort to ensure that their former slaves had a solid landing place, the low-lying tract had always been flood-prone. But the community, strong in spirit and accustomed to worse, had been able to withstand regular street flooding until warming temperatures energized storms and the government eventually declared the area unlivable, generations after these families had been told to build their lives there.
Thousands more homes burn in Bittle’s third chapter, set in Northern California’s wine country during and after
the devastating 2017 Tubbs Fire, which, spurred onward and outward by ferocious winds and drought-weary landscapes, did an estimated $1.2 billion of damage. The Tran family, middle-class immigrants who ran a local Vietnamese restaurant, escaped just as the fire unexpectedly jumped the six-lane U.S. Highway 101 and incinerated the urban Santa Rosa neighborhood where they had rooted their American dreams.
Often, the lower-income characters in this book struggle the most. But the Tubbs megafire did not discriminate. It also chased millionaires from their hilltop mansions, some never to return.
A climate journalist for the outlet Grist, Bittle spent the past few years visiting diverse and iconic American landscapes to piece together this domestic story of modern climate migration — a complex phenomenon that will undoubtedly become common parlance in coming years.
His book tells the struggle of people fighting to stay in their homes despite raging fires and creeping floods that are becoming more frequent, of insurance infrastructure and emergency funds that are ill-equipped to handle the recovery. He writes about construction practices that continue to set us up for failure, about oil and gas interests that siphon away the land beneath coastal Indigenous tribes while their product fuels the climate crisis that swells rising seas. And he chronicles the history and cultures fractured beyond repair when people surrender to uncertainty, exhaustion and financial ruin and decide to try their luck elsewhere.
Along the way, Bittle’s narratives treat the retelling of his characters’ losses with careful compassion and meticulous documentation. He gets to know the families evicted from their homes and derailed from their goals by increasingly regular unnatural disasters. He is privy to their agonizing debates over when to stay, when to go and whether to declare bankruptcy when flood insurance premiums shoot through their soggy roofs. In between these heart-wrenching tales, his book’s backbone charts the long course of underlying injustices, negligent zoning, shortsighted policies and climate inaction that have engineered these housing dilemmas more Americans will soon face.
“(In Texas, Harris County’s) efforts to control flooding were only as good as its estimates of flood risk, and those estimates were flawed — they accounted neither for the rapid pace of development in Houston nor for the new reality of climate-enhanced storms,” Bittle writes in his fifth chapter about the near-constant risk of flooding in Houston that has resulted from careless sprawl and the failure to plan out drainage paths for unprecedented rains. “As county officials tried to undo the mistakes of the past, they remained blind to the mistakes of the present.”
Desert’s gonna desert
Pinal County, here in Arizona, is the focus of Bittle’s sixth chapter, which starts with a story of rodeo cows pushing down a fence and going rogue for the first time in local ranchers’ memories when extreme, record-setting drought forces them to expand their search for forage and water.
As a climate-fueled disaster Arizonans are all too familiar with, drought differs from most others covered in the book. Compared to sudden hurricanes and wildfires, the persistent lack of water that creates a desert ecosystem is not as easily labeled a catastrophe, and the response of federal management agencies like the Bureau of Reclamation has been correspondingly slow. But as rapid development has spread farther and farther from the Sonoran Desert’s few natural riverbanks and the Central Arizona Project’s canals deliver less and less water from the dwindling Colorado River, uncertain water access for Arizona’s residential and agricultural communities fits the bill.
“Droughts are a different kind of disaster, more like the erosion that transformed (the) Pointe-au-Chien (tribe in coastal Louisiana) — they are slowmoving, almost epochal, and indeed they only become disasters once they last long enough to seem almost normal,” the book reads.
Bittle goes on to tell of the plight of Pinal County cotton growers, many of whom must compete for water with the Phoenix area’s sprawling neighborhoods and golf courses. A complex debt tradeoff related to the construction of the CAP Canal pushed them to the back of the line for Colorado River water, despite their history of farming, for many generations in some cases.
The loss of farmer security in the desert is just one cascading impact of decreasing local water availability as climate change increases average temperatures, exacerbating evaporation from reservoirs, soil and vegetation and disrupting rainfall cycles. Another is the destabilization of the housing market in metro regions of Arizona, which are some of the country’s fastest-growing areas, something many locals have felt in their wildly fluctuating rent, mortgage and utility payments in recent years.
As with many other more immediate disasters examined in the book, solutions to the slow drip of water limitations in the desert remain unclear.
“If the state restricts development on the outskirts of Phoenix, it jeopardizes the property values that have been the anchor of middle-class prosperity,” Bittle writes. “The aftershocks of such a decision would be profound.”
Where will we go?
In his final chapter, Bittle tackles the question of where Americans displaced by newly uninhabitable climates, be it due to flooding, storms, wildfires or drought, will go. Experts agree that a “managed retreat” from coastlines would be wise, and federal buyout programs and insurance premiums are already positioning to incentivize this shift. Likewise, many forested areas in the west that are prone to wildfires are encouraging residents to adopt “Firewise” landscaping practices, use fire-resistant building materials in new construction, or even requiring tree thinning before issuing building permits. (The Republic reported last summer about the adaptive decisions of residents who experienced the recordbreaking 2002 Rodeo-Chediski Fire in Arizona’s White Mountains.)
Many lawmakers and environmental groups in Arizona are also grappling with the question of where and how to restrict unsustainable development that will further overspend the region’s water budget. But comprehensive agreements have yet to be reached.
“The Great Displacement” suggests that the forces of climate change may move people out of the desert, reversing recent trends. And that would make some sustainability sense. But the vagaries of climate migration, as well as data compiled by researcher Matthew Hauer, an assistant professor of sociology at Florida State University who studies the impacts of climate change on society, indicate that an outmigration might not be the only pattern to expect.
In a spreadsheet Hauer shared with The Republic, he estimated that as of 2017, more than 100,000 people may have relocated to the Phoenix-MesaScottsdale area after being driven away from rising seas, making it the 13th most popular climate migration destination. One of Bittle’s sources left New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina and settled in Tucson.
Phoenix has seen its homeless population as well as its housing demand increase in recent years, and some of these people may have been drawn to Arizona’s relentlessly dry climate after weathering too many wet days somewhere east of the 100th Meridian. A recent point-in-time count suggests that Arizona’s homeless population increased by 23% between 2020 and 2022. But exact drivers of this have been difficult to quantify.
Bittle suggests that climate migration may follow a more ordered process known as “negentropy,” the reverse of chaotic “entropy,” caused by communities of people exiled by an unruly climate tending to follow each other to cultural hubs to reconstitute once again as a relocated community of the same people in a new place. Many who left Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria, for example, ended up joining existing Puerto Rican communities in Springfield, Massachusetts or Buffalo, New York, which recently launched a campaign to brand itself a “climate refuge city.”
In other examples, those exiled from their hometowns by climate-charged events they played little role in creating do not receive such a welcome. After Hurricane Katrina, many New Orleanians relocated to Houston, only to be referred to as “illegal immigrants,” denied jobs, blamed for rising crime rates and then subjected to later climate disasters that struck Houston. This also happens to climate migrants seeking to escape dangerous conditions across international borders, which is an ongoing humanitarian crisis in Arizona’s borderlands that will only worsen as temperatures in Central America become increasingly oppressive.
In jarring contrast to the nearly 300 pages of cautionary research and heartwrenching tales, “The Great Displacement” ends with a sobering disclaimer that the largest forces of current human movement in the United States are still toward the coasts and deserts rather than to safety away from these climateworsened risk zones.
What do we owe each other, Bittle asks. Do humans have an inalienable right to safe shelter, regardless of accumulated property assets? Will we work together to slow the climate crisis before all of this gets worse? Can we learn from our mistakes of the past?