Jake Bittle is a staff writer at Grist who covers climate change. His new book is The Great Displacement: Climate Change and the Next American Migration, which uses stories of individual families and neighborhoods across the country to explain how homeowners, insurers, and the federal government are responding to the country’s growing number of climate-induced disasters. Bittle spoke about the book with managing editor Isabella Simon on the Commonweal Podcast. Their interview has been edited for clarity and length. You can listen to the full interview here:
Isabella Simon: You wrote about communities all around the United States, from Louisiana to California to Virginia, and met all kinds of people. What are some of the stories that most affected you?
Jake Bittle: This book was an attempt to create a snapshot of America’s domestic climate migration. I went to a half-dozen places that had recently seen large hurricanes, wildfires, were experiencing extreme drought, or where sea-level rise was advancing quickly, and then I looked at what happened in the long run after these disasters struck.
Where did people end up after they lost their homes? And how did these disasters affect the housing and insurance markets in these places? What I found was a chaotic, churning process of displacement, relocation, and re-displacement, concentrated in the most vulnerable parts of the country.
I was struck by the story of Lincoln City, North Carolina, a generations-old African American neighborhood that was perennially prone to flooding. After two major hurricanes, the federal government paid for the community to be razed and gave everyone money to move somewhere else. To this day, the community still has a robust reunion of thousands of people, even twenty years after it was destroyed. People who never lived there themselves, but whose parents did, still come back to celebrate what the neighborhood used to be. The unprecedented coordination involved in the relocation bound together people who otherwise might have drifted apart. I was also surprised to learn how poorly many people fared after they received their stipend to move. Many ended up living pretty close to where they had been before, but in more expensive houses with higher utility bills and mortgages. By the time the recession hit in 2008, many of them couldn’t keep up with the mortgages, and their houses were foreclosed.
We know that we need to adapt to climate change. We know that there are people in harm’s way, but the process of fixing it is much more complicated and painful than many people assume.
IS: One alternative to buyouts, though it wouldn’t work in every community, is climate adaptation. Can you explain how this program worked in the Chesterfield Heights neighborhood in Norfolk, Virginia?
JB: Climate adaptation is comparatively new. It began during the Obama administration. The program in Chesterfield Heights is a set of design projects in a riverside neighborhood that’s experiencing significant sea-level rise. At high tide, the river floods, so they built a giant berm at the front of the neighborhood that stops water from sloshing over. They also expanded and remodeled the storm drain system, created artificial tidal estuaries and wetlands that can soak up water (unlike concrete, which is impervious), and designed a large area that can flood and serve as a natural bowl for collecting water.
They’ve done basically everything they could with a hundred million dollars to make it seriously resilient for the next thirty years. It required retrofitting almost every part of the neighborhood’s infrastructure. This is a neighborhood where property values were falling or about to fall because the flooding was so significant, but this has bought them about fifty years.
IS: You describe the housing market in coastal communities as a stick of dynamite with a long fuse. Expensive adaptation extended the fuse in Chesterfield Heights, but it’s burning down as sea-level rise continues.
JB: Today I can buy a home in Norfolk for $400,000 and probably sell it for just as much, if not more, in three years. But in thirty years that home, and other homes around it, will be flooded almost constantly. It could even get blown away entirely by a huge storm. But the market hasn’t yet absorbed the fact that one day these homes will be much less valuable than they are now.
Besides the properties that will be destroyed by climate disasters, even more will simply lose value because their location becomes so flood-prone that the market will start to shy away. So the stick of dynamite is the value of the home. When the dynamite blows up, the home value will fall, independent of whether or not a flood actually touches the home. If thousands of people lose their homes to disasters every year, many thousands more will be left holding the bag for a mortgage that is, figuratively speaking, underwater.
It’s complicated, because you can’t simply force people to move. There’s also a question of self-determination that you can’t paper over. What we can do is make it easier for people who want to leave to do so, and we can try to help the people who are stuck. We should also work to protect, for as long as we can, as many places as we think we can afford to. But in this country, telling people they have to go always leads to awful outcomes.
IS: This heartbreaking tension plays out in other places, too. For example, in Pointe-au-Chien, Louisiana, you described the unique history of the land and culture, and then the fact that the bayous are literally washing away. How did you balance that tension while working on the book?
JB: It was hard to write those narratives without including why people loved and treasured these places. People were very optimistic; many are dead set on staying. I drank that Kool-Aid a little bit while I was reporting, which is necessary to tell the story. But when I came back and finished writing the book, I had to buttress the stories with facts. I had to make it clear that no amount of optimism would be sufficient to stop people from losing their homes.
In Pointe-au-Chien, because of erosion, people have steadily been less and less able to do what their parents did to sustain themselves. I wrote about a family that lives in a very isolated community. Five generations ago, they were self-sufficient. They raised oysters and caught shrimp in nets just outside their house windows, and trapped nutria to sell the pelts. That became impossible. So they switched to in-shore shrimping on small motorboats. And that became impossible. So they had to switch to offshore shrimping on big boats that required a lot more up-front capital. And that became impossible. The next generation mostly worked in oil and gas, which is very volatile work. In the last and the most recent generation, the youngest son moved to Tucson to start a video-game company. There are now no jobs in Pointe-au-Chien for the younger generation to take.
IS: Some of the places where there are jobs, and where there have been huge construction and population booms, are also very vulnerable to the effects of climate change. Cities like Phoenix, Miami, and Dallas will all experience increasing heat, which you argue will become “the largest driver of voluntary migration in the coming decades.” And Phoenix and other desert Southwest cities will face serious water scarcity problems. Why haven’t developers and homebuyers taken these issues into account?
JB: The problem of extreme heat is different from other kinds of natural disasters. Take hurricanes: in a given year, the probability that any particular town gets hit by a storm is low. But heat is virtually certain. There are defined thresholds above which it is difficult for the human body to tolerate heat. Fifty years from now, assuming the current pace of global warming continues, places like Tucson will see nigh-lethal heat every summer. That’s why it will drive voluntary migration—people will make the choice to leave, even though there’s no definite economic driver the way there is with other kinds of disasters.
We don’t really see the impacts yet, because while the heat is pretty bad, it’s not that bad that often right now. But that threshold could be crossed in many of these places over the next thirty years. At that point, we’ll see a definitive shift in people’s attitudes. We’re not there yet, but looking at a map, looking at a thermometer, and looking at a calendar, you can see that eventually those cities can’t stay at their current size, and at the very least can’t continue to grow.
The other thing that could slow growth is water scarcity. Over the next ten to twenty years, many of the fastest-growing cities in the West will not have the water to continue growing. Future property-value increases and profits for home builders and developers are contingent on continued growth, so once you say you can’t build any more, you’re setting a domino effect in motion. When property values waver or fall, it changes the long-term trajectory of the cities.
IS: Is there anything that the government or the private market should do to try to discourage these places from growing any further?
JB: It’s hard to know what mechanism the government could use to stop someone from making a voluntary movement from, say, Buffalo to Phoenix. However, the problems with inducing people to move elsewhere are much less intractable. If you want a national climate-adaptation strategy, there’s no sense in trying to induce people to move to Phoenix. But you could make a strong argument for moving to Cincinnati, which is built to house about twice the number of people that currently live there, and is incredibly resilient to climate change compared with some other cities. Discouraging people is hard. But encouraging them—though it would be controversial—is worth thinking about.
IS: One thing the government could certainly do is to tighten existing regulations and introduce new ones. There are places, for example, where sellers aren’t required to disclose a home’s flood history, or where developers aren’t required to rebuild burned-down homes with more stringent fire-prevention standards.
JB: Definitely. The question is, can we pass these costs on to homeowners, builders, and developers without burdening them extensively? After Hurricane Andrew in 1992, Florida overhauled its building codes. Now, if you want to build a house in South Florida, you have to make sure it can withstand a category-five hurricane. Most of the homes that were built after the new code took effect in 2000 withstood the 150-mile-an-hour winds of Hurricane Ian last October.
The higher construction costs of those homes were passed onto the homeowners, who were willing to pay them because they wanted to live in Florida. Yes, homes cost more, but not to an extent that bankrupted millions of people. The same thing is true with flood disclosures. We can pass a law that requires sellers to inform potential buyers about a home’s flood history and risk. Many people will take a cut on the amount that their homes sell for, but that’s a cost you could argue people are capable of—and should be—bearing.
But it’s a matter of making sure you understand who holds the bag for any given policy or lack of intervention. I’m far from convinced that I know all those answers, but even acknowledging that we’re playing the game would be valuable.
IS: You propose an ideal at the end of the book: everyone deserves safe housing before and after natural disasters, whether or not they own property or have insurance. You say this is radical because it “undermines the belief in individual responsibility” held by so many Americans. Why is individual responsibility so insufficient in the face of the climate crisis?
JB: It sounds like a political or philosophical argument, but it was also brought home for me in an emotional way when I spoke to people who were the image of middle-class upward mobility in the United States. They saved up to buy a home in a place like Houston. They bought it, paid their mortgage, worked, raised their kids—and then, all of a sudden, lost everything in a big flood. It turned out the developer had ignored some flood maps fifty years earlier when they had built in that area. There’s no way the family could have known, and perhaps even the developer didn’t realize the extent of the flood risk brought on by increased precipitation. Unless you’re going to consider it an act of God, or a test, like what Job endured, you have to think that surely this is where we need the state to come in and help families like this get back on their feet. Once you say that, you open yourself up to a whole world of policy, spending, charity, and largesse by the government, which has an enormous amount of money and enormous latitude to spend it.
The stories of people who’ve experienced disasters point to the need to look at housing not just as something you afford through your own fiscal rectitude, financial integrity, and good decisions. That’s not what it will be over the next hundred years as disasters get more intense and more people are caught in them.
IS: To make it even more complicated, there are other parts of the world where people are experiencing these disasters without any relief from their governments. We know that the United States is already dealing with an influx of refugees, many of them displaced by climate change. What else is happening internationally?
JB: Most migration is internal. In many countries around the world, it’s advancing at a much faster pace than in the United States. A third of Pakistan was underwater last year. But in certain cases, like in Guatemala and the Northern Triangle, people don’t have any other option except to try to come to the United States. Unfortunately, there’s the potential for international climate migrants to become a bogeyman for the xenophobic Right. But the richer countries of the world, which are responsible for climate change, bear an enormous amount of responsibility for people who are displaced by drought or famine in other parts of the world. The issue is, our politics are so far away from being able to grapple with this. It’s hard to imagine how the fact of climate change, as devastating as it is, would break the logjam in immigration politics.
At the same time, it’s important to think of people in Houston who lose their homes as being on a continuum with people from Guatemala who traveled hundreds and hundreds of miles to come to the United States. The processes of destabilization are not that different. The solutions might not be all that different, either. The idea of what constitutes a happy ending looks basically the same in both cases: somewhere that’s safe from disasters, sheltered, and affordable. Once you say that’s what we want, you can tell the rest of the story.