There were 18 extreme weather events with losses in excess of $1 billion in the U.S. last year, according to the National Centers for Environmental Information. There was the heat dome in the southwest in September, which put more than 61 million people under extreme heat advisories and broke heat records in California. There were hurricanes Fiona and Ian in Florida, the latter of which brought an “unprecedented” 12 to 18 foot storm surge and record-high winds of 150 mph, ultimately leaving 4 million Floridians without power. There were flash floods in Kentucky and Missouri that displaced thousands, and closer to Chicago, there were three tornadoes and severe thunderstorms in July, which caused an estimated $1.3 billion in damages.
Much of the discourse around climate change and the increasing frequency of extreme weather events is forward-looking, hypothetical, but as Jake Bittle makes clear in his excellent new book The Great Displacement: Climate Change and the Next American Migration, that future is already here. Bittle, a University of Chicago graduate who was formerly editor of South Side Weekly, hones in on seven areas of the U.S. whose landscapes have already been dramatically reshaped by our changing climate—sometimes abruptly, sometimes gradually, over decades.
The Great Displacement: Climate Change and the Next American Migration by Jake Bittle
Simon & Schuster, hardcover, 368 pp., $28.99, simonandschuster.com
Part of his approach is driving home just how crucial it is to not only acknowledge the reality that climate change has already dealt us, but also to take much more proactive steps to build greater resiliency into our communities, ensuring that everyone has access to safe housing. As he writes, “By the end of the century, climate change will displace more people in the United States than moved during the Great Migration, uprooting millions of people in every region of the country.” Not to mention the climate migrants who will be coming to the U.S. from other countries, their homelands made uninhabitable by the outsized emissions of richer countries such as our own.
Bittle helps illuminate that reality by focusing on the individual experiences of folks living in places like Santa Rosa, California, where the 2017 Tubbs Fire incinerated more than 5,000 homes in a matter of hours, and Norfolk, Virginia, where the sea level has risen more than a foot since 1950, and “will rise at least another foot over the next twenty years, faster than almost anywhere else in the country.” The picture painted is bleak—not only because climate change and increasing bouts of extreme weather are making it clear that large swaths of the country will soon be more or less uninhabitable, but also because so much of our current policy seems to be ineffectual at best and actively harmful at worst.
For example, many of the Florida Keys, Bittle notes, could be underwater by the end of the century. But residents can’t expect any help from FEMA because “federal law does not recognize the slow rise of the oceans as an emergency like a hurricane or a wildfire.” He discusses how, in California, the private insurance market and state laws have worked in tandem to worsen the housing shortage and allow people to rebuild their homes in unsafe places without adhering to stricter building codes. California prohibits insurance companies from “dropping customers in areas that had experienced wildfire in the past year,” so instead they might arbitrarily drop customers in the state who have not yet been affected by fire, while simultaneously spiking the premiums of customers who were impacted.
In the Houston oil boom of the 1970s, massive development proceeded basically unchecked, as there were no zoning laws and few restrictions on permitting. Unfortunately the county had never conducted flood studies of the city’s bayous, so structures were often built downhill or very close to rivers, bayous, and reservoirs. That, coupled with the literal development itself, particularly the increase of paved surfaces, meant that there was lots of opportunity for flooding and little opportunity for natural drainage when Hurricane Harvey hit in 2017.
And in Arizona, the government allowed counties to draw so much water over the years that the water table has drastically depleted, creating fissures in the earth. In the mid-90s, the state created a new water authority to appease developers that effectively functioned as a “giant loophole in the state’s groundwater restrictions,” passing the buck on finding a sustainable solution onto future generations. Arizona, which has been in a drought since 1994, is now dealing with fewer allotments from the Colorado River, making farming and cattle raising all but impossible in Pinal County.
Bittle also draws attention to the fate of lower-income communities, which are oftentimes where Indigenous people or people of color live. They tend to be the most vulnerable to climate change and have the least ability to pack up and move somewhere safer. He writes about the Indigenous villages of Pointe-au-Chien and Isle de Jean Charles in Louisiana: the landmass of the latter had mostly disappeared, thanks to coastal erosion worsened by the oil industry, which dredged the swamp and bought up and developed land, displacing residents. As the marshes disappeared, salt water crept into people’s land and housing, making it impossible to grow subsistence gardens or raise animals; ultimately it broke up the communities and destroyed their way of life. Isle de Jean Charles’s entire community was eventually relocated inland, the “first whole-community climate migration in the history of the United States.” (For a more recent example, I recommend reading the New Yorker’s recent article on the migration of the Inupiat island village of Kivalina, which is estimated to cost almost a million dollars per resident.)
If there is a drawback to The Great Displacement, it is in the desire for more information and, perhaps, a more critical lens. For all of Bittle’s talk of FEMA, there is little mention of the historical allegations of racism or other gross negligence of the government agency that Americans rely on for disaster relief. From FEMA’s knowing distribution of trailers with unsafe levels of formaldehyde to Hurricane Katrina survivors to data that shows that the agency often helps white people and white communities more than people and communities of color, readers should perhaps be given this information as context for any future dealings they may have with the agency.
Similarly, Bittle summons a lot of hope in his final chapter, which posits what the future of climate migration might look like and discusses what changes must be made to make that migration less painful. He boldly notes that the widespread mobility will necessitate a change in the way Americans think of home, and as a result, the American dream, as well as our stubborn cultural belief in individual responsibility. In the coming years, he writes, it will only become more common to need help from the government, either for shelter or safety, and the onus is on us to come to terms with that vulnerability.
Though it’s certain that the climate is going to continue to warm and the oceans will continue to rise, much else remains unwritten. We have the power to build more affordable, dense, climate-resilient housing, to learn to farm more sustainably, to transition to clean energy sources. And, as Bittle notes, the public largely supports such measures. It’s up to our government to make those investments and create such policies, but it’s up to everyone to make sure they do so.
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