Aworsening climate crisis has forced people around the world to grapple with extreme weather, including hurricanes, fires, heat, droughts and floods. In early 2023, tornadoes and strong storms battered Alabama and Georgia, leaving several people dead and thousands of homes without power. In January, atmospheric rivers caused between $31 billion and $34 billion worth of damage and demolished dozens of homes in California. A timely new book by Jake Bittle makes the case that in the coming decades, our willingness to adapt to a changing climate — or failure to do so — will define our future.
The Great Displacement: Climate Change and the Next American Migration is a front-line report of the climate crisis, through the eyes of people who have been uprooted due to weather disasters in Florida, North Carolina, Louisiana, Arizona, Texas, California and other states. Though Bittle generally uses the terms “migration” and “displacement” interchangeably, he acknowledges that the words fail to capture the full scale of the problem: people half choosing, half being forced, to relocate in response to climate instability. “The process is messier than mere migration, but more profound than mere population turnover; slower than a refugee crisis, but more drastic than a demographic shift,” he writes. In the past few years, there have been a number of works written with Olympian detachment about the anthropogenic climate crisis and its attendant ills — carbon emissions, biosphere degradation, crop failures, dangerous heat and zoonotic pandemics, among others. But few have foregrounded the experiences of people living in climate extremis. Through deeply reported pieces, Bittle deftly balances attention to each displaced family’s story with larger structural analyses. To read about people from different states and socioeconomic backgrounds is to be reminded that, on a fast-overheating planet, we are all caught up in the same ecological web. Sooner or later, it will be our turn to move.
Sooner or later, it will be our turn to move.
One section draws from interviews with families from drought-primed California who had to flee after their homes were destroyed by the Tubbs Fire of 2017. The Arriaga family, who rented a house in Coffey Park, found it immensely difficult to make a fresh start when their home was reduced to a pile of ash. The dearth of available housing led to price spikes and bidding wars. State laws disincentivized the building of new houses and put homeownership out of reach for many middle-class and low-income households. Families like the Arriagas, who lacked insurance policies that would pay out $10,000 a month, had to downsize to more affordable courtyard apartments, stay with extended family, or pursue housing leads in different states. Insurance companies, which failed to account for the potential magnitude of fire damage, paid out more than $12 million to their customers in the 2017-’18 fire season. Just a few months after the Tubbs Fire in Wine Country, the Glass Fire devastated an additional 600 homes. “Wildfires had gone from a once-in-a-lifetime disaster to a fact of life for almost everyone who lived in California,” writes Bittle.
Texas has also seen more than its fair share of ecological disasters of late, from Hurricane Harvey — the most destructive rainfall event recorded in the nation’s history — to a historic winter storm that plunged millions of residents into darkness in 2021, to the dangerously hot summer of 2022, which caused the state’s electric grid to buckle. A Category 4 hurricane, Harvey struck the Texas Gulf Coast in August 2017 and released an estimated 8.3 million pounds of pollution into the air. The infrastructure in the Houston area’s many petrochemical facilities failed under the enormous amounts of rainfall, and an additional 150 million gallons of wastewater were spilled. In a customarily vivid metaphor, Bittle explains that “if the story of Houston’s risky development had been written in invisible ink, Harvey was the lemon squeezed on top of it, revealing a truth that had been there the whole time.” His tone is even-keeled, yet one senses, in this section and others, a simmering rage just underneath — a teapot about to boil over.
Harvey revealed how climate change has increased the frequency of what were once thought to be extremely rare weather events; traditional definitions of a “100-year flood” or “25-year storm” are no longer accurate. The standards used now to gauge the latter are more than 60 years old, based on data collected during a 20-year period that began in 1938. New data has since been collected by the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration in a document known as Atlas 14, which provides better guidance on the size and frequency of extreme rain events.
Additionally, as Bittle notes, flood insurance maps, which restrict development in a hundred-year floodplain, were drawn too narrowly. Many families who resided outside the flood zone thought they were safe from flooding even though they were living in areas “destined to flood.” Becca and Sergio Fuentes were one such couple. As Harvey started pelting down, a 31-weeks pregnant Becca and her husband evacuated their house in Bear Creek Village and drove to Becca’s mother’s home. The storm left their house unlivable, full of drowned furniture, mold and debris. But because Bear Creek was not designated a flood zone, residents did not receive a buyout offer or flood insurance payments. Stories like the Fuentes’ and Arriagas’ are at once sobering and paradigmatic of larger empirical “trends taking hold in other places across the country.”
For all the granular stories of those displaced by climate chaos, Bittle still holds out hope that the U.S. will yet find ways to make communities more resilient. His final chapter notes the need to aggressively cut carbon emissions and “ramp up our investment in post-disaster aid and climate adaptation,” all of which require “decisive mobilization from our sclerotic governments (and) unprecedented altruism from our profit-driven private corporations.” In the finance sector, a climate-regulatory framework for banks — one of the biggest drivers of climate change — is starting to take shape. In the coming months, the three federal bank regulators, the Federal Reserve, Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation, and the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency, will set expectations for how the largest banks will assess and mitigate their climate-related financial risks. More momentous still, President Joe Biden’s landmark Inflation Reduction Act will invest $369 billion in climate solutions and put the U.S. on track to 40% carbon emissions reductions by 2030.
Yet, as Bittle notes, there is still an urgent need for far-reaching action. Bittle predicts that over the course of the next century, major resource-intensive industries will move away from the rural South, and upwards of 20 million people will be displaced because of climate change. We are currently teetering between two options: “a brutal and unpredictable world … in which only the wealthiest and most privileged can protect themselves from dispossession” and a “fairer” world where “one’s home may not be impregnable, but where one’s right to shelter is guaranteed.” The stories in this book — full of individuals who had been dealt enormous setbacks but strove to re-make their lives after climate catastrophe — make a vigorous case for the latter.