Americans Are Already Deciding Where to Move Based on Climate Change

Americans Are Already Deciding Where to Move Based on Climate Change

Having been a “climate person” for the past decade-plus has been pretty damn exhausting. Every single choice I make has involved agonising over the environmental ramifications. But as the climate crisis has become impossible to ignore, more and more people are doing the same, including making decisions to move based on sea level rise and extreme heat. Welcome to my world, new climate people.

Polling and analysis released last week by real estate site Redfin found that a surprisingly high number of Americans weighed climate risks into their decisions about whether to move or not. It slots in with other research showing a growing tidal wave of climate-related moves, foreclosures, and damage that policymakers urgently need to address before it crashes ashore.

The Redfin polling found that extreme temperatures were a deciding factor for 48% of those who were considering moving in the coming year, while sea level rise was on the minds of 36% of potential movers. The question was around people’s decision to move, indicating that they could be moving away from areas of extreme heat or along the coast as well as choosing not to move to those places. The trends were most acute in the Northeast and the West. Separate Yale and George Mason University polling also shows those regions generally have some of the highest rates of people who say climate change is already affecting them and worry the most about it. But it may also reflect the reality that the West got lit up by wildfires last year and that parts of the Northeast have seen relatively high rates of sea level rise and the acute impacts of that when Sandy hit in 2012.

“Climate change is making certain parts of the country less desirable to live in,” Redfin chief economist Daryl Fairweather said in a statement. “As Americans leave places that are frequently on fire or at risk of going underwater, the destinations that don’t face those risks will become increasingly competitive and expensive for homebuyers.”

The polling shows roughly 75% of potential movers are loathe to move to a home in an area prone to extreme heat or sea level rise. Around a quarter of respondents wouldn’t do it even if homes were more affordable, which should tell you something given the housing crisis gripping parts of the country.

A.R. Siders, a coastal adaptation expert at the University of Delaware, said people moving based on shifts in climate is a tale as old as humanity itself. But the new analysis shows it will increasingly be a story defined by the changes humans — particularly a handful of large fossil fuel corporations — have wrought to the planet.

Indeed, research published in 2019 found Americans are already moving away from the coasts and inland waterways increasingly prone to flooding as climate change increases heavy downpours’ intensity and frequency. The impacts are already bad enough, yet they will only worsen in the coming decades, with the potential for $US135 ($177) billion in losses by midcentury along U.S. coasts alone. There are a patchwork of programs to help move away from watery danger zones, but they don’t even factor in the risks of more flammable forests or parts of the Southwest becoming mired in a megadrought. The new polling from Redfin shows Americans are thinking about these risks and making life choices based on them — and policymakers need to start making a more coherent plan ASAP for a more managed migration away from climate hotspots.

“One of the reasons we argue for managed retreat is that if you don’t manage retreat, people will still move,” Siders, who co-authored the 2019 study, said. “That’s what this survey highlights. We argue — and other people have argued before us — that it would be better for the people involved, both the communities where people are living and the communities where they’re going to, if there were some sort of plan of support in place.”

While helping homeowners who can afford to buy elsewhere or take the time to parse programs is great, it’s not enough. Renters, those in public housing, and those living in low-income neighbourhoods also need help. Redfin’s survey — which focused on those who were thinking of moving by choice — doesn’t even begin to capture the risks groups without a choice face. We’ve seen time and again that poor communities bear the brunt of inadequate infrastructure to protect them from heat, fires, or storm surge and often lack the political capital to be able to move out of harm’s way.

“This conversation about where people are moving really needs to be paired with a conversation about where are we building affordable housing,” Siders said.

That means we can’t all just be climate people. We also have to be urban planning and YIMBY people, too. Exhausting? Perhaps. But ignoring these issues won’t make them go away.

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