- Interview by
- Sara Van Horn
- Cal Turner
Over the past few years, climate disasters have threatened and destroyed housing across the diverse landscapes of the United States. Wildfires have scorched through California, destroying more than fifteen thousand buildings since 2020. Hurricanes have battered Florida’s vulnerable coastlines, with Hurricane Ian alone claiming five thousand homes and damaging thirty thousand more. Severe drought has coincided with Arizona’s housing boom this past January, subjecting residents of a Scottsdale suburb to water shutoffs — a problem that will only intensify as long as both drought and incessant housing construction continue in the Southwest.
In The Great Displacement: Climate Change and the Next American Migration, Jake Bittle, a reporter covering climate impacts and adaptation, brings together eight stories of communities displaced from their land in the wake of natural disasters. He illustrates how a range of climate causes and effects have threatened communities across the country, from the government buyout of a historically black neighborhood in rural North Carolina to a housing crisis following wildfires in Santa Rosa, California. Sketching out the varied responses to climate disaster, Bittle emphasizes that climate displacement in the United States is not only a problem for the future, but a present and past reality.
Cal Turner and Sara Van Horn interviewed Bittle for Jacobin about what climate displacement looks like now: the crucial links between disasters and the US housing crisis, the government responses that could create housing stability in the face of increased precarity, and the broad spectrum of people impacted by climate disasters.
Your book adjusts our understanding of the timescale of climate migration by emphasizing that climate-related displacement started at least a generation ago. Why is this temporal shift in perspective important? And why does the mainstream narrative of climate displacement so often focus exclusively on the future?
It’s difficult to make a categorical distinction between displacement caused by climate change and displacement caused by natural disasters that were not made more intense by global warming. In the book, I talked about displacement events that happened before we were at 1.1 degrees Celsius [above preindustrial levels], because what climate change does is make disasters more severe and more frequent. The patterns of displacement once climate disasters happen — they’re not a mystery. We already know because similar things have already happened. We can see future migration, present migration, and past migration as being on a continuum of housing instability and vulnerable construction.
A lot of people wonder: What will climate change be like? But it’s the wrong question. We can look at what’s already happening and say that this is the kind of thing that we can expect more of. “Here’s what happened before climate change, here’s what happened after it started” — a lot of mainstream journalism about this issue has not been able to avoid that binary.
For a while we just didn’t really talk about climate change. We talked about fires and hurricanes. And now a lot of publications and newspapers have the opposite, very well-intentioned reflex: every time that anything happens, they say, “This is the link to climate change.” But it leads people to think that some events can be categorized as climate-driven and some can be categorized as not having been. I’m trying to say that that’s not really true, but that you do see this gradual ratcheting up of severity.
You highlight a broad range of ways that people relate to the land they live on: a lot of different communities, a lot of different kinds of work that bind people to their land, and a diverse set of ways that people respond when they lose that land. Why was it important to cast this wide net in terms of the stories you told about climate displacement?
From the start, I was pretty convinced that most people experience climate change through the lens of housing instability: the loss of access to housing, and housing becoming less affordable. But it looks so different in each place. All the patterns of displacement — and all the outcomes after these disasters — seemed informed so extensively not only by climate change, but also by the detailed history of how the built environment had taken shape in those places.
Each disaster was striking, because there are some commonalities, but there are also a lot of differences. And the differences turned out to be really important. The conclusion that I came away with is that climate change applies stress to specific social, economic, and architectural structures. Without knowing what those are, you can’t really understand what is happening.
Are there mainstream narratives of climate migration that you’re hoping to intervene in?
One thing that I’ve tried to press on is the difference between displacement and migration and the extent to which climate migration in the United States — and in a lot of other places as well — is primarily domestic, usually over short distances. And it’s very rarely a coherent, point-A-to-point-B single movement. One big problem that climate change creates is prolonged and generalized housing instability in a lot of places that makes it difficult for people to keep a solid grip on the traditional middle-class mortgage that rises in value and provides a solid investment and a lever for being upwardly mobile.
That specific idea of what home is and what housing looks like is going to be really destabilized over the next few decades. But I don’t feel like that gets much play. Instead, when people talk about climate migration, they’re usually talking about how to deal with an influx of people from developing countries who get displaced by massive disasters that are way worse than the ones in the United States. “How do we provide those people asylum?” is a really great question. But I was like: get your house in order, as well. We don’t do a good job with this domestically.
Can you sketch out the relationship between climate change and the US housing crisis?
Sea-level rise, hurricane storm surges, wildfires, and water shortages all destroy housing in the places that are most vulnerable to climate disasters. They alter the balance between supply and demand for housing, but they also lead to restriction in insurance access and an increase in the cost of distributing risk for mortgage markets and insurance markets. Trying to deal with mounting risk is transferring a huge cost burden onto homeowners. It’s making it difficult for people to maintain their existing level of housing access. It’s certainly pushing a lot of people out of homeownership, and it’s exacerbating a crisis that was already there, which is a lack of affordable houses.
We have this pretty dire housing shortage in a lot of the places that are already vulnerable. Both by destroying physical housing and also by encouraging private actors to restrict access to credit and insurance coverage, climate change tends to make those pressures more significant, which hurts the lower end of the middle class and, of course, low-income people, who tend to rent in a lot of these places.
There’s also a second-order thing: in less well-off places, these disasters damage access to public finance and municipal credit. For worse-off jurisdictions, there’s not enough money to recover from these disasters and to service infrastructure. As that happens, home values also fall. It’s a general loss of investment.
How can the government support people who are displaced by climate change? What solutions are most important?
You have to start by taking the gloves off at FEMA [the Federal Emergency Management Agency]. It should be funded a lot better, but it should also have the ability to spend more money on preparing for disasters. It spends a very small proportion of its annual budget on anything that isn’t directly clearing debris or offering payments to people who just got their homes destroyed. If FEMA could be a little more flexible in terms of giving communities money to build a living shoreline on the water that they would like to protect from future flooding, or to elevate homes before a disaster happens, that could drastically reduce the total amount of displacement and the financial burden.
You also have to look at the housing crisis generally. It’s hard to imagine that you could smooth out the potential displacement toll of climate change unless you do a lot more to improve housing access in the country writ large. There are a lot of ideas about how to fix the housing crisis, but on the most basic level, we have a program, Section 8, that provides low-income people with housing vouchers so that they can rent. That program is funded at a quarter of total entitlement: only a quarter of people who are eligible for it can actually use it. Fixing a basic problem like that could go a long way toward easing people’s journey through this really turbulent market.
The issue with climate change is that a lot of times, people enter this market in surprising or awkward or painful ways as part of the process of relocation. But a lot of people are in that market all the time. It’s hard to imagine a total fix without fixing those fundamental inequities in the housing market itself.
Why did you choose to focus mostly on the effects of climate change — such as housing insecurity, cultural loss, and large-scale migration — rather than root causes? Why was it important to look at the responses to catastrophe?
This has changed in the last three years, but when I started the book, there wasn’t a lot of awareness of the extent to which the climate crisis was already a present-tense phenomenon in the United States. Part of the reason is that the general level of infrastructure and housing — the general level of resources — in the United States is much larger than in other countries that had been hit really hard. The generally well-resourced nature of the United States and the existence of this gigantic middle class had made people believe it just wasn’t happening, when, in fact, it was happening. It just looked a little bit different because the infrastructure was so different.
I wanted to make this corrective argument. So many other people had already hammered home the clear relationship between fossil fuels and global warming and the clear scientific basis for saying that global warming was already changing weather patterns and ambient temperatures. I wanted to take it one step further and say, “What does that actually mean for us in the United States? Can we shake ourselves out of this idea that it will happen one day, or that maybe it’s already happening in Fiji, but not here?”
What do you think has changed in the last three years?
The 2020 wildfires in California. There was a really bad day when the sky turned red that brought it home for a lot of people. The media generally got a bit more enthusiastic about making that linkage any time there was a big disaster. The heatwave in 2021 in the Pacific Northwest was also a big change. I think hearing about this rigamarole of things that happen every summer convinced people — even people that I spoke to in parts of the country that were pretty reticent about believing that there was really anything wrong. With this drumbeat of disasters, people just said, “This doesn’t seem quite normal. Something’s up here.”