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What We're Reading: The Great Displacement



In the coming years, millions of Americans will be displaced due to climate change. Extreme weather events mixed with an underfunded federal disaster relief system, inadequate insurance coverage, and lack of housing options will push many away from the place that they call home. This great migration, or as author Jake Bittle calls it, ‘The Great Displacement,’ has already begun. 


What is the Great Displacement?


It may seem far off, but migration driven by weather events already shows up in data and the perception of movers. According to the Washington Post, more than six million Americans have experienced displacement in the past decade alone.


The scale of climate migration is set to accelerate. By the end of the century, “in the U.S. alone, at least twenty million people may move as a result of climate change, more than twice as many as moved during the entire span of the Great Migration.” This mass migration will be accompanied by resettlement efforts, and abandonment of neighborhoods and communities that don’t have the funding to rebuild. 


What are the Implications?


The impacts of climate change will be felt by all in the country, specifically those in at-risk areas. However, that does not mean these impacts will be distributed equally – they will vary across different age groups, races, income classes, and identities.


Increase in Housing Shortages


Climate disasters destroy existing homes and cause residents of at-risk areas, such as coastal regions or other low-lying, flood-prone geographies, to look for other housing. This shortage drives up the cost of existing units via enhanced demand and competition for housing, which leads to lower-income individuals and families losing out to those with the opportunity to put in a higher offer on a property. The shortage also creates an increase in homelessness, which reached a nationwide high in 2022 (421,392). For lower-income individuals, rebuilding is significantly more difficult than for those with ample financial resources, as insurance payouts are often not enough to cover the cost of building a new home from scratch.


This destruction and displacement will lessen the existing housing stock across the board. Considering the country is already experiencing a shortage of around 6.5 million housing units, climate disasters are only worsening a crisis - already in progress.  


Lack of Housing Insurance


An increased rate of flooding has already affected insurance markets as insurance companies pay to meet the claims of affected policyholders. To stay afloat, numerous insurance providers have upped the monthly payment required from policyholders in “high-risk” geographies. This increase has numerous impacts, including pricing many lower-income individuals and families out of homeowners insurance, raising the cost of home ownership for those who can afford it, and in some cases, causing insurance companies to shutter, leaving policyholders stranded and states on the hook for payouts.


Perhaps no state feels the negative effects of this insurance issue more than Louisiana. Due to an intense 2020-2021 hurricane season, more than 20 insurers have left the state, refusing to do business with homeowners in the state. Rates have risen rapidly, affecting the majority of the state’s homeowners who face an annual risk from flooding and hurricanes. To halt this activity, numerous actions are taking place. The state’s consideration of creating a $42 million fund to incentivize insurance companies to remain in the state and Greater New Orleans Inc’s Coalition for Sustainable Flood Insurance are just two examples of ongoing efforts. While these programs and committees may positively impact Louisianans, many argue that anything short of national policy to keep homes insured in these at-risk areas will be insufficient, prolonging the displacement of people in these communities.


Loss of Cultural Heritage and Identity


For many, land is more than just a place to live and socialize; geographies are key identity traits, eternally tied to the traditions, lifestyles, and continuation of specific demographic groups, ethnicities, religions, and other forms of belief. Bittle’s text highlights two different communities, each at a different phase of climate disaster and displacement, who have experienced loss in terms of cultural identity. 


Lincoln City, NC, a now abandoned community near Raleigh, was once a haven for Black residents of the post-slavery South. The city was consistently decimated by storms and floods in the 1900’s, but was always rebuilt by generations of families determined to reside along the streets they had always known. However, providers of flood insurance and FEMA came to realize the cost of continuing to provide funding for homeowners to rebuild had become unsustainable and moved to offer homeowners payouts to simply leave their houses behind. As residents movie on to different cities across the region and country they are forced to leave the memory of this once prosperous community behind.


For the Point-au-Chien Indian Tribe of Southeast, LA, an indigenous group of the Terrebonne Basin, living off the vast ecosystem of the Louisiana wetlands was a way of life for generations. Now, the consistent presence of hurricanes and flood events has dented the population year-over-year, causing the Tribe to integrate its schools with the general public, leave many of the once lucrative fishing jobs for offshore oil rigs, and travel into nearby towns and cities for amenities such as groceries and medicine. After 2021’s Hurricane Ida decimated the Basin and many of the structures found in Point-au-Chien territory, the message for residents was clear: stay if you wish, but there will be no financial support for rebuilding this community.


Shifts in Migration Patterns


Due to the above factors and numerous other impacts of climate change, migration patterns across America have already begun to change. Recent data from the Census Bureau shows that Americans are moving away from coastal cities for a myriad of reasons, including the cost of living, housing availability, remote jobs, and implications of climate change. This trendline is easy to see in the map below. Florida stands out as the key outlier of this trend, attracting a high volume of new residents despite its adjacency to the coast. In general, Americans are also moving into metropolitan statistical areas (MSA) at a higher rate than ever before, showing that climate displacement will only continue to accelerate the trend of urbanism seen around the country. 



While climate change is not the sole determinant for many of these migration trends, it is clear that displacement due to climate disasters is here and will continue to grow in the coming decades. Climate change is physically moving people away from at-risk geographies, reshaping the equation for regions that may stand to lose or gain unprecedented levels of population. The National Cities League published “What Cities Should Know About Climate Change and Populations on the Move,” a guide for cities to use in understanding climate impacts and the migration trends to come. This resource exemplifies this new reality and can service MSAs in planning for the future. 


 

Economic developers and community leaders can take on a variety of actions that help prevent climate-related displacement, welcome displaced peoples, and maintain history, culture, and belonging through climate disasters. Interested in learning more about your options? Reach out to us at [email protected] and take a look at our projects for examples of the type of work we do.

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