Nowhere—not even “climate-proof Duluth” or Buffalo—is safe from the ravages of climate change. Even seasonal-affective-disorder-inducing cloud cover can’t protect Portland from a now-annual wildfire season and the occasional devastating heat dome. But will the ravages of climate change eventually push Portlanders to safer locations?
After spending significant time in post-disaster communities across the United States—from California to Louisiana to Virginia—Jake Bittle, climate journalist and author of The Great Displacement: Climate Change and the Next American Migration, concludes that where we choose to live in the midst of ecological collapse is a question of belonging and economics. It’s a “fallacy,” Bittle says, to think that people move from climate change-affected areas once the perceived risk is too high. Rather, they stay until it’s too economically difficult to do so—or until they don’t have a house, period. To Bittle, that difference means the US won’t experience climate migration (people moving to safer places), but climate displacement: being pushed from place to place without a specific refuge in their sights.
In this interview, Bittle explains the rationale behind his multi-sited reporting, predicts the effects of events like heat dome on the PNW, and proposes policy changes that could mitigate the ravenous effects of climate displacement.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
It's interesting that this book contains so many places, sort of this mosaic of different geographies. What compelled you to go that route versus staying in Louisiana or any other place discussed in the book?
The first time that I reported on this topic, I was reporting in Houston on the FEMA buyout program that I talked about in the beginning of my chapter on Houston. I had written an article about that for The Baffler. I had a bunch of free time during [the start of] COVID, and I was looking into how this program had worked in other places, and it immediately became clear that it just looked really different depending on the place that it was happening in.
So in Houston, it was a pretty effective program in a lot of ways, because the people who lived in the developments were really new and didn't mind leaving. (Mostly.) But in North Carolina, in this [Black] community that I write about, there was much more history there, and people saw the buyout and how the community was dissolved as a racist act of elimination. And that had a lot to do with the specific histories of the place, but also to do with the natural environment.
And there were so many other big disasters going on that were causing people to move; I felt like it wouldn't work to talk about climate change unless I talked about the different ways that climate disasters worked. It turns out that they work really differently in different places. It'd be impossible to cover unless I played the field a little bit.
Part of why the book does its job well is that it shows these ecological symptoms; you demonstrate how sudden flooding in a place like Houston differs from a place like Norfolk, VA, which is facing a gradual 15-foot rise in sea levels. How did you choose these places, then? Did it require an understanding of what symptoms afflicted those different geographies?
I wanted to talk about disasters using a longer lens than typically is done in news coverage of a hurricane or a wildfire. My idea was, “Okay, let's take these things and show what happens to people as they move over longer periods of time.” The story doesn't really end when the disaster ends, so that was what I was trying to do. I really focused on time, and then I looked for representative examples. Covering the Colorado River drought was the exception to that, but that's because it’s been in the offing for like 100 years, so it doesn’t quite fit that mold.
Getting to the PNW: There are several points where you bring up the absolute madness of the 2021 “heat dome,” in which a billion sea creatures died and hundreds of people died. Did you do any sort of preliminary research trying to see if that was a site of climate displacement?
It happened too late in the process of writing for me to shift and do a chapter, but I did think about it. I mean, there were whole towns in British Columbia that were destroyed—giant, giant devastation from the wildfires that were caused by the heat.
I also had wanted to do something about the cherry farmers, I think around Yakima, Washington, who were forced to work under incredibly bad conditions. That was actually a piece of things going on in Oregon and the Central Valley, where heat was becoming a huge issue for agricultural workers. I didn’t have time to do it, because the heat dome happened in June or July 2021, and the book was due in November.
But I don't think something like the heat dome will cause large numbers of people to move from places like Portland and Seattle because it is rare. But it is an example of how a lot of the labor systems and infrastructure that we have are just not up to the task of dealing with this. And the cost of adapting is so massive.
It seemed very important to me that the heat dome happened in the Pacific Northwest. When I started working on the book, the frame of mind that I had was that there are certain places where certain things are going to happen, the most vulnerable places, and those are the places people are going to move from, and they're going to move to the places where those things don't happen. By the end [of writing the book], there were so many things, like that heat wave, that so clearly contradicted that frame. Things are gonna happen everywhere, there’s instability everywhere, and there are certain places where it's even more so—but nowhere is “safe.”
I'm wondering to what extent the throughlines you describe across your book are distinctly American versus something applicable to other regions.
The book is very concentrically focused on the US because I was trying to write about federal policies and certain markets that were causing [displacement due to climate disasters]. But when you look at migration as an issue, it really is not just a US issue; the big kind of elephant in the room is immigration to the United States from Mexico and the Northern Triangle, which is extremely driven by climate change. It's a huge reason for why there's been a lot of migration, and has been for a long time. It's difficult to talk about in the context of something like FEMA, because it's treated as a totally separate political issue in this country.
When you talk about climate migration in the United States, you really can't talk about it without talking about migration to the United States.
That dovetails with the caveat you have at the end of the book: Climate displacement isn’t that visible right now. In Phoenix, you mentioned, for every person leaving for climate-related reasons, way more people are arriving for economic reasons. It seems like there's that same sort of obfuscation at the US-Mexico border of climate versus economic migration, which obviously aren’t mutually exclusive, but still.
The asylum system in this country doesn't allow somebody to say, “I'm moving because of climate change.” We have a hard enough time with progressive immigration policy in this country when you're talking about people who have been displaced by wars, let alone by something that half the elected officials don't even believe is a real issue. So it's just not even in the picture.
At what point over the course of your research did you start to form the core thesis of your book: that we’re witnessing climate displacement, not climate migration, in the US? It might be worth explaining how you differentiate those two.
When people talk about migration, they generally mean a voluntary decision to move from one place to another because of something that's in the place that they're moving to. So the Great Migration in the United States is the primary example.
Before I wrote about climate change I wrote about housing and homelessness, and this concept of displacement is a universal word in that context. It means somebody's gentrified out of their neighborhood or they're evicted. They're displaced. They're not moving, they’re not migrating, they're being pushed around. I sought to apply that concept really early on, and it was in the preliminary pitch for the book; I wanted to reframe this nascent idea of climate migration, which was an international phenomenon—talking about people from Southeast Asia and Oceania moving to other places because their islands are sinking—and present another kind of migration that's already happening.
You bring up a series of legal loopholes that exacerbate [disaster recovery] for families and for entire communities, like the fact that folks selling real estate [in some states] don't need to disclose where there have been floods. Are there particular policy changes, even minor ones, that you feel could be materially helpful?
There's a ton to do. You could tighten up real estate practices way more. I don't think I mentioned it in the book, but the Department of Housing and Urban Development in the United States has the authority, in theory, to spend billions and billions of dollars to help people recover after disasters. They can sort of be the long-term assistant after FEMA leaves, but the statute that allows them to do this is not permanent. So every time a disaster happens, Congress has to pass a law saying it authorized the Department of Housing and Urban Development to spend billions of dollars for recovery on a specific disaster. That can often take a year; it's extremely political.
In Louisiana, after two hurricanes in 2020, it took more than a year for Congress to authorize HUD to spend money. All Congress has to do is pass a law saying HUD has permanent authorization, but nobody will do it. It’s tanked the hopes of many communities from recovering from storms. It’s too late. People have already left, and they’re not coming back.
So you can't hit Ctrl+Z and send communities back to what they were before disasters: Catastrophes disintegrated the culture of a lot of the places you visited. Are there similarities in the kinds of cultures that do form in those places post-catastrophe?
That's a really, really good question. I think in 10 to 15 years, or 20 years, you're gonna be able to report on the places that grew after disasters, the places that absorbed people and what happened there.
I mean—and this is like a pretty, unfortunately, apolitical statement—I will say that, in these communities after these disasters, the social barriers that normally characterize a community, even a small town, completely break down. Every place I went, people were generous and benevolent in ways that I really didn't think were actually true. Especially in the Keys after Hurricanes Fred and Floyd, and after floods in Louisiana, people were just really there for each other. And people do make up for a lot of the money that the government won't allocate—people just do things themselves.
And then years pass, and things go back to normal. And the barriers go up again.
Author Jake Bittle will be joined in conversation by Monica Samayoa, climate and environmental journalist at OPB at Powell's City of Books, this Friday February 24 at 7 pm, free.