Is anywhere safe from the climate emergency?
She left CNN a voicemail about the conundrum. (She did that as part of an ongoing series of mine that’s called “Let’s talk about the climate apocalypse.”)
“The big question I have is: If not here, where?” she said.
Feeling a little bit like a climate journalist (which I am) and a little bit like an annoying HGTV host (which I am not — yet?), I went on a quest to try to answer that question for Tracy.
I had a hunch that she wasn’t alone in asking this question. The last several years have shown the degree to which human carbon emissions already are shaping reality: more-frequent wildfires raging in California, rapidly intensifying hurricanes pounding the Gulf of Mexico, sea levels rising on the Atlantic and droughts become more severe in the West. I’m sure there are plenty Americans asking themselves if home will ever feel safe.
I’ve done pretty extensive reporting on climate-induced migration — including from Honduras, Puerto Rico or the Marshall Islands, where people tend to be thinking less about where they will move to and more about the climate disasters that are pushing them out.
But I have to admit: I haven’t thought much about where people should go.
Or about who’s able to move and why.
Tracy knows she is privileged to be able to plan this move and to have the resources to make it comfortably — to choose while others are forcibly displaced. Her house is still standing and in good shape. The fires came to a nearby ridge, but not to her pond or land.
Rather than pretending the fire risks will recede, or waiting for a fire to come and force her out, she is facing harsh realities and trying to make what I would consider a wise decision — one that, for her, focuses on her granddaughter’s future.
When this happens at the community level, climate adaptation specialists call it “managed retreat.” Without government programs to help people relocate out of harm’s way (there are very few, and they’re not scaled appropriately), climate migration will only widen gaping inequalities in this country. Some can choose to move. Others will be left to fend for themselves. It’s the scattered, diffuse successor to the Dust Bowl in the 1930s, the Great Migration of Black Americans from the South in the 1900s and of White flight to the suburbs in the 1970s.
And it usually happens with little discussion.
In taking up Tracy’s question, I had my own.
Were there other people like her? And if so, where were they moving?
One of my first calls was to Jesse Keenan of Tulane University, who studies the movement of people and the ways we’re adapting to climate risks.
In recent years, Keenan and other researchers, including A.R. Siders and Mathew Hauer, have been raising awareness about how the climate crisis will force people to move.
The scale is far greater than most people realize.
“This is on the scale of the great Dust Bowl and the migration that came along with that,” Keenan told me. “There are too many unknowns” to fully quantify the scope of climate-induced migration, he said, “but we do recognize that this is in the order of millions of people.”