How Climate is Driving a “Great Displacement” in the U.S.

Published Jan 30, 2024


Climate and Energy

Author Jake Bittle speaks about how climate change and climate-fueled disasters will force millions to move in the coming years, and how policy can address it.

Author Jake Bittle speaks about how climate change and climate-fueled disasters will force millions to move in the coming years, and how policy can address it.

When Jake Bittle began working on a book in 2020, climate migration was a distant concept for many. The phrase brought to mind sinking island nations, cities underwater decades from now, drought on other continents driving farmers and herders to wetter places. 

But Bittle could see climate migration building here at home in the United States. Climate-fueled disasters were upending lives; meanwhile, slower forces — dwindling water supplies, chaotic insurance markets, climbing housing prices — were compelling more people to move elsewhere. 

So he embarked on a project to document what he dubs “The Great Displacement.” In the next few decades, millions of people in the U.S. will move elsewhere due to climate change. Many already have.

Food & Water Watch’s executive director, Wenonah Hauter, chose The Great Displacement as her 2023 book of the year. It brings needed attention to an underreported issue and centers the personal stories of those affected. 

This month, Wenonah sat down with Jake Bittle for a conversation at our virtual Livable Future Live event. In this discussion, they talk about the process of writing the book, what Bittle learned through writing it, and what policy we need to address the Great Displacement.

What It’s Like in the Wake of a Climate-Driven Disaster

The United States is no stranger to mass migrations. One of the largest, the Great Migration, saw six million Black Americans moving South to North in the early 1900s. 

But Bittle chose the word “Displacement” to differentiate this movement from previous ones. Notably, so many people are moving because they’ve lost their homes or their entire town after a disaster. “This looks more like a mass eviction,” he said, “where everyone kind of goes everywhere more haphazardly.”

Survivors must navigate a complicated bureaucracy to receive aid. And while they cope with the individual trauma, their communities struggle with the aftershocks for years. Insurance companies raise rates or pull out of markets entirely; housing prices rise or the community experiences gutting disinvestment.

Bittle emphasized the need for federal investment and coordination to help not just after disasters, but also in response to the slower-moving effects of climate change.

For example, in Isle de Jean Charles, an island town in Southern Louisiana, it was clear that rising sea levels would soon flood the whole island. The Obama administration helped residents resettle, and it became the first case of federally funded, whole-community climate migration in the U.S. 

Bittle traveled to the region thinking he would report on Isle de Jean Charles. But on the way, he stopped for lunch in the nearby town of Pointe-au-Chien. 

He found the town in disarray. They had just learned their only school would close because of flooding risks. Families were left with a difficult choice to either stay in an area with no school for their children or leave their close-knit community behind — if they could even afford to move. 

“It was involuntary, and it was disorganized, and it wasn’t funded by anybody,” Bittle recalled. “People were just leaving because there was a massive amount of disinvestment.

“I was struck by how there were so many stories of this happening in places where I wasn’t even looking,” he continued. “It was just always so much bigger than I was prepared to understand.”

Changing How We Think About Climate Migration

While writing this book, Bittle was challenging several ideas about climate migration that had already settled in the U.S. For one, many people question — why would someone stay in a place they knew was vulnerable?

“Some were economic reasons,” Bittle says. Factors like jobs and moving costs keep many people where they are. “But also, you know, there’s just deep family and cultural and sort of spiritual ties that people have to specific areas.”

Additionally, much of the image of migration in the U.S. is international: climate refugees arriving at our borders. This has the potential to be weaponized into xenophobic rhetoric. And in reality — both in the U.S. and elsewhere — most climate migration happens within a country. 

More people are realizing how climate change will affect their future or their present. Climate factors, like climbing temperatures and risks of disaster, are informing their next moves. But the U.S. still has a lot of work to do at the policy level to help communities prepare and adapt.

Adaptation and Resilience Are Key to Our Response

Without urgent action, the Great Displacement will continue and grow. As sea levels rise, drought deepens, and housing markets become more expensive, more people will struggle to stay where they are or get pushed into the chaos of displacement.

The response, then, is twofold. First, mitigation: we need to slow down climate change by drastically cutting our emissions.

Second, resilience: helping communities adapt to climate change, prepare for disasters, and move on their own terms if necessary. Many places are starting to think about “managed retreats,” like that from Isle de Jean Charles. The idea is to move before the situation gets too dire, in ways that support communities.

As Bittle stressed, projects and agencies can address these two factors — mitigation and resilience — together, rather than siloing them.

He gave the example of agrovoltaic projects, which put solar panels on fields. This cuts climate-changing emissions and protects crops in the field from overheating. Moreover, Bittle noted that “Renewable energy is also a form of resilience against climate shocks because it’s far more reliable than fossil power under those circumstances.” 

With bold policy ideas, more investment, and organizing to secure both, we can respond to the Great Displacement in ways that protect our communities and our climate.

For instance, in the days after this talk, the Biden Administration put a pause on developing massive liquefied natural gas (LNG) export terminals across the country. As Bittle discussed at this event, these fracked gas facilities threaten to take over the Gulf Coast — the same communities that have been ravaged by oil and gas infrastructure and climate disasters alike. LNG expansion would further speed up the displacement of communities in the region, like Pointe-au-Chien.

The LNG pause came thanks to relentless pressure from Food & Water Watch and allies against LNG buildouts. Though the fight isn’t over, this is a welcome sign that the administration is changing course — made possible through intense advocacy.

Learn More About the Great Displacement by Watching the Full Discussion

Watch the video below to hear more about:

  • The policy changes needed at the Federal Emergency Management Agency to help people respond to disasters,
  • What climate gentrification is and how environmental justice is central to the Great Displacement,
  • How food policies like crop insurance can shape water use and help us adapt to water shortages and drought,
  • How disasters affect housing and insurance markets, even outside of the communities they damage,
  • “Loss and damage” or “climate reparations” — the idea that developed countries that caused climate change should help developing countries adapt to it — and how it’s related to climate migration, and
  • Examples of successful policy at the local level that’s helping communities adapt to climate change.

Resources from the Event

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