- Climate change is making parts of the United States uninhabitable, causing internal migration.
- Significant areas in the South and elsewhere are facing severe challenges to liveability due to extreme temperatures, rising sea levels, and wildfires.
- Significant internal population shifts are predicted within the U.S., with different states losing and gaining residents.
- The economic, human, and social costs associated with land becoming uninhabitable and mass migration are immense and complex.
- The failure to address these upcoming challenges could result in even greater long-term costs.
The Emerging Uninhabitable Regions
Across the United States, a grim reality is taking shape. As climate change intensifies, regions of the country are gradually becoming uninhabitable. These climatic shifts, marked by rising temperatures, sea-level rise, and increased incidence of wildfires, are creating zones where living conditions are becoming challenging, if not impossible.
Nowhere is this truer than in the South. Already notorious for its hot, humid summers, the region is witnessing an exacerbation of these conditions. Frequent, intense heatwaves pose a threat not only to human health but also to the very way of life in these areas. Outdoor activities become dangerous, even potentially lethal, during periods of extreme heat. Agricultural productivity is also affected, with yields likely to diminish in response to the heat stress. Simultaneously, demand for energy for cooling purposes is expected to skyrocket, putting enormous pressure on the energy grid.
Florida presents a distinct, but no less significant, climate challenge: sea-level rise. As the world warms due to climate change, polar ice caps are melting at an unprecedented rate. This process is causing sea levels to rise worldwide, threatening coastal regions. Large parts of Florida, with its extensive coastline and flat topography, are especially vulnerable to these changes. Scientists have noted that “There is no state in the U.S. that will be less affected by sea level rise than Florida” (ProPublica). The enormity of this statement cannot be overstated; we are looking at the potential displacement of millions of people and the loss of billions of dollars’ worth of infrastructure.
On the West Coast, especially in California, wildfires are now a nearly annual occurrence. These fires, fueled by hotter, drier conditions, are larger, more intense, and more destructive than ever before. Residents are having to grapple not only with the immediate threat of the fires but also with their aftermath: the loss of homes, livelihoods, and the very land they lived on. One former California resident put it succinctly when he said, “It just seemed like we turned down the dial on worry” (e360 Yale), underlining the constant state of stress that comes with living in such volatile conditions.
Estimating the Magnitude of Climate-Driven Migration
Predicting the exact number of people likely to be displaced due to climate change within the U.S. is an enormously complex task. A multitude of factors come into play, from the rate of global warming to the efforts we make to curb emissions and adapt to the changing conditions. However, even conservative estimates suggest that the scale of displacement will be significant.
One study suggests that if sea levels rise by six feet by the end of the century, which is within the range of current predictions, over 13 million Americans could be displaced. This figure is sobering, but when one takes into account other effects of climate change – heatwaves in the south, wildfires in the west – the potential for displacement becomes even higher.
Climate change acts as a “threat multiplier,” increasing vulnerabilities that already exist and pushing people to relocate. It is forcing individuals and families to rethink their future and, in many cases, uproot their lives in search of safer, more stable conditions. As one resident from California, who relocated to Vermont, shared, “We left in 2020 after getting tired of being evacuated in the middle of the night” (e360 Yale). Stories like this underscore the reality of climate migration. It’s not a distant prospect but a current, urgent issue.
The Shifting Landscape of Residency
As people start to move, the demographic landscapes of states across the U.S. will change significantly. Some regions will lose residents, while others will gain. The exact patterns will be dictated by various factors, including the severity of climate impacts and the perceived attractiveness of potential destinations.
States vulnerable to sea-level rise, such as Florida, or those hit hard by heatwaves, like parts of Texas and Arizona, are likely to see an outflow of residents. These individuals, often labeled “climate refugees,” will be seeking safer, more stable conditions elsewhere.
On the other hand, states that are currently perceived as safe from the most severe impacts of climate change are already beginning to see an influx of new residents. Vermont, for instance, has seen a steady stream of arrivals in recent years. As Professor Cheryl Morse from the University of Vermont noted, at least a third of recent arrivals cited climate as a key factor in their relocation decisions (e360 Yale). If current trends continue, states like Vermont could see their populations grow significantly in the coming years.
The Enormous Cost of Inaction
The costs associated with land becoming uninhabitable and the subsequent mass migration are hard to fathom. They are economic, human, and social and will have far-reaching impacts on both the individuals affected and society as a whole.
On the economic front, the costs are potentially astronomical. Consider, for instance, the value of the land and property that could be lost to sea-level rise or wildfires. Then there’s the cost of the necessary adaptations – new infrastructure, increased demand for cooling, relocation support for displaced individuals and families. A report by the National Bureau of Economic Research suggests that if we continue on our current trajectory, climate change could cost the U.S. economy up to 10.5% of its GDP by 2100.
The human costs are no less significant. They include loss of life from extreme weather events, displacement, and the mental health toll associated with such traumatic experiences. And then there are the social costs – increased pressure on public services, potential for increased social tensions, and loss of community and cultural identity. As Kasia Butterworth, a realtor in Vermont, pointed out, the incoming influx of new residents is already causing tension. “We have so many open jobs…But we don’t have the housing stock. So we’re not ready” (e360 Yale), she says, summing up the challenges many receiving communities face.
Longterm Trends and the Price of Neglect
Looking forward, it is clear that as the planet continues to warm, these challenges will only become more severe. More regions will become uninhabitable, and the need for internal migration will grow. This is not some far-off future but a rapidly approaching reality.
The cost of inaction in the face of these challenges is potentially catastrophic. The human, social, and economic costs discussed earlier will only multiply if we fail to act in time. And so, it is incumbent upon us to take action – not only to mitigate the impacts of climate change but also to prepare for the inevitable.
In the end, the cost of inaction is a price we cannot afford to pay. It’s time to act – for our future, for our children’s future, and for the future of our planet.
- WHYY [https://whyy.org/articles/un-ipcc-climate-change-report-uninhabitable-planet-code-red/]
- Financial Times [https://www.ft.com/content/072b5c87-7330-459b-a947-be6767a1099d]
- Washington Post [https://www.washingtonpost.com/climate-environment/2022/10/11/extreme-heat-heatwave-deaths/]
- ProPublica [https://www.propublica.org/article/climate-change-will-force-a-new-american-migration]
- e360 Yale [https://e360.yale.edu/features/as-climate-fears-mount-some-in-u.s.-are-deciding-to-relocate]