Book Review: Confronting the Slow Calamity of Climate Migration

By Ramin Skibba, an astrophysicist turned science writer and freelance journalist who is based in the Bay Area. He has written for WIRED, The Atlantic, Slate, Scientific American, and Nature, among other publications. This review was originally published at Undark.

Just months after the Carr and Mendocino Complex fires ripped through nearly 700,000 acres of northern California in 2018, the wind-driven Camp Fire erupted near Chico. The fire scorched through the abnormally dry vegetation, blazing and spreading rapidly, and at one time burned some 10,000 acres in just 90 minutes. It caught the residents of the cozy town of Paradise, nestled in the western Sierra Nevada forests, completely by surprise. The conflagration quickly consumed the entire town, destroying everything and killing 85 people.

Most of the rest of the 26,000 residents fled, and survivors relocated, mostly to California’s Central Valley. Around a quarter have returned to rebuild their homes and communities, despite the fire risks, but many of Paradise’s diaspora cannot or do not want to attempt doing so. Now that they’ve been uprooted, they’re moving on with their lives elsewhere.

Such a scenario is a sign of what’s to come for a growing swath of Americans in the climate-change era, Abrahm Lustgarten argues in “On the Move: The Overheating Earth and the Uprooting of America.” Building on his investigative reporting for ProPublica and The New York Times, Lustgarten makes the case that the trickle of Americans moving primarily for climate-related reasons will eventually turn into a flood, with some projections showing that within the next 50 years, tens of millions will relocate to more resilient climes, dramatically altering the future of the country.

Plenty of dangerous climate impacts are already baked into our future, even if humanity manages to limit global warming to less than 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels — and even if global carbon emissions were magically stopped today. More intense wildfires and droughts will continue plaguing much of the western United States, the South will be beset with more frequent heat waves, and most of the Gulf and East Coasts will struggle with crumbling coastlines, hurricanes, and intermittent flooding. And such effects will be worse if warming isn’t limited.

Climate projections depict “a nation about to be transformed,” Lustgarten writes, as many people face a litany of climate-related threats. “The data also presents a vision of hope, because once it is clear where the dangers lie — and which few parts of the country may remain relatively unscathed — it becomes possible to plan a route to escape.”

On a global scale, citing a seminal 2020 study, he reports that nearly unlivable territory that’s too hot or desert-like currently spans just 1 percent of the planet’s surface, but that could grow to nearly 20 percent by 2070, including land that 3.5 billion people today call home. That projection is based on models assuming a high-emissions scenario — also referred to as business as usual.

Places where people have lived for millennia will become increasingly inhospitable, and the climate impacts will be accompanied by economic ones that will be tough even for wealthy Americans to withstand. At the same time, more ideal climates for life and farming in North America will move northward to the Midwest, the Pacific Northwest, and into Canada. Regions known for harsh winters will become more temperate and verdant, and if Lustgarten and the scientists he cites are right, tens of millions of Americans, or more, will pack up and move to them. If climate migration on that scale comes to pass, it will dwarf the Dust Bowl migration of the 1930s.

Lustgarten’s book arrives at a moment when journalists, scientists, and politicians are paying increasing attention to both the climate crisis and migration patterns, and are beginning to see linkages. Researchers have begun noting small numbers of people proactively moving north, to places like Duluth, Minnesota, while writers like Jake Bittle, in his 2023 book “The Great Displacement: Climate Change and the Next American Generation,” are starting to explore the profound economic and social implications of climate migration. Lustgarten, for his part, highlights the role of the insurance industry and subsidies, both as part of the problem and the solution.

But, for a while at least, many people won’t or can’t leave, whether they’re ill or elderly or tied to their jobs. For those who are moving, many go where they can find employment, housing, and to reside close to their families — even if that means moving to flood- or fire-prone zones or to low-lying coastal areas. In particular, populations in the wildland-urban interface that is vulnerable to fires have grown in recent years, especially in the Southwest, like Nevada and Arizona, and in some southern states like Florida. (Lustgarten lives in the San Francisco Bay Area, which contends with fire risks, smoke-affected air quality, sea level rise, atmospheric rivers, and unreliable water sources, on top of earthquake risks.)

Lustgarten’s central argument is that home insurance companies and government subsidies are perversely masking risks in threatened areas, making migration overdue, as many people aren’t aware of the extent of worsening climate impacts that surround their neighborhoods. The effect of such programs is “a gross misrepresentation of the true cost to the public,” he writes, and “the result is that the number of Americans incentivized to live in environmentally unstable places is a lot closer to one in two.”

At the same time, Lustgarten points out that the recent decisions of companies like State Farm and Allstate to halt new homeowners’ insurance policies in California, and Farmers Insurance’s move to limit policy renewals in Florida, may be signs of what’s to come. Either way, the situation presents troubling dilemmas: Does disaster relief provide much-needed help or encourage rebuilding in disaster-prone spots? And can insurance companies nudge climate migration forward without leaving people behind?

One trend Lustgarten could have explored further is the rise in remote and hybrid work environments in the post-pandemic world, and how that might affect demographic patterns. On average, Americans now live more than twice as far from their employers as they did before the pandemic, according to a new study by economists at the payroll company Gusto and several academic researchers. That presents an opportunity, at least to white-collar workers, as many could live in environmentally safer, more resilient places.

“On the Move” reveals our society’s need for climate justice and equitable adaptation and for systemic changes across many industries and aspects of our lives. “Adapting to climate change demands something of America that the country isn’t necessarily good at: decisive action and forethought,” Lustgarten writes. It means shoring up areas that could be made more resilient, government-funded home buyouts and managed retreat policies in places that may have to be abandoned. Some will be tough decisions, to be sure. Yet it also means preparing the places that could grow, he argues, whether they’re regional hubs like Atlanta and Houston or Midwestern cities with a current glut of housing, like Detroit, Cleveland, and Pittsburgh. And it means investing in relocation programs and expanding infrastructure, whose construction could provide a source of jobs.

But, as Lustgarten cautions, the nation has a sordid history when it comes to relocating people, such as the Native American tribes that were violently dispossessed and forced into distant lands that are now more vulnerable to climate change. Climate migration must be handled differently — perhaps including some kind of policy of climate reparations. As one of Lustgarten’s sources puts it “the only way to get ahead of this thing is to make some serious repair for the past.”

“On the Move” focuses on the continental United States, but climate change knows no borders, of course. As Lustgarten notes, “climate migrant” and “climate refugee” aren’t yet official terms in international law, but the concepts are becoming more widely appreciated: Last month, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights held a hearing in Washington on climate migration for the first time, and the United Nations Refugee Agency acknowledged the climate’s role in displacing people.

In the end, Lustgarten urges readers to rethink our collective future and what we owe each other as our lives become more transient and vulnerable to external forces. “Sometimes the unexpected makes the impossible possible,” he writes. “And still, I live in fear. We all do. There is a sense that change is barreling toward us and we are bracing for impact.”

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22 comments

  1. Dan Tige

    A lot of mights and coulds. We’ve gotten to the point where every negative event is “proof” of climate change doom. It couldn’t possibly be that people are inhabiting marginal and vulnerable areas prone to such events as fires, floods, and severe storms, could it? No, that would require admitting our own bad decisions. Better to have a bogeyman to target our blame.

    Reply
    1. Joe Well

      The frequency of such events has been increasing for decades and is reaching a tipping point now. That is climate change.

      The vast majority of human beings understand this. The doubt being sown on this point, including in website comments by first-time commenters, is not organic.

      Reply
      1. Sebastian K

        Hi, I’m a first time commenter but didn’t come here for this specific article, instead I’m here because of an article by Matt Taibi regarding this blog, so far I like the work I’ve read here and plan on visiting more often.

        However, I would not dismiss any negative comment as simple “denialism”. This line in the review in particular stood out to me: “That projection is based on models assuming a high-emissions scenario — also referred to as business as usual.”

        So, this I take to mean the model most widely used in climate research to make these kinds of projections, RCP8.5. I would highly encourage people to look this name up and do a whole lot of reading on it, it is crucial to at least understand the role of the climate models to be able to form your own opinion on various claims and projections regarding our climate. This particular model is not representative of “business as usual”, since it’s creation in the mid 2000s it has already failed to predict real world CO2 emissions as we see them today by quite a lot. In fact it is the most extreme scenario of the lot devised for the IPCCs 4th assessment report. So maybe now you can start to see why some people take issue with projections based on a climate scenario model which was not even meant to be a baseline scenario when it was created.

        Furthermore, once you understand somewhat the role and ramifications of the scenario RCP8.5 being used in these projections, you can then head to the IPCC own website and read the latest report. In this report you will eventually get to Table 12.12, this table represents the IPCCs own researchers assessment on extreme weather attribution. Basically from the horses own mouth you will see which “extreme weather events” researchers believe have enough data to attribute (with varying degrees of certainty) to climate change and the accompanying projections to the year 2100. This is not me telling anyone what the answer is, this is the IPCC itself. Do please consider that the projections in this table are also formulated using RCP8.5.

        Let me end this post by saying that I fully support the goal of decarbonizing our industries and economies as a whole to whatever extent is feasible, I’m far from a denier, but there is a whole lot of politics and profiteering involved with the field of climate change and it isn’t pretty.

        Reply
        1. Brain User

          Here’s the voice of logic.
          But people don’t follow logic.
          And the fearmongers know and abuse that.

          As much as I support you:
          You’re fighting a lost battle.

          Reply
        2. Paul P

          Warming is occurring faster than the models predict. Kevin Anderson criticizes the IPCC models as being filled with negative emission assumptions, carbon capture, that doesn’t exist at the scale needed to prevent catastrophic warming. James Hansen, the lead author on a November 2023 paper, empirically reevaluated the equilibrium climate sensitivity, the amount of warming that occurs with a doubling of atmospheric carbon over pre-industrial time, from the 3 degree centigrade figure used in climate models for the past 40 years to be 4.8 degrees centigrade. The range of error was calculated to be 1.2 degrees C. Even the best outcomes under Hansen’s analysis = disaster at business as usual. The predictions of the number of climate migrants can vary from the reports in the direction of fewer migrants, and still be catastrophic. Yearly emissions continue to rise. BAU is happening and can’t be undone fast enough to prevent great harm.

          Reply
  2. Bsn

    Well, quite depressing actually. It all sounds so good to “move north”. Well, eventually north becomes south, then what? Imagine being 15 year old and reading this article.

    Reply
  3. dday

    People can move. But our agricultural system, particularly the soy/corn duopoly of the midwest, may not be so easy to relocate.

    Reply
    1. Paleobotanist

      We may be able to move north, but soils in the north are not suited for agriculture by and large. There’s the rub.

      Reply
  4. John Wright

    One can understand the desire to move, but where is the open frontier that can accommodate many people?

    I remember seeing an estimate that the USA has a sustainable population is 60 to 100 million as the USA is not sustainable at current consumption patterns for 300+ million.

    The animal kingdom will also attempt to migrate, putting another ingredient in the soup.

    If large scale human climate migration comes to pass, perhaps human climate migration is a game of musical chairs without enough chairs anywhere in the world, unless there is a massive change in the level of resource consumption by humans..

    Reply
    1. Jams O'Donnell

      Well, the population birth numbers in most European countries and China (and US?) are now below the equal replacement rate, so we are ok??? Not so, as the populations of most of Africa and Asia are still growing, and if they can’t live where they are, they will have to go elsewhere. Are the US and Europe still up for genocide, or are they going to accept mass immigration?

      Reply
  5. EY Oakland

    I recommend Clive Hamilton’s book Requiem for a Species – Why We Resist the Truth About Climate Change. Human beings have brains that are either too big or too small, I’m not sure which, but either way we spell trouble, all caps, for ourselves and this planet. But it’s all in motion already – best try to get a bead on what you can.

    Reply
  6. MaryLand

    My grandkids will have to deal with this and I fear for their sanity if they manage to survive. They are in elementary school now. How soon will their minds grasp that this is their future? Will they just stop studying? Will they become violent? What can they possibly do as a logical response? Preppers? Tune in, turn on, & drop out?

    Reply
    1. playon

      I have some friends who have two children (twins) that recently graduated high school. When they were around 15 years olds they began to have anxiety about climate change. It’s pretty awful that kids that age must think about such things, but here we are.

      Reply
      1. MaryLand

        There will be more kids going to therapy if their parents can afford it. And for many self-medicating will be common.

        Reply
  7. Lefty Godot

    I thought a couple weeks back we had a link to a chart showing more people are moving to southern and southwestern states that will be highly impacted by rising temperatures. So it seems most people in the US are not worried about the future climate. I have a suspicion that for most Americans the “long-term” future never goes much beyond 3 years out. Until we see much more frequent failures of the electrical grid that will probably remain the case. Electricity has become such an indipensable part of life, it’s easy to forget that we’ve only had it everywhere in the US for less than a century.

    Moving north may turn into a very bad move if the North Atlantic current circulation collapses and winters turn very severe by recent historical standards. Otherwise I’d be looking at real estate on Ellesmere Island now.

    Reply
  8. Wukchumni

    One of the many reasons we are here is that it is somewhat climate change proof, which is a tall order in California.

    Wukchumni lived here along with a bunch of other foothill dwelling tribes for thousands of years, with water always pretty much guaranteed and you’re first in line for the largess.

    Comparatively few Native Americans lived in what is now San Diego, Orange County, Los Angeles and San Francisco.

    That is where I expect a not so slow calamity of climate migration to force itself upon me.

    Reply
  9. BrooklinBridge

    Here is a piece, national-climate-assesment that covers each region of the States (clickable list several pages down) and describes what’s in store as climate change effects become more and more severe. While the central northern states seem to do somewhat better than others, they too have issues. No place is unaffected. The North East will deal with floods but that may leave a considerable amount of “high” ground safe, though travel, movement of goods, and other issues will be problems. Northern Vermont, for instance, has a lot of hills and mountains that will escape floods, but the roads and infrastructure (such as electricity) that most often run through the valleys will likely fare poorly, eventually exhausting resources for repair and renewal, making self reliance critical and life in general very difficult. Still, I would prefer Vermont, particularly upper Vermont, to the southern states.

    Reply
  10. CA

    https://www.nytimes.com/2024/03/22/books/review/abrahm-lustgarten-on-the-move.html

    March 22, 2024

    America Is on Fire, Says One Climate Writer. Should You Flee?
    In “On the Move,” Abrahm Lustgarten predicts a massive demographic shift in response to an increasingly unlivable world.
    By Jon Gertner

    ON THE MOVE: The Overheating Earth and the Uprooting of America
    By Abrahm Lustgarten
    ________________________________

    It’s happening already, of course. You can see it in the blazes in California, incinerating homes and forcing residents to escape the terror of wildfires. You can glimpse it in Arizona, where droughts have pushed farmers to give up on growing crops and sell their fields to developers.

    On the coasts, tides are rising, flooding vulnerable seaboard cities as a pervasive warmth expands ocean volumes and the great ice sheets of Antarctica and Greenland melt into the water.

    And finally, there are the heat waves: weeks of infernal temperatures that literally kill residents of Western states who venture too long outside. “The places around the world we think we can live in now,” Abrahm Lustgarten explains in “On the Move,” his fascinating new look at the population changes wrought by climate crisis, “will not be the same as the places where we will be able to live in the future.”

    In a larger context, he warns, we may now be on the cusp of “the largest demographic shift the world has ever seen.”

    Where will we go? When? And will we be welcomed? To answer these questions, Lustgarten gathers academic studies and examines models that simulate future migration scenarios; he then combines his insights with reporting.

    He has personal experience to draw on, too. A wildfire-weary Californian, he lives in fear that underwriters could render his home worthless, or that the next conflagration could destroy his town. Should he move his family? With each passing year the question is becoming more difficult to ignore. He keeps a bag packed, water and flashlights at the ready, knowing that burning season means he may have to flee at any moment.

    Climate-driven migrations will almost certainly become a widespread trend in coming decades — computer models indicate extraordinary temperature extremes for many parts of the Middle East and northern Africa. In the meantime, sea level increases and flooding will surely become a global phenomenon, too.

    Lustgarten’s focus is on the United States…

    Reply
    1. steppenwolf fetchit

      If a home in a fire ecology is built out of rock, brick, concrete, etc. with no structural wood, such that it is really and utterly fireproof, then if a fire swept by leaving it undamaged and still inhabitable; wouldn’t it still retain its use-value as a place to live in?

      And if so, wouldn’t the underwriters’ cancellation of insurance merely make that home demonetized as against truly worthless? It would be “worfless” in money terms, but it would still be valuable as a place to live inside of, would it not?

      Perhaps it is time to think about the difference between value and money.

      Reply
  11. Ted LaRosa

    I suspect Florida will be ground zero for climate migration. If a CAT 5 storm hits Miami or another large city the losses will be too large for insurance companies or even state of Florida to cover the costs to rebuild. It may be impossible to even buy home insurance in FL, the real estate market crashes, banks holding those mortgages go bankrupt, society unravels. As I scientist I don’t consider this speculation, it is inevitable, it is just a matter of time. All places in the USA are connected to each other economically, no place can escape the effects of climate disasters.

    Reply

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