Laura Hinerfeld and her husband, Dale Geist, never thought they’d leave California. But after the Complex fires of 2017 killed 24 people, ravaged 7,000 structures and crept too close to their house in Sonoma, they talked about it for the first time.
Then came the amalgamation of other disasters, signaling to Hinerfeld and Geist that it’s time to go. The 100-degree heat. The rolling blackouts. The weeks of horrible air quality. The pandemic. How do you re-create the camaraderie of a ceramics workshop on Zoom or the gargantuan meals they like to feast on at El Molino Central, their beloved tortilleria? It’s decided: You don’t.
New England is the obvious choice for a second start. Life there may not be as enchanting as in California, but they’d rather have to gear up for rising sea levels than wildfires. Plus, this is where both Hinerfeld and Geist spent their early years.
They settle on Portland, Maine, where they have plenty of college friends and some relatives. Bidding farewell to a tight-knit community isn’t easy, but leaving the dangers surrounding their home and their health is.
Hinerfeld and Geist are among millions of Americans bearing the brunt of climate change. In the West, punishing droughts make the fire season longer, and heat waves are turning the Pacific coastline into a cauldron. The Midwest and Northeast are seeing record precipitation and flooding. Outbreaks of tornadoes, which might be related to climate change, have left a trail of destruction in the Southeast. It’s an apocalyptic bingo card.
According to a recent YouGov poll, 55% of Americans have had to contend with more extreme weather events in their region. As a result, 1 in 6 of those Americans are now considering moving elsewhere. Almost half of those surveyed by the real estate broker Redfin last year said natural disasters had played a role in their decision to move in 2022.
And that’s only counting those who participate in surveys and have the luxury of relocating by choice. On a global scale, sea-level rise, storm surges, diminished crop productivity and water shortages could internally displace more than 140 million people in sub-Saharan Africa, South Asia and Latin America by mid-century if greenhouse gas emissions are not rapidly curbed, according to the World Bank.
Dizzying headlines like “How Russia Wins the Climate Crisis” and “Can Michigan Become a Climate Haven?” abound, raising questions and problems that scientists can’t seem to keep up with. Increasingly, people around the world — and in the U.S. — are facing a new reckoning over how long we can keep calling the places we inhabit “home.”
This could usher in an unprecedented exodus that would reshape the country in profound ways. “We haven’t really seen that in the North American context since the 1930s — the Dust Bowl years,” says Robert McLeman, a professor of geography and environmental studies at Wilfrid Laurier University in Ontario who has studied climate migration for close to three decades.
Aside from the pressures put on citizens, the prospect of climate migration raises a number of daunting challenges for policymakers and urban planners. Who will leave, and where will they go? How will municipalities deal with the loss and influx of residents? And what happens to those left behind?
Climate variations — the result of fluctuations in the myriad ways the air and oceans interact — has been an environmental constant for thousands of years. And migration has been its anthropological counterpart.
In ancient China, drought in the north and the appeal of a wetter and warmer climate in the south led to nomadic migration over a period of 2,000 years. Pastoralists in the West African Sahel have for generations shepherded cattle on an annual pilgrimage south to make up for a dearth in precipitation.
It’s now long been established that climate change messes with these natural variations — it “superimposes an anthropogenic change on top of a naturally changing phenomenon,” Ian Burton, a geographer, wrote in “The Environment as Hazard” in 1978, so much so that “it is currently impracticable to separate them.”
But climate change today is an even greater contributor to extreme events than during Burton’s time, Chris Field, a climate scientist at Stanford’s Woods Institute for the Environment, tells me. “We are now seeing the effects of climate change make extremes of hot temperatures and heavy precipitation much more common, and we are sometimes seeing extremes that are totally outside the range of historical variation.”
More severe and unpredictable extreme weather events could create larger patterns of chosen or forced migration in the future. Just how large isn’t clear.
Two decades ago, Norman Myers, a prominent British environmentalist, made a bold prediction. When climate change kicked into full gear, he said, we’d see as many as 200 million people globally driven out of their homes by droughts, diminishing crop yields and water shortages. There were, at the time, a little over 10 million global refugees — according to the United Nations — and Myers was suggesting this number could increase twentyfold. (The calculation, he later acknowledged, had required some “heroic extrapolations.”)
When he published his estimate, the impact of climate change on migration was a topic few social scientists studied. “It was a very niche area back in the early 2000s,” says Oli Brown, an associate fellow with the environment and society program at Chatham House, a British think tank. Myers made the subject a headline-grabbing one. Since then, social scientists have come to see migration as one possible outcome that is born of a multitude of factors.
They draw a distinction between slow-onset changes (which include drought, sea-level rise and increasing temperatures) and sudden-onset events (like hurricanes, heat waves, tornadoes, floods, wildfires and extreme precipitation). Some of these catastrophes, like drought in the West, are less likely to damage properties than say, Hurricane Harvey’s 60-inch rains near Houston in 2017.
Property damage from a storm surge might not be enough to cause someone to move, but research shows that it can, if coupled with a government buyout program that directly pays individuals lump sums for agreeing to move. Factors like the proximity of friends and family one can rely on and having school-age children tend to make people want to stick around, experts say. Migration also is informed by one’s perception of risk, which varies depending on the person. Additionally, an individual’s access to housing and jobs — which is already impacted by their economic and social situation — plays a large part.
To determine what role extreme weather events play in people’s decision to relocate, academics are looking at what risk levels people can tolerate, says Alex de Sherbinin, a senior research scientist at Columbia Climate School. “At what point do people decide that it really is worth pulling the plug on wherever they are and moving?” he tells me. “This is all very context-specific.”
Looking at past climate events — like the Dust Bowl — is helpful in understanding how tangled the picture can get. In the 1930s, hundreds of thousands of people left their homes when thick clouds of dust rolled over the southern Plains. The dust, combined with and exacerbated by drought, killed crops. But poor land stewardship, the Great Depression and ill-conceived public policies made a bad situation worse.
Decades of plowing the prairies where farmers grew their crops led to poor soil structure, creating fields so fragile that they turned into those dust clouds when drought and wind arrived. Then, when wheat prices sank, farmers hoping to plant new crops and break-even doubled down on their efforts, putting twice the workload on those already-overworked fields, feeding the dust storms.
The cherry on top was President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s farm policies, which provided incentives to leave land uncultivated to stabilize market prices. Landowners were eligible to receive this aid, but not tenants — which made the latter more likely to be evicted and leave for California. More than half a million people left the Plains, mostly for California.
Whether the future brings large-scale migration, Mc- Leman says, hinges in part on similarly complex circumstances.
When the lithographic printers Joseph Britton and Jacques Rey were commissioned in the early 1870s to depict the Buena Vista winery’s vaults in Sonoma, the work they produced showed vineyards crisscrossed by dirt roads, vignerons steering horse-drawn carts piled with wine barrels and a smattering of white adobe houses huddled near a plaza. Fewer than 20,000 people lived in Sonoma County then. This may explain why when three fires broke out in 1870, only a few remote ranches and their fences were damaged, and the only casualties were sheep.
By the time Hinerfeld moved to California in the late 1990s, warmer days and fire suppression tactics had started turning forests into dry fuel gobbled up by larger and larger wildfires. Visiting the Culinary Institute of America’s campus branch in St. Helena, where she had enrolled as a student, she was awed by the school’s hand-cut stone walls. She also was struck by how “unbelievably hot and dry” the whole valley seemed.
But fire wasn’t the top concern among residents of a region sitting on seismic faults. “What you thought about were earthquakes,” says Hinerfeld, whose long gray hair and big brown eyes give her the air of a benevolent Pixar character.
Fires were relegated to the background of her new life. In 2005, she met Geist, a web developer who wore Panama hats and dabbled in country music, after she failed to nab tickets to an Elvis Costello concert he was selling on Craigslist. “Someone else got the ticket but I got the date with him,” she jokes. They moved in together that same year. There were more changes in Hinerfeld’s life — she quit her job as a pastry chef to become a nurse at Sutter Regional Hospital in Santa Rosa.
In 2014, the couple forked over $570,000 to acquire a 2,900-square-foot duplex, located 10 minutes from Sonoma’s city center. Driving by, you wouldn’t see much of the property — only a wall of privet sprinkled with purple flowers. But behind the house, the backyard opened to a vineyard. Wide stone stairs wandered into a garden studded with apricot, plum, lemon and kumquat trees. It looked like a version of Eden.
In 2007 and 2010, the family welcomed two sons: Amos and Guthrie — who’s named after the renowned folk star, Woody Guthrie. (In an ironic twist, Guthrie left Oklahoma for California because of the Dust Bowl). On weekends, the family toured the region in an old Volkswagen Vanagon. They were enjoying a love story with the Golden State.
So were millions of other transplants. Between 1990 and 2010, the state’s population grew by 25%, reaching 37 million people. During that same period, half of all new housing was built in what the U.S. Fire Administration and FEMA call the wildland-urban interface, or WUI, where homes abut the kind of vegetation that flames relish. Tragically, only recently have we started to realize that these are the areas now most likely to burn, says Karen Chapple, a professor emerita of city and regional planning at the University of California, Berkeley.
“The awareness that the land that they are building on was in the WUI has only just come about in the last few years, as the rate of fire has increased dramatically,” she says. Today, 11.2 million people — more than a quarter of the state’s population — live in the WUI.
Moving into hazardous areas, consciously or not, isn’t a uniquely Californian phenomenon. Coastal counties have seen their population almost triple since 1960, which means that 128 million people in the Gulf of Mexico, the Pacific Northwest, the Eastern seaboard and the West Coast are being exposed to hurricanes, floods, sea-level rise and soil erosion.
In the West, regions prone to earthquakes and wildfires consistently rank among the fastest growing in the country. Utah, the fastest-growing state over the last decade, will likely see more frequent droughts and water shortages in the upcoming decades, according to the Utah Rivers Council. Phoenix saw its population increase 11.2% between 2010 and 2020. Meanwhile, the severity of drought in the area is predicted to increase up to 629% by 2070.
The net result of denser metros, urban expansion and decreasing climate security in these areas is that in 2021, more than 2 in 5 Americans lived in a county hit by one or multiple extreme weather events, according to a Washington Post analysis of federal disaster declarations.
Blazes are now even tearing through neighborhoods once deemed safe. The December 2021 Marshall Fire near Boulder destroyed more than 1,000 homes and was described as the most destructive fire in Colorado’s history.
The home the Hinerfeld family bought in 2014 sat starkly in the WUI Chapple describes. Property records show it was built in 1991 in a zone Cal Fire deemed a high fire hazard severity zone in 2007. Highlighted in orange on maps, it spills over onto a large swath of the redwood-covered hills behind the house.
It took the family a few years to realize just how close to danger they’d elected to live, and how the fires — without even burning a single possession — seared their lives into a misery they were determined to escape. At the end of 2020 — while Hinerfeld was visiting real estate prospects in Portland for her family to move to — the Glass Fire was burning one acre every five seconds, filling the verdant Sonoma Valley with smoke and fire. Amos and Guthrie didn’t leave the house except to pick up the mail in quick dashes.
They bought a Cape Cod-style house on a tree-lined street for $422,000. Hinerfeld was well aware of how comfortable their situation was. They could buy a home without having to sell theirs first, and when they did sell it, it was for a little over a million dollars. With this cushy surplus, Hinerfeld’s family didn’t have to worry too much about her quitting her job, or about a costly cross-country move. “I don’t feel like we suffered,” she says.
The general public faces a daunting challenge: Figuring out whether they live in a safe location, and, if not, what exactly their risks are, or where they should go. It doesn’t help that climate projections — which often aren’t accessible to the public — use different sets of data to measure exactly what risks communities are exposed to, says Matt Hauer, an assistant professor of sociology at Florida State University and one of the leading experts on climate migration.
To help people make informed decisions, some private institutions are developing their own tools. For instance, the Yale Center for Environmental Communication founded Yale Climate Connections, a news site that publishes overviews of how climate change is expected to affect each U.S. region, interactive tools that enable visitors to look up how many hot days their city or a city near them could experience during future summers, and a map that shows what their city’s climate is likely to feel like in 60 years.
“Ask Sara,” an advice column published on the website, is flooded with notes like:
“I live in Tucson, Arizona. I’m not sure how many more years we will be able to continue to live here semi-comfortably … With the upward trend being what it is, by 2030 (or sooner?) I don’t know if it will be feasible to continue to live here. Is there a map or other reference we can use to identify other places in the U.S., Mexico, or Canada to move to that will be relatively sheltered from extreme heat or flooding? — C. in Tucson”
“I’ve lived in the Southeast most of my life and currently live in Nashville, Tennessee. Between the weather changing and getting older with reduced tolerance to heat, my wife and I are looking for a summertime retirement spot in Canada. … What are your thoughts? — G. in Nashville”
Real estate companies are also building their own tools to answer these questions. ClimateCheck.com, a website funded by Inman News, a real estate publication, allows users to type in their address into a search engine and be offered a “friendly perspective” of the potential effects climate change will bring to their front door, or their prospective one.
“Experiences in different metros are going to change. This is affecting long-term decision-making like buying a home. People who are affluent enough to make these choices are thinking about climate change and how it will change their daily experiences — can they grow a garden? — as well threats to property and life,” Skylar Olsen, ClimateCheck.com’s former principal economist, said at a recent industry conference.
But for Americans without savings, relocating under threat of flames or flood doesn’t begin with a visit to ClimateCheck.com. It starts with a maddened rush to grab family albums and important documents before sprinting out of a home that soon won’t be standing. It takes you to a cramped shelter or your car or a relative’s couch. It has you scrambling to apply for federal disaster assistance or waiting for your insurance payout — if your insurance company doesn’t drop your policy, that is. If you rent your home, perhaps you don’t have insurance at all.
The burning of Paradise, California, has become a case study of the lingering effects a disaster can have on those who live near or below the poverty line. Prior to its obliteration by fires in 2018, the town had been known as an affordable place to live. In 2010, the median home price for homes with a mortgage was $227,500, compared to $456,000 in the rest of the state. It hosted 37 mobile park homes, where 17% of households lived. When the 27,000 displaced residents fanned out across Butte County after the Camp Fire of 2018, not all faced the same challenges.
Chico, California, about 15 miles west of Paradise, took on a swell of incoming residents. In the days after the fire, Mark Orme, the city manager, saw tens of thousands of people stream down the hills to find refuge in his city, which at the time had a little over 90,000 people. Officials had to rush to issue temporary permits allowing people to rent out RVs and campers in their backyard. The homeless population grew. Sewers started choking. “We didn’t have the revenue to cover the cost and expense of those added bodies,” Orme tells me.
Jacquelyne Chase and Peter Hansen, two geographers at California State University, Chico, have closely followed the episode of displacement from Paradise to Chico. Parsing data from the United States Postal Service and surveys conducted by a local charity, among other sources, they found that a year after the fire, renters were overrepresented among those receiving public assistance and relying on charity for basic needs. That’s because compared to homeowners, “renters typically wouldn’t have enough insurance to kind of carry them through the months,” Chase tells me.
In the West, displaced renters also face a housing shortage. By burning entire subdivisions out of the housing supply, fires send rents soaring even higher. In Kentucky, the state’s deadliest tornadoes on record left about 2,000 low-income residents in Mayfield without a home. “I don’t even have a car to move. I have no money,” one 73-year-old resident of a leveled subsidized apartment complex told the Courier Journal. People who lost their home in the Marshall Fire in Colorado found themselves scrambling to find backup plans in a tight housing market.
How crises make bad situations worse for low-income individuals is even more apparent when considering affordable housing. There are currently 140,000 subsidized units in the WUI in California, and their residents tend to have incomes 50% lower than single-family homeowners, which puts them at increased risk of displacement if fire strikes. In New Jersey, New York and Massachusetts, 4,744 affordable housing units are currently at risk of flooding, according to a recent study by Climate Central, a nonprofit news organization.
Even for middle-class families, having no choice but to move can mean years dealing with mounting debts. For the Cadigan family, it started with the burning of a Hilton hotel during the Tubbs Fire.
In October 2017, Ehrin Cadigan, 46, set out to make the 30-minute drive from his Sonoma home to Hilton Sonoma Wine Country in Santa Rosa, a 250 room-hotel where he’d been an assistant manager for close to two years. Things were looking good — he could see himself becoming the general manager one day.
But before he could get to his car, Ehrin got a call from his boss. He should check the news, his boss said. He and his wife Brigitte watched on TV as the Hilton crumbled to the ground in the Tubbs Fire’s flames.
Fires were advancing on Sonoma and the couple and their four young children had to evacuate. Their house didn’t burn, and they considered themselves lucky compared to those sleeping in their cars in the parking lot of Target and Walmart. But without Ehrin’s salary, their financial situation was deteriorating by the day. Hilton offered him a temporary position elsewhere, but it was a two-hour drive from Sonoma, and the long commute was taking a toll on the family.
He started looking for a different job, but it was a crowded market and he soon had to expand his search beyond California. Six months later, Ehrin was finally offered a position as director of food and beverage at a private golf course. There was only one catch: The job was in Connecticut, a state the family knew nothing about. “But we were really in dire straits,” Brigitte, 46, says, adding that they’d had to accept help from their local church to pay bills. Ehrin said yes to the job.
The family had been renters in Sonoma and didn’t have savings when they needed it the most. In the span of two years, they lived in four different rentals and slowly started getting out of debt. Along with their financial difficulties, the family mourned their past life — the picnics on the front lawn, the strolls by the Sonoma Plaza. Brigitte wouldn’t let go of cardboard boxes marked, in black Sharpie ink, “California.” The grief she was experiencing was similar to what she’d felt when her father died, she says.
But in December, the Cadigans closed on a house. “That tells you that we’re here for good,” Brigitte says. “There’s no going back to California at this point.”
The growing realization that life as we know it will change in some parts of the country has started us on a quest to find a new paradise — a place where rain is abundant but not too plentiful, the sun shines but doesn’t blaze and we can have a home without any fear of Mother Nature taking it away. A place shielded from disasters, blessed with robust infrastructure, affordable housing, good-paying jobs and — if we’re really lucky — maybe a good view.
The leaders of cities stuck in postindustrial limbo have jumped on the opportunity to promote their communities as these elusive safe-havens. The mayor of Buffalo, New York, dubbed his city a “climate refuge city.” Duluth, Minnesota, is advertising itself as “Climate-proof Duluth.”
Urban planners and demographers say that large cities with the resources to protect themselves against the more severe effects of climate change, like New York or Portland, Oregon, are the ones most likely to become climate destinations. At a climate conference in Portland, Oregon, José-Miguel Guzmán, a former demographer at the United Nations Population Fund, was struck to find that engineers from Portland General Electric, the local utility company, had started gearing up for a tripling of the population.
While some metros are branding to appeal to those looking for their utopia, other municipalities are planning their escape — sometimes en masse. The Government Accountability Office has records of two municipalities that have successfully relocated. Newtok, an Indigenous community in southwestern Alaska, was relocated to Mertarvik — a new village just 25 minutes away and across the river that was flooding the village. Isle de Jean Charles, a Louisiana island disappearing into the Gulf of Mexico, has been relocated to The New Isle, 40 miles north of the flooding former village.
Entire municipalities having the ability to organize and effectively relocate is incredibly rare, however. Alfredo Gomez, director of the Government Accountability Office’s Department of Natural Resources and Environment, sees two main reasons why municipal relocation isn’t a popular choice. The first one is that a number of municipalities are choosing to hunker down , assume the costs that come with greater exposure or rebuild, such as New York, which is erecting a $1.45 billion system of seawalls and floodgates, and Miami, which is planning to pump its way out of floods with mega stormwater pumps, The second reason is that communities that want to relocate have no one entity to turn to for help. No federal agency is entrusted by Congress with the authority to lead these efforts.
In its latest report on climate migration, the GAO recommended that the government launch a pilot program in an at-risk community, pooling resources under the aegis of an agency that could help plan relocations. But missing from the conversation, says Kelly Leilani Main, the executive director of Buy-In (a nonprofit that helps local governments implement home buy-outs), is the acknowledgement that people don’t move in a vacuum.
“It’s going to be very difficult for people to relocate to safer parts of the country without jobs and housing that come along with that.” Unless the government gets actively involved with initiatives such as the GAO’s recommended pilot program, she says, private actors will be the ones steering the wheel, with profits in mind.
Already, insurance companies are jacking up rates in areas hit by ecological disasters or dropping policyholders altogether. Credit rating agencies like Moody’s have said they would downgrade cities and states that don’t adapt to the effects of climate change. Main says corporations and private investors will move to shift their resources to safer places, taking jobs and investments in real estate away with them.
“To simplify it dramatically, there are two op- posing options for migration scenarios” Main says. It’s “managed retreat,” supported by the public sector, or an “unmanaged retreat,” which is a market-driven response.
In the first scenario, public investments and policies guide resilience efforts and help communities relocate as needed. In the second scenario, rocketing insurance rates and devalued housing stocks empty cities’ public coffers and leave some residents forced to move without assistance.
Main believes that market signals will spark new conversations about what role the government should play in helping out communities. As of now, public intervention comes largely in the form of FEMA grants, and she expects that the budget allocated to programs like Building Resilient Infrastructure and Communities — a competitive grant that funds hazard mitigation projects like building retrofits and drainage improvement — will only increase in the coming years ($700 million was awarded last year).
When asked if he’s optimistic Capitol Hill will act on the aforementioned recommendations, Gomez laughs. “I can’t really speak to what Congress is going to do,” he says. He points to positive signals coming from Washington, D.C., though. Last year, the White House released a comprehensive report on climate change and migration, the first time any U.S. administration has done so.
The report, however, only looks at climate migration as a foreign issue — and how that issue could eventually lead to an influx of refugees in our borders. That’s because rich countries are only beginning to grapple with the question of internal displacement, says Alexandra Bilak, the director of the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre, an initiative of the Norwegian Refugee Council in Geneva. “The big unknown,” she says, “is who should be responsible for preventing and managing the multiple impacts it’s going to have on communities and economies?”
On an austere, overcast weekend in Portland, Maine, Laura Hinerfeld spends the afternoon foraging for mushrooms — bringing handfuls of chanterelles, lion’s mane and oyster mushrooms to the cluttered kitchen of her new home. She likes it here. Geist, who now works full time running an online magazine for LGBTQ country music fans, also has taken to the family’s new environment.
But the move has been hard on Amos. “I know a lot less people,” he says, sporting a white hoodie emblazoned with the logo of NASA. The fires “didn’t really affect us that much,” he ventures to say, his hands fidgeting. “But it affected some people that we knew,” he concedes. His mother chimes in. “Your principal at your school,” whose house burned down.
Hinerfeld stays in constant communication with her friends from the West. They complain about the fires, and she’s reminded of the reasons they left. Scrolling through Facebook in the last days of 2021, she comes across a post by Scott Hinerfeld, a distant cousin.
The flames that roared through parched land in the suburbs of Denver in the Marshall Fire destroyed his home. In a cruel twist of irony, Scott had led efforts to clean up houses caked in mud after devastating floods struck Boulder in 2013.
Even the new home Hinerfeld and Geist are learning to love has the potential for hazard. Portland, Maine, experiences sunny-day floods and could see between 1.1 to 1.8 feet of sea-level rise by 2050, according to the Maine Climate Council.
“There are not many places that are immune from natural disasters,” Geist says with a shake of his head. “Pick your poison.”