Despite repeated warnings, the majority of Americans still see climate change as a distant threat. Less than one-third of Americans feel that climate change is an urgent issue, even as the scientific community projects that humanity has just 10 years to avert catastrophic warming.
But even as most of the US remains resilient to the effects of climate change for now, a handful of American communities are already succumbing to warming temperatures, rising sea levels, and worsening storms.
In coastal areas throughout the country – from Maryland to Louisiana to Alaska – land is disappearing at an alarming rate. Tangier Island, in the Chesapeake Bay, is losing land at a rate of eight acres a day. In Louisiana – arguably the American epicenter of communities soon to be displaced by rising sea levels – the coast disappears at the astounding rate of a football field every 100 minutes. In Alaska, it’s possible to literally watch the coastline fall into the sea as long-frozen soil begins to thaw and collapse.
All of this land loss is having real effects on people and communities. Rising sea levels throughout the Chesapeake Bay have flooded fields with saltwater, making it nearly impossible for farmers to maintain their economic livelihoods. The loss of coastal wetlands in Louisiana is leaving homes and farms increasingly exposed to hurricanes, threatening the sudden devastation of what remains of slowly eroding communities. In Alaska, Native American communities are increasingly restricted to wooden sidewalks created to prevent them from sinking into thawed permafrost and losing access to traditional hunting grounds.
The net effect is that the US is experiencing its first wave of climate refugees – people who, often despite trying to stay until the end, are displaced from their homelands by the forces of a changing climate. The federal government is offering grant money to help Native American communities in sinking coastal regions to relocate and offering buy-outs to homeowners in the Louisiana bayou simply to get people off the disappearing land. Others are removed more suddenly, by storms and flooding.
In addition, sea level rise isn’t the only change driving communities off their land. Drought and warming summers have combined to create increasingly intense wildfires throughout the western US, which now frequently burn entire towns to the ground. In addition, warming is making hurricanes and other storms more intense, causing more destruction and leading to long term displacement such as in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria.
Despite the increasing number of American climate refugees, there are no plans in place for how to deal with them or for how to prevent displaced communities from becoming diasporas. Native American communities in particular are at risk of losing their cultural heritage. There is no guarantee that tribes can relocate intact, let alone maintain their traditions while abandoning their tribal lands. New Orleans in the years after Hurricane Katrina further illustrates the difficulties of maintaining a community after a climate-related disaster – the city lost the economic strength of its African-American middle class and has seen an increasing shift towards gentrification.
Worse, the plight of climate refugees is likely to become an increasingly common refrain over the coming decades. Scientists worry that climate change could drive the next great American migration, with as many as 13 millionclimate refugees moving from their homes by the end of the century. Many of the US’s major cities – New York, Boston, and Miami are prime examples – are at dire risk of succumbing to sea level rise. Meanwhile, the population centers of the Southwest – Los Angeles, Phoenix, and Las Vegas – could become hot and dry enoughto force a mass exodus. Even the US’s heartland could see a change as the frequency of drought increases, driving a migration of farmers and small communities like that last witnessed during the Dust Bowl of the 1930s. And all of that is before accounting for shifts in food production and water resources driven by climate change.
These forecasts are encouraging some US cities to take the long view and think about new ways to incorporate climate refugeesinto their existing communities. However, it doesn’t bode well that many of the cities likely to fare best in a changing world, such as San Francisco and Seattle, are already suffering under the pressures of migration not related to climate change. If past large-scale migrations in the US and abroad are any indication, the climate-driven reorganization of the US will be disruptive, inequitable, and history-changing.
For now, the slowly but steadily increasing number of American climate refugees is a warning to the rest of the nation. There is still time to act on climate change and avert its worst effects. Significant action on climate change in the coming decade could play an enormous role in helping to manage the US climate crisis in 50 years’ time.