During Tropical Depression Imelda in 2019, a state employee saves a family from floods near Beaumont, Texas. As part of the Climate Desk collaboration, this article was originally published by Dark and is reprinted here with permission.
What goes through someone’s head when a catastrophe occurs? We get a peek at the drastic changes that climate change is causing in American society in Jake Bittle’s ambitious book The Great Displacement: Climate Change and the Coming American Migration.
We watch from a distance as Patrick Garvey and Jen DeMaria marvel at the calm storm’s eye as it destroys their Florida Keys neighborhood, and we see with their eyes the surreal devastation of overturned sailboats, uprooted trees, and unrecognizable streets.
We follow the Tran family as they flee through the cul-de-sacs of their California neighborhood as a wildfire closes in, then we return the following day to find the burned-out, empty property that had been their home with the aid of Google Maps.
As Kevin Tran’s son, Bittle, a staff writer at Grist who covers climate impacts and adaptation, puts it: The identical query that was preoccupying every climate refugee around kept resurfacing in his mind. Where were all of them going?
The title of the book is a subliminal reference to the Great Migration, a movement of around 6 million Black Americans who left the South in the first two-thirds of the 20th century in search of opportunity and to avoid Jim Crow laws in cities like Chicago, Los Angeles, and New York.
But, Bittle believes that the displacement that would engulf America in the twenty-first century will much outweigh that significant relocation and result in what he refers to as a generation of domestic climate migrants.
According to Bittle, climate change will force at least 20 million Americans to relocate by the end of this century. One of The Great Displacement’s achievements is that, because of Bittle’s unwavering reporting, the book overcomes the abstraction and hyperbole of such staggering numbers. We can see human nature exposed to its most basic and raw form in the tales he has gathered.
Anything from dread to optimism to doom to hope to courage to despair to obstinance to defeat to heroism can surface in times of danger. We get to know folks like Nancy Caywood, an Arizona cotton farmer experiencing a megadrought who sees her land stiffening up like a corpse.
Moreover, Cindy Mazzola, a divorced mother of two from Houston who adores jigsaw puzzles and had to escape her neighborhood during Tropical Hurricane Allison, is introduced to the audience.
Although Mazzola was able to relocate her family using a government buyout and home equity to a less dangerous region of the city, her neighbors were moved to a similarly fragile neighborhood that was overrun by yet another storm a few years later. According to Bittle, all of them experienced the same rain, but because of where they lived and what happened to them, their lives were not equal.
In order to decide at what size to report on the catastrophe, journalists must select how to tell the tale of climate change. Do they concentrate on people, nations, political structures, ecologies, or the planet itself?
Bittle opts to focus only on the human side of the story for the majority of the book. He spoke with hundreds of Americans who had lost their homes and communities as a result of hurricanes, wildfires, floods, and drought.
There is no mystery as to why he made this decision, even though the portraits can start to feel repetitive around the middle of the book: As a journalist, Bittle excels at drawing humanistic pictures of his sources from the collection of minute and personal facts, which he then presents in just one or two pages. Also, he creates compelling descriptions of the catastrophes that upended the lives of his sources.
These compelling tales are related by Bittle with tact, sympathy, and sensitivity. The insecurity and misery that climate change has already inflicted on American families and communities cannot be denied after reading The Great Displacement.
In fact, one of Bittle’s goals appears to have been to persuade us that even while things could grow much worse if society does not abandon the fossil fuel economy, they now are really terrible.
Of course, no one can predict what the world will look like in 2100, but Bittle contends that we will undoubtedly be residing in a new American geography by then. Towns on the coast will be washed away, entire neighborhoods in flood plains will be abandoned, parched subdivisions will be deserted, and cities in wildfire danger will burn.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration estimates that by 2100, sea levels will have most certainly risen by at least 2 feet due to global warming. At the same time, drought will continue to deplete water supplies and excessive heat will render some areas inhospitable.
These climactic patterns are anticipated to amplify demographic trends already in motion, such as urbanization and migration to mid-sized inland cities like Atlanta, Orlando, and Charlotte in search of employment and inexpensive housing.
Contrary to popular belief, Phoenix, Miami, and Dallas are among the cities in the United States that are expanding the quickest. According to Bittle, one of the reasons these locations continue to draw visitors is because disasters still trigger individual displacement events. The oppressive new normal has yet to be fully realized in nationwide demographic trends.
When something occurs, heat is probably to blame: According to his writings, the southernmost point of the region of mild temperatures would be near Kentucky by the year 2070, and regions to the south will experience increasingly risky heat waves and humidity. Cities in the Great Lakes and the Rust Belt may very well develop into unique safe havens like Cincinnati, Madison, and Duluth.
On topics like a managed retreat, stranded assets, racial inequity, and toxic mortgages, Bittle is an expert, in relating these ideas to the experiences of the people he writes about. And he makes a strong case for why this period of unparalleled instability occurred.
Climate change is the catalyst, but inadequate disaster relief programs, a severe lack of affordable housing, and dysfunctional insurance markets have already and will continue to exacerbate people’s suffering.
According to Bittle, the stress brought on by climate change is exacerbating cracks that have been there for a long time in an already fragile social and economic structure. Bittle makes a point of highlighting how individuals with the least able to withstand the consequences will feel them the most.
The concluding chapter of The Great Displacement appears to have been set out for major policy recommendations that may have been better understood if they had been weaved throughout the book. If there is a weakness in the book, this is probably it. Even still, it is challenging to disagree with the recommendations, which Bittle reduces to the profound yet straightforward question: What do we owe to each other?
He believes that a blanket guarantee of shelter is the solution. He does not downplay the immensity of the challenge this would provide. He does not even assert that every location can be saved. He claims that many varied communities, enclaves of eccentric subculture, and archives of fascinating and treasured history will have to be abandoned.
California was drowning in January’s atmospheric rivers, which caused storms, flooding, landslides, and sinkholes that killed at least 22 people, as I read Bittle’s descriptions of people escaping floods in Virginia and Florida. According to one estimate, thousands of people were forced to evacuate, and the overall economic losses ranged from $5 to $7 billion.
Homeless people spoke on the radio about how they were saved from drowning, while newspapers described the efforts made to find and save kids who had been swept away in flash floods.
It seemed strange to alternate between reading The Great Displacement and the news of the day since Bittle’s imagined past events were appearing in the present, indicating that the impending mass relocation he predicts had already occurred.
There were other times when the craziness of today’s unexpected weather overshadowed even Bittle’s timely reporting. In the days following the biggest snowstorm in decades, which left at least 47 people dead in the region, I read that he predicted Buffalo, New York, may one day turn into a climatic haven.