Urban Wire Who Are America’s “Climate Migrants,” and Where Will They Go?
Carlos Martín
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Climate migrants—people displaced by the far-reaching effects of climate change—already exist in the United States. They include homeowners wading through the process for buyouts of flood-prone homes, families evacuating during climate-exacerbated disasters, and the families moving en masse from places experiencing environmental and economic changes.

Just last year, 16.1 million people globally were displaced because of weather-related disasters. More than 1.2 million of those displaced were Americans. Journalists and policymakers are paying greater attention to this issue.

Studies of US climate migration, retreat, and relocation focus on the vulnerability of starting places, the characteristics and motives of migrants, and the implementation of programs such as buyouts. But what happens to these families after they move?

The Urban Institute was recently awarded a grant from the National Academy of Sciences’ Gulf Research Program to gauge the capacity of receiving communities to prepare for and integrate climate migrants. With local partners including Texas Southern University and the University of Central Florida and national partners RAND and Enterprise Community Partners, Urban will present findings as they surface.

The project will acknowledge, incorporate, and explore many ongoing questions surrounding climate migrants:

How many are there?

The term “climate migrants” encompasses many people. Recipients of buyouts after disasters, “repeat loss” determinations, and other hazard mitigation and climate adaptation programs make up a portion of what we could classify as America’s climate migrants. About 43,000 FEMA buyouts (PDF) have occurred since the 1980s, most notably in places like post-Katrina Louisiana and post-Sandy New York.

Other climate migrants include households who independently move because of personal risks to health, property, and well-being. The number of families who abandon their homes or seek jobs elsewhere for these reasons is difficult to estimate because their reasons involve personal life choices and typically no formal public assistance.

Finally (and more obviously), climate migrants include disaster evacuees and recipients of temporary shelter who become permanent settlers. Depending on a disaster’s severity and geographic range of damages, whole neighborhoods or even counties can be displaced.

For example, Hurricane Michael displaced an estimated 464,000 people in the Southeast before and after August 2018. The November 2018 Woolsey fires displaced 182,000 in California. But temporary displacement often leads to long-term resettlement as recovery lengthens and the displaced families find opportunities where they have moved.

Where do they go?

Many studies overlook this important question. Evidence suggests that counties most likely to become permanent resettlements are nearby, have lower unemployment and higher wages, and are more urban.

Preliminary analysis of recent disasters by Urban colleagues bear this out. For example, most movers after California’s 2015 and 2017 fires had moved to the neighboring counties and were still living there a year after. In contrast, though, a large portion of Puerto Rican migrants following Hurricane Maria were living farther away in Florida.

How are they received?

Migrants’ perceptions of their new communities is a mixed bag. Some studies report satisfaction (PDF) with their adopted neighborhoods, while others show that the maintenance or breaking of social ties partially shape how the migrants integrate.

Receiving communities, for their part, seem to be welcoming at first, offering the “warmth of those who care” followed by “the tools they need.”

But this welcome wears quickly, and long-term underpreparation starts to show. Future receiving communities have few incentives to prepare for, build capacity for, and integrate newcomers—especially while addressing their own climate-related resource gaps.

Consequently, newcomers are perceived as competitors for jobs and housing—especially where these were already tight. Existing financial and health service providers become overwhelmed and often underresourced for the specific needs of the migrants. Particularly when newcomers differ by race and income, they are increasingly and inaccurately blamed for all kinds of problems.

Why do they matter?

The story of climate migration starts far before Katrina evacuees left New Orleans for cities across the South (many of these evacuees were younger and African American, had fewer resources, and did not return). Climate migration may even predate the displacements caused by the Dust Bowl in the 1930s.

Yet more climate migration is likely (PDF). As migration increases along America's coasts and in other geographies subject to extreme climate change effects, expanding the policy and program capacity of  receiving communities to take them in is a regional resilience imperative.

Resilience in the US must be defined by the capacity to manage regional migration as much as it’s defined by adaptation in the places that are most vulnerable to flooding, drought, heat, and other climate change effects.


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Research Areas Neighborhoods, cities, and metros
Tags Infrastructure Federal urban policies
Policy Centers Metropolitan Housing and Communities Policy Center
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