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Climate change has forced thousands to relocate in the U.S.

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

We tell stories all the time about climate-fueled disasters that uproot people's lives - fires in California, hurricanes in Louisiana. Well, Jake Bittle's new book is about what happens in the years after those events. It's called "The Great Displacement: Climate Change And The Next American Migration." It goes from drought-hit farms in Arizona to flooded coastlines in Virginia. Jake Bittle, welcome to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

JAKE BITTLE: Thank you for having me.

SHAPIRO: So displacement is an interesting word choice in the title. And you open the book by explaining why you picked that word even though climate migration is becoming a more common term. Why do you consider this a displacement?

BITTLE: Right. So migration - the word to me tends to imply an intentional movement from point A to point B. You know, somebody no longer wants to live where they do. So they get up, and they choose to move somewhere else that's better. And what I found was that in the United States and in other places, what's happening as climate disasters get worse is something much more chaotic. People tend to want to stay where they are for as long as they possibly can. In many cases, they find it devastating to leave behind the place that they are from.

But more than that, they also don't really move very far. They don't really know where they're going, and they often don't necessarily stay to the place they move for a long period of time. So I think that because climate change exerts so much economic pressure and because the movements that follow these disasters are so chaotic, you can't really use the word migration as we tend to think of it. And so I was trying to find a word that sort of captured that chaos or that sort of frothy nature of the movement after these disasters. And I felt that displacement was a more accurate term.

SHAPIRO: I think a lot of people imagine this to be something that happens elsewhere. You know, climate change is displacing people in Bangladesh or in the islands of the South Pacific. Did you have a hard time finding examples of people experiencing climate displacement in the U.S.?

BITTLE: No, I didn't have a hard time at all. And, indeed, the reason why I wanted to do the book was because I felt that there were a lot of people out there who had moved in the aftermath of disasters but whose stories we just didn't tend to tell. All it took was to sort of go to the places where there had been disasters a few years earlier and start talking to people. And it was very easy to find dozens and hundreds of people who had ended up slowly migrating away or just not being able to make it back after a storm or a big fire.

SHAPIRO: As I said, the book sort of hopscotches all over the country. What was your starting point? Where did you begin?

BITTLE: I started in Houston. I had to work on a story about a federal government flood buyout program in the city of Houston, where basically the government would buy out homes that had seen repeated flooding, knock them down and give people money to move somewhere else. And there was this sort of range of outcomes here that I thought was really fascinating. Some people thought this program was exceptionally effective, that it helped people get out of places that were, you know, prone to flooding again and again. Some people thought it was really not great. You know, the government would give people a stipend to move, and they would basically not check on what happened to them. And a lot of them ended up moving into places that were just as vulnerable as the neighborhoods that they left behind.

So this is a nationwide program. I wrote about it in Houston, but it sort of opened up this world to me of all these people who had - you know, tens of thousands of people every year who had moved after disasters. And we really just didn't know what happened to them.

SHAPIRO: Even though the patterns of displacement are chaotic and unpredictable, there are certain consistent themes. Like, you say climate displacement exacerbates income inequality. And one place that's really apparent is Northern California. You write about the Tubbs Fire, which roared through Santa Rosa. What happened after that?

BITTLE: So California was already experiencing a housing crisis, as everyone knows. But the city lost, you know, upwards of 4,000 housing units to the fire. And that took this already pretty severe housing crisis and just supercharged it to the point where wealthy people who had lost their homes were able to bid higher and higher and higher for rental apartments that were available. And in many cases, they actually took away rental apartments from people whose leases were expiring. So some people ended up doubling up with their parents. Some people moved as far away as Kentucky and only came back years later. But it was just kind of chaos. And the farther down you were on the income ladder, the less able you were to find housing in this sort of really severe post-disaster crunch.

SHAPIRO: And a question that comes up a lot is, who's left holding the bag? Like, is it up to the federal government? Is it up to the homeowners? You describe in Norfolk, Va., where rising seas are flooding neighborhoods, that it's like people are passing around a stick of dynamite, hoping not to be the person holding it when it explodes. So when the reality of these situations, whether it's flooding or drought or what have you - when that finally becomes undeniable, like, who do we put the onus on? How is our country answering that question?

BITTLE: Right. So right now we sort of have a partial and incomplete answer to that question, which is that the amount of money that gets doled out each year is nowhere near equivalent to the amount of damage, right? So the difference is usually made up by the homeowners and by the renters. The government and insurance companies don't distribute enough money to make up that difference. So homeowners end up bearing the cost of these excessively damaging disasters, whether that's through having to leave and exert themselves to find more affordable housing or having to dig into their savings to protect, you know, the life of their mortgage and make sure their house is actually worth something.

SHAPIRO: These are inevitably challenging, difficult situations with answers that are not easy. But were there scenarios that you thought, that was handled really well; people wound up in a good place after that policy was implemented?

BITTLE: Yes, there are a few of those. There's not a ton. So during the Obama administration, the federal government handed down a bunch of money, about a billion dollars, to sort of do a pilot program for different - what they called resilience strategies, different ways of adapting to climate change. And in an African American neighborhood of Norfolk called Chesterfield Heights, which has seen, you know, really, really frequent flooding from high tide events and from storms, the city was able to spend upwards of a hundred million dollars to create this park that would absorb tides to create these really beautiful berms along the water that would sort of stop storm surge from happening and also to fix this really outdated stormwater system that really wasn't handling rain events very well.

And it went from a neighborhood where property values were going to decline and nobody really wanted to move there because it was just - it was so vulnerable to flooding. And it went to a neighborhood that now has some of the best infrastructure in the city and certainly is going to be resilient in the coming decades to the rising sea levels that are happening off the coast of Virginia.

SHAPIRO: We're at the beginning of a trend that will only accelerate. So what does the future look like? I mean, how many Americans are likely to be forced to relocate because of climate change? Where are they likely to go? Can you paint a picture of what the U.S. might look like decades from now?

BITTLE: Yeah. It's really, really difficult to know with any certainty what the U.S. will look like decades from now. But I think what we can say with certainty is that people will continue to lose their homes - you know, hundreds of thousands probably on average each year. That's already, you know, a pretty good ballpark estimate of the number of people whose homes get damaged or destroyed by climate disaster each year. So you could imagine a situation where, from the coasts or from the hottest parts of the country, the parts that are most prone to wildfire, people start to move towards cities that tend to be a little more temperate while not being so far away that they're unfamiliar, right? So some demographers predict that people might move from Miami, say, to Orlando or Atlanta, or they might move from Houston to Dallas, but it will be very messy. You know, it won't be a coherent march northward. It will be a lot of churning and back-and-forth. And then eventually these trends might emerge over the decades.

SHAPIRO: Jake Bittle is the author of "The Great Displacement: Climate Change And The Next American Migration." Thanks a lot.

BITTLE: Thanks so much.

(SOUNDBITE OF ASGEIR SONG, "BLUE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Christopher Intagliata is an editor at All Things Considered, where he writes news and edits interviews with politicians, musicians, restaurant owners, scientists and many of the other voices heard on the air.
Ari Shapiro has been one of the hosts of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine, since 2015. During his first two years on the program, listenership to All Things Considered grew at an unprecedented rate, with more people tuning in during a typical quarter-hour than any other program on the radio.