Even with the passage of the Inflation Reduction Act — which, name aside, is the most ambitious piece of climate-related legislation ever passed by Congress — the US is stuck in decades of rising temperatures and more extreme weather. How warm it gets depends on how quickly we can reduce CO2 emissions and how sensitive the climate turns out to be, but average global temperature rises of between 2 and 3 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial standards seems most likely, with some regions experiencing much worse extremes.
Nevertheless, Americans are responding to these predictions by relocating in droves to some of the hottest, driest and most vulnerable parts of the country.
according to an analysis published earlier this month by the Economic Innovation Group, 10 of the 15 provinces were in the wetland southwest last year. Since 2012, an additional 2.8 million people have moved to provinces that have been under for most of the past decade “severe” to “exceptional” drought conditions.
Leading the growth was Maricopa County in Arizona, home to Phoenix, a desert metropolis that receives more sunshine than any other big city on earth — and averages over 110 days with maximum temperatures of at least 100°F. The average temperatures in Phoenix are already 2.5°F hotter than they were in the middle of the last century, which helps explain why there were 338 heat-related deaths last year in Maricopa County.
Despite that – and despite worse – the population in Maricopa has increased by 14 percent in the past decade to nearly 4.5 million people. A similar pattern is at work in states like Florida and South Carolina that have high storm and flood risks, or states like Colorado and Idaho that are at high risk of wildfires. Overall, according to an analysis by real estate site Redfin, the 50 U.S. counties with the highest proportion of high-climate, extreme-weather-risk homes all experienced positive net migration on average between 2016 and 2020.
On the other hand, the 50 U.S. counties with the highest proportions of homes with the lowest climate and extreme weather risk, such as New York State’s Onondaga County, have, on average, largely experienced net negative migration in the same years.
This must be repeated: Faced with the rising costs of extreme weather disasters and the certain reality of a warmer and more disrupted future, Americans have responded by not only moving to riskier areas, but also moving away from safer areas.
Americans go for climate, not climate change
What should we take from this?
First, while Americans do worry about climate change, when it comes to the most important decisions they make, it tends to go way back to national priorities.
Gallup regular polls Americans on what they consider to be the most important problem facing the country. In July, 3 percent of Americans surveyed said “environmental/pollution/climate change” was the top concern, alongside inflation, government, abortion, immigration, racism, crime, and high oil/fuel prices, among other concerns. And while key issues tend to fluctuate based on what’s happening in the news, climate change is consistently quite low.
In other words, there is a reason why the Inflation Reduction Act was called the Inflation Reduction Act.
Second, it’s not surprising that the cost of living is a much bigger driver of where people want to live than fear of climate change or disaster, given that economic concerns tend to rank so highly among Americans. Places like the Southwest and Texas are not only hot, dry, and vulnerable to climate change — they’re also much cheaper to live in than coastal cities in blue states.
According to Redfin’s data, more than 50 percent of the 50 counties with the highest proportion of homes at high heat and storm risk had average home sales prices that were less than half the national average at the time. Williamson County in Texas, which includes parts of fast-growing Austin, has the highest heat risk in the US, but it is also the county with the highest population growth since 2016.
It’s not true that if you’re looking for a cheap place to live, your only choices are deserts and floodplains. Can I interest you in Syracuse, New York, or Cleveland, Ohio – two cities that are considered? climate paradises where is housing relatively cheap?
Probably not. Populations in both cities have dropped significantly from their earlier peak, as have other northern climate havens such as Buffalo. (Although Buffalo just recorded the first population growth since World War II — Josh Allen fevercould be?)
What the fast-growing cities of the Southwest have in store for them is just that: grow. That means more jobs and a better chance of economic mobility, while paying much less for housing than in the high-wage cities on the coast. For many Americans, that’s worth the tradeoff of worsening heat waves and other extreme weather.
One last thing: Americans apparently just prefer it warm. A Pew Research 2009 study found that 57 percent of Americans preferred a warmer climate, compared with 29 percent who preferred a colder climate. And the rise of remote working is likely only giving more people the choice where they want to live.
More homes or more climate migrants
I doubt we’re going to satisfy the Americans’ apparent thirst for as much sunshine as possible. (Although, frankly, as someone who prefers the cold, you can keep your Phoenix weather.) But unless we want a future where more and more people are in the path of ever-greater climate change and weather disruptions, we’re going to have to making it cheaper to live in places that are not subject to heat waves, drought or forest fires.
California is an example. The States horrible forest fires have produced climate migrants in recent years, partly because the fires can devastate entire cities, and partly because there’s no real way to adapt to the constant threat of smoke and destruction.
Still, people continue to move to areas prone to wildfires in the state — and often stay even after a fire has destroyed their homes — in part because of the state’s constantly limited housing supply. makes it virtually impossible to live anywhere else. A report last year found that between 1990 and 2010, half of all new homes built in California were built in the wilderness-urban border, the zone most vulnerable to wildfire risks, in part because anti-development regulations elsewhere make it easy and cheaper to to build there.
Fighting climate change primarily means cutting carbon emissions, but it will also take decades of adaptation — and that includes housing policies that can push people away from those parts of the country that are already at risk by making it cheaper. to live in safe areas.
This does not mean that Americans can never or should never move to hot, dry places in the country. In their own way, desert metropolises only exist because of technological adaptations to their extreme climates – population growth really took off in the Sunbelt after the arrival of air conditioning in the second half of the 20th century. But continuing that growth in a hotter and drier 21st century will take much more than just huge AC units.
Cities like Phoenix and Las Vegas have made great strides in making greater use of less water, aquifers, reducing waste and recycling wastewater. In Phoenix, the total water consumption is actually less than in the early 2000seven though the population continued to grow and the average resident used 29 percent less water in 2019 than in 1990. Southern Nevada also has reduced overall water consumption even when adding hundreds of thousands of people.
It won’t be easy, though, and the more extreme the climate conditions get, the harder it is to adapt. Lake Powell and Lake Mead — the two largest man-made reservoirs in the US, helping to supply water to 40 million people — are now running out. only about 27 percent of capacity. Poorer residents are less able to afford the air conditioning that can make the desert heat bearable, while agriculture – which is responsible for the vast majority of water consumption in the American West – dwindling supplies will continue to drain.
If we are really going to adapt to extreme weather, we need to make climate paradises cheaper and more attractive. And if you’re looking to relocate, think about Buffalo! It has new apartments, new jobs, even new peoplealong with something that will become increasingly rare in the future: snow.
A version of this story was initially published in the Future Perfect newsletter. Sign up here to subscribe!