Even with the passage of the Cut Inflation Act – which, name aside, is the most far-reaching climate legislation ever passed by Congress – the United States is locked in decades of rising more extreme temperatures and weather conditions. The degree of warming will depend on how quickly we can reduce carbon emissions and how sensitive the climate is, but the average global temperature is increasing between 2 and 3 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial norms seem most likely, some regions experiences much worse extremes.
Nonetheless, Americans are responding to these forecasts by moving in large numbers to some of the hottest, driest and most vulnerable parts of the country.
According to a analysis released earlier this month by the Economic Innovation Group, 10 of last year’s 15 counties were in the water-stretched southwest. Since 2012, an additional 2.8 million people have moved to counties that have spent most of the past decade under “severe” to “exceptional” drought conditions.
Leading the growth is Maricopa County in Arizona, home to Phoenix, a desert metropolis that receives more sun than any other major city on Earth – and averaging over 110 days with highs of at least 100°F. Average temperatures in Phoenix are already 2.5°F warmer than they were in the middle of the last century, which helps explain why there was 338 heat-related deaths last year in Maricopa County.
Despite this – and despite the worst to come – Maricopa’s population has grown 14% over the past decade, to nearly 4.5 million people. A similar pattern is at work in states like Florida and South Carolina that experience high storm and flood risk, or in states like Colorado and Idaho that face major storm risk. ‘Forest fire. In total, according to an analysis by real estate site Redfin, the 50 US counties with the highest share of homes facing high climate risk and extreme weather all experienced positive net migration on average between 2016 and 2020.
On the other hand, the 50 US counties with the highest share of homes facing the lowest extreme climate and weather risk, such as Onondaga County in upstate New York, have largely experienced migration. net negative over the same years on average.
It bears repeating: Faced with the rising costs of extreme weather disasters and the certain reality of a warmer, more disrupted future, Americans have responded not only by moving to riskier areas, but also by away from safer areas.
Americans are moving for the climate, not for climate change
What should we take away from this?
First, while Americans care about climate change, when it comes to the major decisions they make, it tends to rank way down the national agenda.
Gallup regular surveys Americans on what they see as the most important issue facing the country. In July, 3% of Americans polled said “environment/pollution/climate change” was the most important issue, behind inflation, government, abortion, immigration, racism, crime and high oil/fuel prices, among other concerns. And while the most important issues tend to fluctuate depending on what’s happening in the news, climate change has always been ranked quite low.
In other words, there is a reason the Inflation Reduction Act was called the Inflation Reduction Act.
Second, since economic concerns tend to be so prominent among Americans, it shouldn’t be surprising that the cost of living is a much bigger factor in where people want to live than fear of change. climate or disasters. Places like the Southwest and Texas are not only hot, dry, and vulnerable to climate change, they also tend to be much cheaper to live in than coastal cities in blue states.
According to data from Redfin, of the 50 counties that had the highest share of homes at high heat and storm risk, more than 50% had a median home sale price less than half the national average at the time. Williamson County in Texas, which includes fast-growing parts of Austin, has the highest heat risk in the United States, but it’s also the county with the largest population increase since 2016.
It’s not true that if you’re looking for a cheap place to live, your only choices are deserts and floodplains. May I interest you in Syracuse, New York, or Cleveland, Ohio – two cities considered climatic paradises where is the accommodation relatively cheap?
Probably not. The population of either city has dropped significantly from its previous peak, which is also true for other northern climate havens like Buffalo. (Although Buffalo just recorded its first population increase since World War II — Josh Allen Feverperhaps?)
What the fast-growing cities of the Southwest have going for them is just that: growth. This means more jobs and a better chance of economic mobility, while paying far less for housing than in the high-wage towns on the coast. For many Americans, that’s worth the trade-off of worsening heat waves and other extreme weather.
One last thing: apparently Americans prefer it warm. A 2009 Pew Research Survey found that 57% of Americans preferred to live in a warmer climate, compared to 29% who preferred a colder climate. And the rise of remote work will only give more people the ability to choose where they want to live.
More housing or more climate migrants
I doubt we’ll quench Americans’ apparent thirst for as much sunshine as possible. (Although, honestly, as someone who at least prefers the cold, you can save your time in Phoenix.) But unless we want a future where more and more people are on the path to change ever-increasing climate and weather disruption, we will need to make it less expensive to live in places that are not prone to heat waves, droughts or wildfires.
California is an example. The state horrible forest fires have produced climate migrants in recent years, partly because fires can ravage entire cities, and partly because there is no real way to adapt to the constant threat of smoke and destruction.
Yet people continue to move to wildfire-prone areas of the state — and often stay there even after a fire destroys their home — in part because housing supply is still tight in the state. State 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 at the interface between nature and urban areas, the area most vulnerable to wildfire risk, in part because anti-development regulations elsewhere simply make it easier and cheaper to build.
Tackling climate change means first and foremost reducing carbon emissions, but it will also take decades of adaptation – and that includes housing policies that can move people away from parts of the country that are already at risk by making it cheaper to live in safe areas.
That doesn’t mean Americans can’t or should never move to hot, dry parts of the country. In their own way, desert metropolises only exist thanks to technological adaptations to their extreme climates — population growth only really took off in the Sunbelt after the advent of air conditioning in the second half of the 20th century. But continuing that growth in a hotter, drier 21st century will require more than just massive air conditioning units.
Cities like Phoenix and Las Vegas have taken significant steps to make the most of less water, by retaining aquifers, reducing waste and recycling wastewater. In Phoenix, the total water consumption is actually less than in the early 2000seven though its population continued to grow and the average resident used 29% less water in 2019 than in 1990. Southern Nevada also reduction in overall water consumption even adding hundreds of thousands of people.
It won’t be easy, however, and the more extreme the weather, the harder it will be to adapt. Lake Powell and Lake Mead – the two largest man-made reservoirs in the United States, which help supply water to 40 million people – are now at barely 27% of capacity. Poorer residents are less able to afford air conditioning which can make the desert heat bearable, while agriculture – which accounts for vast majority of water consumption in the American West – will continue to deplete dwindling supplies.
If we really want to adapt to extreme weather conditions, we will have to make climate paradises cheaper and more attractive. And if you’re looking for a move, consider Buffalo! He has new apartments, new jobs, even new peopleas well as something that will become increasingly rare in the future: snow.
A version of this story originally appeared in the Future Perfect newsletter. Sign up here to subscribe!