California fires, rising seas: Millions of climate refugees will dwarf Dust Bowl by 2100

“Climate refugee” is likely a new term for most Americans. Also referred to as environmental migrants, climate refugees are people who are now forced to seek refuge from the life-threatening impacts of the climate crisis.

Californians are the tip of the spear this fall as increasingly destructive wildfires drive people out of their homes — more than 200,000 just in the last couple of weeks. Soon, however, everyone in America will know what a climate refugee is. Given current estimates on sea-level rise and its threat to coastal communities, as many as 13 million Americans are projected to become climate refugees by the end of this century. That’s a lot of displacement and instability across our coasts.

For some, displacement that can be linked to climate change has already occurred. In Brooklyn, thousands of families were forced from their homes and communities by Superstorm Sandy in 2012, which flooded entire neighborhoods and left demolished houses in its wake. Many families to this day have still been unable to return home, and key pieces of infrastructure are still undergoing repair.

Displacement on a massive scale

We can expect to see only more displacement as the climate crisis continues to worsen. The latest report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change highlights that ever more powerful tropical cyclones and floods are headed our way, as warmer ocean waters combine with rising sea levels to fuel more frequent and devastating storms.

This is our new reality: Americans having to move from their homes to avoid the climate crisis and its worst impacts, whether that be sea-level rise, flooding, wildfires, hurricanes or droughts. And many Americans don’t have the resources to just pack up and move, making the displacement all the more precarious.

We’ve seen this happen before in response to an environmental disaster. Hundreds of thousands of “Dust Bowl refugees,” for example, migrated westward in the early 1900s looking for safer ground and more protected, secure livelihoods. And now we’re witnessing it again, but this time in response to a much bigger environmental crisis and one that will last for decades, not years.

Across our coasts, from Alaska in the northwest to Louisiana and Florida in the southeast, we are facing the threat of displacement on a massive scale. In response, and for the first time ever, the Department of Housing and Urban Development has provided $48 million to move an entire community out of the Isle de Jean Charles in Louisiana to avoid coming climate impacts. And in Alaska, the village of Newtok recently secured more than $15 million to relocate households to safer ground.


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