Data Show Americans Moving to Areas Most Vulnerable to Climate Change

Americans moving to most vulnerable climate change areas

Predictions have painted a picture of which places in America will be most affected by climate change and which will be spared from its worst effects. But the Census Bureau's new map of population flows from the last decade shows Americans flocking to the southwest and the coasts -- areas that are particularly susceptible to extreme heat, wildfires, and flooding -- while avoiding the safest areas like the inland east coast and Great Lakes region.

Why this Matters

Americans move to climate-threatened regions primarily out of necessity, seeking affordable housing and jobs. Weak zoning and land-use laws have allowed the population to balloon in the fire-prone, wildland-urban interface. Meanwhile, federal flood insurance subsidies have encouraged building in coastal areas threatened by flooding.

Even within a climate change-affected city, areas can have vastly different levels of risk. For example, neighborhoods with a majority of people of color have 33% less average tree canopy than white communities, making these areas much more susceptible to extreme heat. Meanwhile, neighborhoods with 90% or more of their residents living in poverty have 41% less tree canopy than communities with only 10% or less of the population below the poverty line.

Earlier this year, Joe Biden issued an executive order requiring federally funded infrastructure to measure flood risk during construction. The Securities and Exchange Commission is preparing a rule to require climate risk disclosures from all public companies. These policies should help Americans make decisions about where they should live to protect themselves from climate change, though more must be done.

NOAA: Billion-Dollar Disasters - By the Numbers (1980-2020).

Where to Move for Climate Security?

Data suggests that people are moving out of relatively lower-risk areas to places much more vulnerable to the climate crisis. Upstate New York is considered one of the country's most insulated regions from climate change -- and yet almost all of upstate New York saw either nearly flat or declining population growth. Also insulated from climate change -- Vermont, which saw a flat population growth, and Philadelphia with only 5% population growth.

Meanwhile, there have been significant population increases in and around the Texas Gulf Coast, an area at risk of extreme heat and flooding; and Phoenix with 11% population growth, despite the city's susceptibility to heat and drought. Miami, too, saw a 10% population increase despite the reality that the sea level could rise intolerably.

ProPublica: How the Climate Crisis Will Force A Massive American Migration, November 10, 2020.