Am I A Climate Refugee?
No. But it's a question worth asking.
I read this book recently. You should, too. It's a necessary read, but it's also grim. It might actually be the grimmest thing that I have ever read. The future that the changing climate is going to bring us is most likely going to be one that we have no prior experience of in our history as a civilized species. One of the particularly hard things coming our way is a lot more climate refugees. Actually, this dynamic is already well underway. People are not going to be able to keep living in many of the places where they live now. I no longer live in the place that I lived for the past decade, and one of the reasons is absolutely due to climate-related weather issues. Which got me thinking: Am I a climate refugee?
A few qualifiers at the top: By almost any stripe, the answer is a firm NO. Refugee is an inherently political term, and it brings a tremendous amount of baggage with it. It also brings a certain stereotypical image to most minds, one of extreme privation and tremendous hardship. In asking the question about myself, I do not mean to suggest that my family and I are in a situation that approximates anything like what the stereotyped refugee experiences. After our recent move across the world, our life remains well toward the top end of Hans Rosling’s “Level 4” wealth status. Our life has actually gotten materially better in any time-horizon that might be considered. We are incredibly fortunate and privileged. If you can't forgive my use of refugee here, I get it. If it helps, please feel free to substitute migrant. Nor do I want what follows to be misinterpreted by the folks who live in my old neighborhood/larger region, especially the lovely young couple who bought our house when we moved, or our equally lovely former neighbors. I hope that they will be delighted there for as long as they choose to stay and that my understanding of what's coming is shown to be incorrect. But I don't think it will be, and given the experiences of the past 10 years living within the increasing mid-Atlantic flood zone, I still think there’s merit in asking the question, however we might formulate it to be agreeable. If only because the answer is complex and might presage what climate-caused migration is going to look like in the privileged world, at least in parts.
Some history: In June of 2012 my son was born. It was the happiest moment of my life. And it was promptly followed by one of the worst when Superstorm Sandy came through and destroyed the bottom floor of my house at the end of October. From the point that things were rebuilt (pretty much just in time to celebrate my son’s first birthday) until we sold our house this past summer with our move to Singapore, I don’t know that my wife or I ever felt truly comfortable in that house again.
To be clear, the flooding wasn’t the only thing that contributed to our unease. The expense was another significant factor. Here I don’t really mean the repairs. One of the benefits of being incredibly privileged members of an incredibly privileged society is that you have things like flood insurance that pay to rebuild your home to a state that is even nicer than it was before the water came through. Expenses here are more broadly applied to the almost-impossible task of living comfortably in NYC suburbs while earning one full-time salary and owning a house. We were generally comfortable, but we were also unsteady. Paycheck-to-paycheck isn’t exactly an apt descriptor, but uneven fits pretty well.
But leaving aside financial decisions that were less-than-wise in retrospect, a large part of our discomfort became unease with the location and how it interacted with changing climate patterns. The way that the water hit our neighborhood meant that our home was essentially delineating a border between houses that were completely destroyed by Sandy and had to be entirely rebuilt or raised to maintain flood insurance into the future, and those (like ours) that emerged relatively unscathed. And while Sandy was an abnormal event, it's also one that can easily happen again. Our house was less than a half-mile from the Great South Bay, a large, shallow body of water on the south side of Long Island. It was also situated on land that did not exist until the town that we lived in decided to reclaim it from the Bay in the middle part of the twentieth century. Which definitely made many more houses available in the area, but also put them all less than 5 feet above sea-level with almost nothing between them and a rising tide were it ever to decide to rise more than usual, as it did when Sandy came through (and to a lesser extent when Irene came through the year before that).
Much has been made of the weird track of Sandy, the “left-hand” turn that it took when it came into the NYC metro area, and how that turn wound up pushing the ocean in ways that it is not regularly pushed. I think all of this is true. I also do not doubt that the woman that we bought the house from was telling us the truth when she said that when it rained things would get a bit wet in the neighborhood, but that she never remembered a situation where her driveway had flooded. That was probably true for the entire time from the reclamation of our peninsula from the Bay until we purchased the property at the end of 2010. But after 2010, things began to shift. Between our purchase and Sandy, our driveway would flood to the point that water entered the crawlspace under our house at least twice that I can remember. After Sandy, the street would always flood if we had more than a day’s worth of rain. A natural question is why things changed, but the logical answer should be obvious to anyone reading this: Weather is getting weird, and that weirdness is increasing. Life next to the Great South Bay made that point quite clear during our time living there.
I don’t know if you’ve ever lived through a house-damaging flood, but it’s an unsettling experience. You wind up throwing away a LOT of stuff and you are left uneasy at the thought of ever really putting anything of value back in the flooded area of your house. Even after the immediate repairs are completed, it takes years before you stop seeing lingering effects in unexpected places. The resale value of your property tends to shed a sizable portion, even five or 10 years on from the event. All of this meant that we were only too happy to leave when the opportunity came. At no point in our own sale of the property did we ever try to hide just how significantly Sandy damaged the house, but I also know that I felt shocked that anyone was interested in buying the house given what it had gone through, and what could easily happen again during the next large flood event. Even now, as my wife and I talk about a future where we buy another property in the states, proximity to water will not be a selling point. That life is over for us.
And pretty soon it’s going to be over for a lot of other people, too. There are going to be a lot more floods and a lot more damaged homes. Much of this is going to happen in less-heeled areas of the world than the most expensive suburban region of the United States, and the trauma that it’s going to bring to the people who live in these places is worse than any of us who won’t live through it can really imagine. But displacement due to climate change is absolutely a thing, and however different it's going to look depending on where and how and who it happens to, doesn't remove the fact that it is going to happen. A lot.
My case of climate-migration is absolutely representative of how privilege and luck will allow the most fortunate members of societies to turn their climate misfortunes into gains. Many of us are not going to have the same luck. And for every moment that we continue to do nothing to prepare for the coming crisis, that number will only continue to increase.
How did this one land for you? Leave me a comment below or drop me a line if you want to have a conversation. I do not check social media for discussion of or commentary on my work.