The squeal of truck brakes filled our suburban street in Northern California that September morning as two storage containers were lowered onto our driveway. The sun was fuzzy behind a blanket of smoke and falling ash as we packed up our house and then, wearing N-95 masks, elbow-bumped our friends goodbye. Early the next morning my husband, two kids, two dogs, and I boarded a one-way flight from San Francisco to Boston.
As it’s been for many other Americans affected by climate change, our move wasn’t what we planned. But everything I loved about the Golden State, where I was born, started to unravel in 2017. Uplifting sunshine turned into searing ultraviolet rays and unrelenting heat waves. As the reservoirs emptied, I learned the term “drought-tolerant” and how to love succulents. Seeing a neighbor’s green lawn seemed like some sort of climate pornography.
And then the fires came. August was no longer the month of pool parties and back-to-school shopping — it was the start of fire season. My mother sold her house in Sonoma County on a Friday and it burned down three days later. Power blackouts became more frequent and emergency alerts, incessant. We lived by the AQI (air quality index), which dictated whether we could go outside that day. Packing the wildfire survival “go bag” went from a family joke to a necessity. We bought a rain barrel and air purifiers, Googled “are fireproof safes fireproof?” and priced generators.
It all left me cranky, terrified, and anxious. When the Woodward Fire broke out 20 miles from our house — it would burn nearly 5,000 acres — I called a real estate agent and we listed the house. After examining public school ratings, tax rates, air quality, and proximity to family, we chose Massachusetts, and felt grateful to have the means to be able to make such a choice.
Family relocation is nothing new, experts remind us, and we can expect it to become more commonplace as the effects of rising temperatures accelerate. “Throughout human history, changes in climate have driven large migrations, so the idea that populations will move in the future shouldn’t be a surprise,” says Solomon Hsiang, Chancellor’s Professor of Public Policy at the Global Policy Laboratory at the University of California, Berkeley. He pointed to the Dust Bowl as a “transformational” event that some communities are still recovering from a century later.
Floods, fires, and storms have displaced people for centuries, but the decision to leave a community is based on more than a significant weather event. “I think it’s important to remember that no one wakes up in the morning and thinks, Climate change, I’m out. It’s a push and pull,” says Jesse Keenan, associate professor of real estate at the Tulane School of Architecture. “Things like commute times and housing costs all add up to challenge the affordability and accessibility of a region.” Even when it gets bad, many people simply can’t afford to leave, he emphasized.
Boston was on the receiving end of a climate migration beginning in 2017 when evacuees from Hurricane Maria relocated to Massachusetts — among them, 2,500 displaced students who enrolled in public schools throughout the state. This highlighted the need for increased coordination of housing, education, and other support services; in response, in 2019 state Representative Liz Miranda drafted a bill (updated in 2021) “to better prepare the Commonwealth for climate change refugees.”
New England is confronting its own set of climate-induced threats. Jonathan Winter, associate professor of geography at Dartmouth College, points to three major risks for the region: sea level rise, heavy precipitation, and heat stress. Winter coauthored a recent study that found between 1996 and 2018, there was a 48 percent increase in extreme precipitation in the Northeast.
Local and state governments are preparing for what seems inevitable, with increased funding and legislation aimed at mitigating or adapting to climate change. The 2019 Climate Ready Boston plan updated proposals set out in 2015 to prepare the city for myriad issues. “As a coastal city, rising sea levels have impacted planning in the city of Boston in a radical manner,” says Scott Slarsky, senior architect and planner at the Boston Planning & Development Agency. A key focus is expanding Boston’s “capacity to build coastal resilience infrastructure,” he adds. Coastal regions like Cape Cod have specific challenges that are already affecting homes and businesses. Sea level rise is one of the most urgent, with coastal waters off Massachusetts up to 8 inches higher than in 1950, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Sea Level Rise Tides and Currents.
The headlines from the COP26 UN Climate Change Conference seem more relevant to my life than ever. If the United States can return to a leadership role in fighting climate change, perhaps a broader population will get the message: Climate impacts reach everyone’s doorstep. “The reality is, if they aren’t being harmed [by climate change] yet, they certainly will be in the near future,” says Jennifer Marlon, research scientist at Yale School of the Environment.
I miss the ease of old friends and the smell of damp redwood trees in California, but I’ve embraced the fierce wind off Vineyard Sound. I’ve swapped wildfires and drought conditions for hurricanes and beach erosion. There is no escaping the effects of climate change; maybe it comes down to deciding between the lesser of two evils. And I find myself wondering: In 20 years, will Americans be weighing climate risk the same way they look at school rankings or crime rates when deciding where to live?
Laura Holmes Haddad is a writer in West Tisbury. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.