The Retired Investor: Millions of Americans Migrating to Climate Danger Zones
Over the past decade, a large swath of the American population has migrated to the Sunbelt in search of a better climate, fewer taxes, and lower costs of living. Unfortunately, this area is among the most vulnerable to extreme changes in climate.
In total, nearly 5 million Americans abandoned states in the Northeast and Midwest and migrated to the Sunbelt states in the last 10 years. As such, it has become the fastest-growing region in the country. At the same time, as climate change accelerates, this region has been experiencing higher temperatures, more frequent hurricanes, and in some metro areas a scarcity of water.
Of course, this is not the only U.S. region impacted by climate change. The litany of climate disasters impacting this country this summer would just be too long to list. From raging fires to floods, drought, air pollution, and of course heat. June and July 2023 were the hottest months in recorded history. And where are the highest temperatures occurring -- in the states that attracted the lion's share of new residents in 2022.
Florida, Texas and the Carolinas, followed by other states in the South and West. Among the 10 fastest-growing counties in the U.S., two are considered at very high risk for natural hazards and eight are considered at relatively high risk, according to the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). All of these fastest-growing counties are in the West and South, including six counties in Texas, three in Florida, and one in Arizona.
Despite the well-known climate risks, Americans continue to disregard the present and, more importantly, the future dangers to their environment in pursuit of "milder" temperatures, bigger homes, and more reasonable prices now. This has long been the trend among retirees here in the Northeast with coastal Florida and the Carolinas the most popular destinations for snowbirds. In California, Texas seems to be a top choice.
It is not completely clear what motivates people to ignore the risks of hurricanes, fire, and the like in their migration decisions. A research article by Frontiers in Human Dynamics, "Flocking to Fire: How Climate and natural hazards shape human migration across the U.S," penned by researchers from the University of Vermont and the U.S. Department of Agriculture indicates that the dangers of climate change (such as wildfires) do not outweigh the perceived benefits of life in a fire-prone area.
Moving to a new location is a risky bet at the best of times whether for one who is hoping to find better employment opportunities or simply retiring. Normally, buying a home, for example, is the single largest investment a family will make. And yet, climate change does not even make the list of the top 10 things to consider when relocating.
In a recent article, I wrote about the increasing difficulty in obtaining home insurance in many of these areas. Insurance companies are simply refusing to insure homeowners in affected areas. Few migrating families are even aware of this issue until it is too late to do anything about it.
Retirees have even more at stake when it comes to climate change. So many of the elderly list a warmer climate as their first or second reason for moving to the Sunbelt. Be careful what you wish for. The older one gets, the more air and water pollution becomes serious health risks and this summer's record-breaking heat is already threatening the health of some of our nation's most vulnerable people.
Scientists warn that the prospects for even hotter summers in the future will make certain areas uninhabitable, especially for the elderly. Aside from the present recognized dangers of forest fires, drought, hurricanes, tornados, and flooding, the future danger of these events is not being considered. The violence and frequency of these weather events will increase and encompass a wider and wider area. Settling inland from a coast or a waterway is the knee-jerk answer for some seeking safety. The problem with that approach is how far inland is "safe."
My own opinion on why people are deliberately putting themselves in harm's way is twofold. Although there is a wealth of information on climate change and its impact on the environment in the future, few have taken the time to read it, and even fewer care to. Unless the water is lapping at our bedroom doors or sparks are falling on the roof, Americans would rather watch the latest episode of their favorite show or tune in to the ball game.
My second reason has to do with America's national trait — eternal optimism. It has stood us in good stead for centuries, but in this case, it is our worst enemy. Around 80 percent of people, across all age groups and genders, suffer from what social psychologists call optimism bias.
Tali Sharot, a neuroscientist, and professor of cognitive neuroscience at University College in London, brought the theory of optimism bias into popular consciousness. She argued that many of the seemingly unbiased decisions we make every day are influenced by the fact that we think positively about the future. It is one of America's strengths, but it also gives way to that "it won't happen to me" attitude. It leads us all into believing that whatever the disaster or danger that may threaten those around us "it won't happen to me."
Unfortunately, climate change overall, in this country is still in the "show me" stage and that show is just beginning. Recall that fewer than half a dozen years ago, many of our politicians in federal, state, and local governments denied even the existence of climate change and there are still a few holdouts today. For people to begin to include the danger of climate change in their future migration decisions, a lot must change. It will. Unfortunately, those changes will be up close and personal for too many of us.