Climate Change Will Force People Out of Their Homes — But Where Will They Go?

Many seek the best places to live to avoid climate change—but do those places exist? And where will climate refugees go when the crisis forces them to relocate?

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Parts of Florida are already experiencing regular flooding because of sea level rise due to climate change. And it’s likely going to get much worse in only a couple decades. NOAA updated their projections for sea level rise in February, and their latest models bring an additional 18 inches of water along the Gulf Coast and upwards of 12 inches for the Atlantic Coast by 2050.

Tampa, on the state’s western coast, will be under “severe” flooding risk in the next 30 years, according to Flood Factor, an online tool created by the nonprofit First Street Foundation.

In the longer term, Climate Central projects downtown Tampa could be underwater after several decades, depending on how much the planet warms. 

Nearby St. Petersburg could turn into an island.

With some businesses already relocating to higher elevations, one potential dry spot in Tampa is getting a lot of attention.

Dixie Farms, a neighborhood on the city’s east side, is dotted with empty patches of land where people once lived. A mobile home park was sold and cleared out; on some blocks, residents told NBCLX their properties are in high demand.

This Earth Week, we’re looking at how the water we depend on is also putting us at risk, and what we can do to turn the tide. And when that water moves inland, people are going to have to move out of harm’s way; perhaps to a region referred to as a climate haven.

More climate coverage from NBCLX

See How Climate Change Could Put Coastal Cities, 2/3 of World Population Underwater

Edge of the Abyss: Why Climate Migration May Lead to the Next Great Housing Crisis

Scientists have projected sea level rise from climate change will have massive impacts on where people live, potentially turning millions into climate migrants in search of dry land.

And while the biggest climate migration is yet to come, we’re already seeing the effects of climate on housing in some parts of the country. Businesses in low-lying areas are moving to higher ground, like in Dixie Farms, which leaves less room for affordable housing in those same areas.

“I get letters every day that people want to buy my house,” said resident Ismael Lugo. He is staying put for now, but many of his neighbors have sold and moved. The community has lost more than two-thirds of its population in the past two decades.

More demand for real estate inland drives up costs and forces out lower-income residents. That inspired researchers Jesse Keenan from Tulane University and Marco Tedesco from Columbia University to come up with a new term for the trend: climate gentrification. 

“Every year when we lose a little bit of land or a road here or neighborhood there goes underwater, it really adds up,” Keenan said. “Because every housing unit counts. Every road counts. So as sea level rise begins to creep in, it adds additional costs.”

“What they’re trying to do is move inland, move to a lower-risk area,” Keenan said. "And so that’s really accelerating the concentration of industrial development and commercial development in an area that historically has been a site for low to moderate income housing.”

Climate gentrification is happening in the Florida Keys, too, where service workers are being priced out of properties that mostly cater to the wealthy. Living on house boats or in shared spaces is common, said Hans Lindsay, a boat captain and tour guide in the area.

“Property values [in the Florida Keys] are going through the roof, and that leaves less infrastructure for the working class,” Lindsay said. Workers live “five to 10 deep in any place they can find.”

In Dixie Farms, some residents said they couldn’t afford a new home and don’t want to move. And areas like the Keys will be challenged to raise enough money to protect all the infrastructure there, Keenan said.

Where are the climate havens?

If you're thinking about moving soon, you may have to start considering how climate change could affect the real estate you buy. But some regions have "climate amenities" like abundant freshwater and will be isolated from the effects of sea level rise. This Earth Week, Jalyn Henderson takes you to the Great Lakes region for more on the area's future as a potential haven for climate migrants.

Some people will become climate migrants by choice - others will have the wealth to relocate anywhere they choose, Keenan said.

“That means they have the means, the wealth, the skills and the resources to be able to preemptively move to other parts of their region or even the country, to build a new home and a new community in the face of risk,” Keenan said. “Essentially, they’re moving to escape from climate change, but the reality is there’s nowhere to escape climate change. What people are trying to do is think about what places are going to fare better than others in the future.”

No matter what end of the spectrum someone falls on, they’ll have to start considering the “climate amenities” of the place they want to live. 

That’s led to a lot of attention for the Great Lakes region.

It’s home to more than 20% of the world’s fresh water, and unlike other parts of the country, the region doesn’t normally experience things like hurricanes, tornadoes, drought or sea-level rise.

Cities like Duluth, Minnesota and Buffalo, New York have already been labeled as “climate havens”; while other places like Cleveland, Ohio and Ann Arbor, Michigan are working to make their cities more sustainable, all while trying to prepare for a potential influx of climate migrants. 

In addition to water access, most of the cities benefit from a reliable, bi-national economy and many have infrastructure and buildings with “good bones” that could accommodate more people, said Rachel Jacobson, deputy director of the American Society of Adaptation Professionals, a group helping cities and industries prepare for climate change’s impact on their future.

But just because the region is considered a climate haven, it doesn’t mean that it’s climate change resistant.

The Great Lakes is seeing increased temperatures and precipitation, that causes inconsistent lake levels; there are more invasive species in the waterways; the composition of the forests is shifting, and many of the “good bones” in these cities are also aging and not getting any younger.

“A lot of our infrastructure is really degraded, and it’s not even able to support the people who are relying on it now,” Jacobson said. “We have to upgrade and modernize our infrastructure if we’re going to use it to support more people.”

What else needs to happen for these cities to be climate migrant ready?

Climate experts believes that cities will need to tackle land use policies, their relationship with the private sector, fossil fuel consumption and even social service legislation - to name a few.

"Climate migration is really an opportunity for our region to envision and think about the way we need this region to adapt to the climate impacts that we are experiencing and that we're going to experience,” Jacobson said. “We're really planning 30 or 50 years in advance. And that may sound like a really long time, but the things we do now, we’ll feel the benefits now and later.”