Adam, a 38-year-old father and husband, has already been a victim of climate change.
In October 2018, Hurricane Michael — fueled by warmer-than-usual waters in the Gulf of Mexico — made landfall on the Florida Panhandle as a massively powerful Category 5 storm, with sustained winds of 160 miles per hour. The fourth recorded hurricane to hit the U.S. with such intensity, it destroyed Adam’s house in the coastal city of Port Saint Joe. At the same time, his wife was giving birth to their child. You might say this was the mother of all wake-up calls.
“Now we’re trying to get the fuck out of Florida,” Adam tells me in a Twitter DM. He says that his wife “lays awake thinking about it at night and annoys me about it during the day.”
“It’s great,” he adds.
Adam is hardly alone in hoping to move because of weather events worsened by climate change (as Michael undoubtedly was). Record-breaking storms, sea-level rise, droughts, heat waves, floods and wildfires have convinced many Americans to relocate; many others already have; untold millions will do so in the future. And perhaps no generation is more fatefully situated than millennials — in younger marriages and the early-middle of their careers, having or considering kids, on the lookout for a first or more permanent home — to factor climate into their plans over the coming years. One widely reported real estate survey found that of respondents moving in the next year, those aged 35 to 44 were most likely, across the board, to cite the risk of extreme weather and natural disaster as part of their decision, followed by the 25 to 34 range. The eldest millennials turn 40 this year, while the youngest are turning 25.
“I’m moving this winter/spring,” tweeted Matt, 39, in mid-August of this year. He was fed up with living in Austin, Texas, which had been his home since 2008. The post included a screenshot from his weather app displaying the current temperature there, 91 degrees Fahrenheit, and a “RealFeel” of 104 degrees Fahrenheit. He went on to explain: “Climate change may come for my ass everywhere, but I’m moving to the middle of a godforsaken tundra, at least make it work to kill me.”
In February, the nation watched in horror as Texas froze over in a winter storm that also knocked the state’s power grid offline, plunging millions into darkness and lethal cold. The death toll was in the hundreds. It was taken as a prime example of how climate change contributes to such crises, though as Matt’s tweet indicates, Texans are more focused on climbing temperatures than snow. The region is projected to heat up faster than other parts of the globe, with a steady doubling of 100-degree days. Meanwhile, residents can expect more droughts and stronger hurricanes. Demand for air-conditioning means the electrical infrastructure, disconnected from interstate grids and widely deregulated, continues to be strained in summers.
Matt isn’t really moving to the tundra, he tells me in a Twitter DM, but Portland, Oregon. He’s lived in the city in the past, and his company — he works in logistics — has an office there. “I don’t know if I would move if I had to also look for work,” he says.
Steady work is one of the advantages that millennials seem to have over Gen Z when it comes to relocating for climate reasons. Although the following generation was poised to enter a robust job market, the COVID-19 pandemic has been disastrous for youth unemployment rates.
I ask if Matt is concerned about some of the scorching weather Portland has seen lately: It reached 115 degrees Fahrenheit in a record-breaking June heat wave that buckled roads and melted power cables. Matt thinks there’s still no comparison to the steady bake where he lives now, and the occasional week of misery is an acceptable trade-off for more cool days. “Even with increasing annual temperatures, it will still be years before Portland is as hot as Austin is now,” he says. In the past, he had moved to Oregon from Florida for much the same reasons.
“Do I feel like this is climate migration? Partially, I guess. I’m just not suited for the Texas heat, and it’s getting worse faster than I can ‘get used to it,’” Matt tells me. He also still considers moving back to another former home: Alaska. “I’ve long had a half-notion of retiring there, but it’s always been culturally isolated,” he says — for example, many bands don’t tour the state.
At the moment, these factors remain in the calculus of where to live. One gets the feeling, however, that people are more and more comfortable with the idea of going somewhere remote. On subreddits like r/preppers, r/offgrid, r/climatechange and r/collapse — the last of which hosts discussion of impending financial meltdown and “SHTF,” or “shit hits the fan” conditions — users are discussing where to go and how to survive. Here you can track some of the most active participants in climate migration. Quite a few believe the planet can’t be saved in the long term.
“I was too late to realize I shouldn’t have kids,” a redditor commented recently in an r/collapse thread on lifestyle changes. “Now I get to decide how and when to tell them that we’re fucked. … I moved to a rural piece of land with good fresh water springs and wells. We have been gardening and preserving like our lives depend on it. My wife quit her job in order to raise the kids and work said garden, along with everything else.”
Over at r/climatechange, meanwhile, other redditors who have already moved are reporting their results. One who left L.A. for St. Louis, Missouri, marveled at the lack of congestion in the city and affordable housing: “Of course the culture is different, but you can buy an absolutely lovely 3br house in an inner ring low-crime subdivision of St. Louis with a good school district for $350K,” they wrote. Another user, with rising fire insurance bills and a baby on the way, didn’t want to abandon California, and moved the family to a property well above sea level in Humboldt County, on the northern coast. “Climate wise it is similar to San Francisco, but the mountain range blocks the inland air, making that coast less prone to heat waves,” they noted.
Some 57 percent of Americans believe that weather and climate issues will have a “‘moderate’ or greater influence on their decision to move in the coming decade,” according to a study published in Climatic Change. California, prone to long droughts and devastating wildfires that have only grown in size and severity, is a place that some of these people are particularly abandoning: In both 2019 and 2020, more migrated out of the state than into it.
Alex, 31, lives with his wife in Desert Hot Springs, California, between the San Bernardino and San Jacinto mountain ranges. Evan, 34, lives in L.A. with his fiancée. Both couples are working on plans to move to another part of the country. But neither knows just where as yet.
For Evan and his bride-to-be, Hollywood is an obvious home base: they work in the TV and film industry. But the dream of owning a house and having children in Southern California has come to feel out of their reach. “L.A. just isn’t the place to do that unless you’re super rich,” he tells me in a DM. “There’s too many bad variables on the horizon. An impending drought, more and more heat waves, bad air from fires and potential for massive societal displacement. It’s already expensive to live in L.A., and now it’s just more miserable.” Between the pandemic and climate instability, he says, the cost of living is just not worth it. Indeed, while some millennials are piling into the housing market, the majority say home ownership remains totally out of reach, at least barring some desperate gamble.
For example: Alex and his wife left the California coast — Long Beach, to be specific — at the beginning of the pandemic lockdowns. She was furloughed, and they found their city unaffordable on a single income; plus, it was difficult to find a smaller rental because of their two large dogs. “So we liquidated all of our savings and took a huge risk on buying a house out [in the desert], which somehow worked out,” Alex says. “But man, living in the desert doesn’t feel like a sustainable idea, so we’re looking to maybe sell the house in the next year, after the two-year threshold of ownership, in order for us to avoid paying the capital gains tax (if we make any money on the sale, that is).”
While the problems of living in the Sonoran Desert, which is getting hotter and drier, have weighed on Alex’s mind, the topic hasn’t come up much in his community of many older, retired and more conservative residents. “It feels like climate migration anxiety is still bubbling below the surface and not a thing a lot of people want to talk about,” he says. “It’s very hit or miss talking about climate change with people. Even my home inspector who came by again recently was like, ‘Yeah they’re always declaring water shortages, same shit different year.’”
Despite this local nonchalance, the couple is thinking seriously about where they could make it in the long term. Alex is in sales, while his wife is a designer, and both have been able to work from home; he stressed the level of “privilege” it took to be making these decisions, even if it means giving up the California dream he was chasing when he went to Long Beach from Philadelphia in 2018. Alex and his wife have already scrapped former aspirations of heading up to Oregon, or Eureka, California, which they now see as unacceptable fire risks.
Evan and his fiancée, meanwhile, have to consider their entertainment careers with their move. Because L.A. is largely untenable for middle-class professionals, he says, they’re seeking a city that “has an economy that supports media (film and TV writing/acting/whatever) but also isn’t so expensive we can’t afford to live there.”
“We want some space too — for life and storage,” he adds. “We may need to be able to grow our own food when the food supply shorts out. Or store large quantities of water. I know it sounds like crazy person talk, but I’m trying to look down the barrel of the future, and if I want myself and my fiancée and our potential children to survive, this is what I have to think about now.”
I did notice that most of the men I talked to not only had either the financial means or a flexible enough job to relocate, but a long-term life partner. One Pew Research poll from 2015 found that in wealthier countries like the U.S., there’s a gender gap in attitudes toward climate change: Women are “more likely to consider climate change a serious problem, be concerned it will harm them personally and say that major lifestyle changes are needed to solve the problem.” It stands to reason that a man living in a committed relationship with a woman is more likely to develop a sense that climate events are a direct threat to be addressed as soon as possible. And while women appear to have the edge in charitable giving and grassroots activism, it could be that men are inclined to take action by protecting and providing for their own, striking out across the wilderness to seek a castle they can defend.
Both Evan and Alex have an eye on the Midwest: Evan brings up Ohio, where he’s from and still has family, as well as Milwaukee, New England and Pittsburgh. Alex’s primary concern, other than a viable supply chain, is being near a fresh water source. “We’ve been looking at Wisconsin and Michigan, which compared to California have very affordable housing,” he says.
Evan anticipates one of my questions before I can ask it: Isn’t it true that nowhere is safe from climate change? Although he sees the promise of inland regions, well above sea level and north of the Bible Belt, “eventually,” he tells me, “all areas will be affected by climate issues. It’s just about finding ones where the problems are less lethal and manageable.”
Speaking of, how has Adam’s family fared in Florida since Hurricane Michael three years ago? Bit by bit, they’re still repairing the house, which sits only a block from the ocean and a hazardous few feet below sea level. Debt has piled up in the process. “Probably 185K in damage to a house we paid 206K for,” he says, on top of losing work for a year to the pandemic, in addition to regular living expenses and the costs of having a kid. The hope is that the property will be in shape to sell within another year.
It’s not just being parents that has the couple planning a move. “It’s more about the stress my wife experiences every time a storm develops in the ocean or a wildfire starts in the west,” Adam says. Each hurricane season could churn out another Michael. “It’s just a matter of time before it happens again. And we can’t deal with it again.”
As for unloading a precariously situated house, he isn’t terribly worried: “Fortunately, Boomers are stupid, so I think it will be fairly easily to sell and go for more than I’d expect.” The data so far may bear this out: Areas facing climate risk are experiencing a population influx despite it. Older Americans on social media engage less with content about extreme climate shifts, and they’re more likely to oppose far-reaching policies, including the reduction in fossil fuels. Not everyone is feeling the urgency, and your age has a lot to do with it.
After escaping Florida, Adam’s family will move in the only available direction — north. Adam knows people going to the Carolinas, but figures that doesn’t solve the hurricane problem. Meanwhile, cities like Buffalo, New York and Duluth, Minnesota seem too frigid. Nonetheless, Michigan is another contender. “Probably somewhere outside of a medium-sized city that has enough to do in the cold months that you don’t go insane,” he says. “Somewhere that I could buy five acres, but also not be more than like 20 minutes from a movie theater.”
These criteria reminded me of Matt’s comment about Alaska — that it was too cut off from mainstream American culture. All four men I talked to were not only hoping to escape the worst devastation of extreme climate events, but find a rare and precious balance: between the rural and the urban, on the grid but not fully dependent on it, neither too hot in summer nor subjected to a six-month freeze, affordable yet spacious. Though a haven that satisfies all these requirements is difficult to imagine, it remains, at this moment, possible to hope for. Millennials grew up in an age of enhanced customization and algorithmic solutions; it makes perfect sense that we’d hold out for a home that meets all our personal requirements and has a chance of withstanding climate change.
In time, however, we may settle for mere safety. Or as Adam puts it: “Just a place where it’s not constant hurricanes, tornadoes, wildfires or flooding.” These guys aren’t exactly searching for some place comfortable. They’re looking for somewhere to survive. When that, too, is beyond our grasp, we will be in something far worse than a crisis.