The Great Displacement: Climate Change and the Next American Migration
By Jake Bittle
Simon & Schuster, 2023, 368 pp.
Bittle has overcome the great difficulty in writing about environmental crises: in many cases, the story becomes so depressing that readers turn away in despair. In this valuable, well-written book, which breaks new ground, he seamlessly blends an expert, policy-level treatment of the causes and consequences of the displacement of Americans being driven by climate change with a narrative of the often heart-rending impacts on particular individuals. Although the book’s subtitle uses “migration,” he notes that that word implies an intentional movement from one place to another, whereas what is happening is a diffuse movement in many directions that is unpredictable and chaotic. Driven by fire, floods, and heat, this “shambling retreat from mountain ranges and flood-prone riverbeds, back from the oceans, and out of the desert” will “reshape the demographic geography” of the United States, pushing even more Americans into metropolitan areas, in which around 80 percent of the country already lives (and making the U.S. Senate even less reflective of the country than it already is). The economic impacts beyond the housing market will be felt in enterprises from meatpacking to outdoor theme parks. Bittle shows where government policy and the shortcomings of private markets have made a now unavoidable problem worse, and he addresses some of the changes that need to be made, especially in the mortgage and insurance markets, and the urgent need for a national plan for adapting to (as opposed to slowing) climate change.