Voting with Their Feet: Climate has Americans on the Move

April 16, 2022

Yale 360:

Like a growing number of Americans, the Brazil family realized they could no longer live in a place where they faced soaring temperatures and worsening wildfires driven by climate change, and so decided it was time to move to a less vulnerable part of the country. They chose New England, where Mich, a psychologist, got a transfer from her employer, the U.S. Veterans Administration, to its office in White River Junction, Vermont. After more than a year of living in a series of temporary accommodations near their former Oregon home, they moved last October to an apartment in Enfield, New Hampshire — close to the Vermont border — where they have begun to rebuild their lives.

“I can’t tell you how many times we looked at a map of the whole country and asked, ‘Where do we want to live?’” Forest said in the basement apartment where they now live with their children, ages 5, 3, and 1. “The West Coast was no longer an option. The Midwest didn’t appeal. And then looking out here, we don’t have to worry about drought and fires. We don’t have to worry about smoke and heat.”

For Roy Parvin and his wife, Janet Vail, several years of living with wildfires around their home in northern California’s Sonoma County finally drove them some 2,600 miles to Asheville, North Carolina, where they pursue their respective careers in writing and publishing in a place where they do not have to be worried about fires, heat, or smoke.

In 2014, the couple thought they had built their dream home in the California town of Cloverdale. But three years later they experienced the first of a series of wildfires that came as close as a quarter-mile to the house. The fires finally convinced them that they could no longer live in the parched expanses of the American West.

“We left in 2020 after getting tired of being evacuated in the middle of the night by a policeman saying, ‘Pack your cars, take your dogs, don’t pick up anything, just go,’” said Parvin.

As they became convinced that they could no longer live in Sonoma, they briefly considered Bend, Oregon, but dismissed that because of its own fire problems, and Austin, Texas, but decided that would be too hot. They concluded it was time for a move out of the West altogether.

The couple decided to move to Asheville after visiting it on a book tour. They put their house up for sale 10 days before California’s Covid lockdown began in March 2020, and it quickly sold, despite the fire risk and a simultaneous exodus by some of their neighbors. Any doubt that they had made the right move was erased in 2021 when another fire destroyed a mountain cabin that they had sold when they moved to Cloverdale. “Even though we didn’t own the cabin at the time of its demise, the loss did confirm that we’d made the right decision,” he said.

No comprehensive data exists on the scale of America’s climate migration, but there is growing local evidence that it is gathering pace. In Vermont, a recent survey of about 30 people who moved to the state from many parts of the United States since the start of the pandemic found that at least a third included climate in their decisions to relocate.

“In some cases, it was people saying, ‘The wildfire smoke is too much. There’s a scarcity of water. It’s only getting worse. The heat is too great,’” said Cheryl Morse, a professor of geography at the University of Vermont, who conducted the survey in mid-2021. “They were experiencing those things firsthand where they lived, and they were imagining Vermont would be cooler, and have more seasonality, and have more water available to them, and not have wildfire smoke.”

Vermont’s new arrivals are also driven by a desire to reduce exposure to Covid-19, an ability to work remotely, and often by handsome profits on the sale of houses in more pricey urban and suburban areas, said Morse, who conducted focus groups with her respondents.

Most migrants are motivated to move by a number of factors, including climate, said Peter Nelson, a professor of geography at Middlebury College in Vermont, who observed some of Morse’s focus groups. The respondents to Morse’s survey included one couple who moved from their coastal home in Cape Cod, Massachusetts to Vermont because of concerns over more powerful storms and worries that beaches were being eroded by sea level rise.

2 Responses to “Voting with Their Feet: Climate has Americans on the Move”

  1. rhymeswithgoalie Says:

    They moved from Oregon to Vermont, so they’re used to the wider swings in the lengths of days, but I like to warn people from the sunbelt to be prepared for 9-hour days in the winter (where the sun is low in the sky all day) and 15+ hour days in the summer.

    I have a relative who moved from Albuquerque to Portland, Oregon, where she appreciated the cooler weather but suffered greater mood dips on the darker days at higher latitudes. (There’s a greater issue if you live in a valley.)

  2. jimbills Says:

    Kind of a late comment, probably no one will see this, but I’ve been on a Jim Jarmusch kick lately. There’s a quote that struck me from ‘Only Lovers Left Alive’ where Tilda Swinton’s character mentions Detroit will rise again when the South is burning:

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