Jordan: An internal migration is coming and we aren't ready

In time, people living in high-risk areas such as Miami, Houston, New Orleans and Jacksonville will have to relocate within the United States due to climate change. 

With the 2020 election bearing down on the country, climate change is undoubtedly on the docket. Candidates express commitment to sustainability, concern over sea temperatures and determination to meet vague emission goals. But the issue is treated abstractly, almost rhetorically. Yet across the United States, in places like Miami, Houston, New Orleans and Jacksonville, the changing climate is all too concrete. 

For people like Katelen Harvey, who according to The Charlotte Observer was left homeless after Hurricane Florence, climate change isn’t just an ideological discussion pitting science against ignorance — it’s the storm that destroyed the house she was renting. 

For people like Jade Lopez, who, according to The New York Times, lost her restaurant to Hurricane Dorian, it’s the flood that destroyed her livelihood. 

For people living in South Florida, it’s the reason their houses are depreciating in value. For anyone unable to purchase full flood and storm insurance, climate change is an ever-present threat that could upend their lives permanently. 

And it’s only getting worse. The migration of people will be next.

Storms that are increasing in frequency and strength are only the tip of the destructive iceberg. A report by The Union of Concerned Scientists estimates that over 300,000 coastal homes will be in danger of chronic flooding in 30 years. By 2100, that estimation rises to 2.5 million homes with combined property damage exceeding 1 trillion dollars. Simply put, tens of millions of people live somewhere they won’t be able to in 80 years. For many, relocation isn’t just an inconvenience, it’s a financial impossibility. 

As areas increase in risk, so do insurance rates, while property value diminishes. People will be left with mortgages for homes they can’t sell. The slow drop of the proverbial shoe that is climate change won’t be a one-time shock, but a series of events that will bankrupt communities while trapping them. 

Those that can leave will, but many simply can’t, which brings us back to the 2020 election. The housing plans released or teased by candidates lack provisions dealing with this eventuality. The Federal Emergency Management Agency is woefully unprepared to deal with a crisis you can’t rebuild from. We aren’t ready for what experts are telling is likely inevitable. We aren’t ready for massive internal migration. We aren’t talking about the fact that it’s already underway.

The problem we face is unprecedented, so too must be our response. This won’t be a matter of pouring billions of dollars into a rebuild, but facilitating a migration, from the purchase of inundated property to the establishment of a new life. It’s this facet of our response to climate change that contemporary political debate neglects, the one that deals not just with the perpetrators of catastrophe but with the victims. 

I don’t have the relevant expertise to try to predict what this will all look like. We can fairly assume that transplanting millions of people elsewhere will have economic, social and political consequences. We can’t know exactly what they will be. We also can’t wait to find out. 

People are being affected right now, and they need more than some relief aid when the clouds part. As a nation founded on exploitation of both people and the environment, it’s not just our duty but a moral imperative that we take action. It’s fine if that action looks like the impassioned commitments and concern we see in the Democratic primary, but it also has to take the form of real relief to those that are hurting today, and a plan for how to help those that will be tomorrow.