Connecting the dots between climate change and displacement in the US: current evidence and future directions


Written by

Shazia Manji

In 2018, between hurricanes in the south and south east and wildfires in California, over 1.2 million people were displaced by climate-related disasters. It is no revelation that involuntary displacement due to disasters is becoming more frequent. As cities and governments pursue strategies to reduce emissions and increase local climate resilience, it is imperative that we effectively balance environmental sustainability and equitable development goals. Because even well-intentioned efforts to reduce emissions and adapt to a changing climate can, albeit unintentionally, increase displacement pressures on communities.

In partnership with the Strong, Prosperous, and Resilient Communities Challenge (SPARCC) and EcoAdapt, the Urban Displacement Project set out to review and summarize the current state of knowledge on how climate change and displacement pressures converge in the U.S. In this newly released report, we synthesize findings from 384 studies, reports, and news articles published from the 1970s onwards, in order to inform future policies and be a resource for researchers, policymakers, and practitioners working on these intersecting issues. Accompanying our review is a report by EcoAdapt, documenting the observations and innovations of nearly 200 practitioners who have been actively responding to displacement issues in the context of a changing climate.
In reviewing the literature, we examined the relationship between climate change and displacement in several ways. We investigated the ways in which climate-driven disasters have caused the physical destruction of homes and communities, forcing resident mass relocation. We looked at the more gradual impacts of climate phenomena like nuisance flooding and extreme heat, which have been found to cause incremental property damage and exacerbate existing cost pressures on households. Finally, we reviewed how strategies aimed at reducing greenhouse gas emissions, like new parks and urban greening, may have the unintended effect of furthering gentrification.

What we know from bringing together this broad base of literature is that climate shocks and stressors exacerbate patterns of displacement, and that low-income communities, communities of color, and renters are bearing the brunt of the impact. Climate-driven events – such as hurricanes, wildfires, extreme heat waves, and flooding – are expected to increase in frequency and intensity, highlighting the need to craft solutions tailored towards vulnerable communities. Exposure to climate hazards is not equitably distributed across the population, and existing recovery resources are both insufficient and tend to be geared towards restoring the wealth of homeowners. And while some existing anti-displacement strategies are themselves susceptible to climate stresses, others have unrealized potential to mitigate climate hazards. We reflect on some of the key takeaways from our review of the literature below.

Inequities persist in exposure to and recovery from climate hazards

Our review of literature revealed that many regions across the U.S., low-income communities and communities of color are more likely to live in close proximity to hazards – for example floodplains, fire prone areas, and urban heat islands – due to a legacy of segregation, affordable housing siting decisions, and lower housing costs in high-risk areas. Low-income, non-white renters are also more likely to occupy older, substandard housing that is more likely to see damages during floods and storms, and less likely to have built-in air conditioning or be appropriately weatherized for rising temperatures. Heat waves and higher temperatures during summer months result in higher electricity costs for powering AC, fans, or other cooling methods. Tenants have reported being forced to decide between buying food or paying for electricity, and may incur late fees, power shut-offs, and reconnection charges as a result.
Research also shows that racial and income disparities persist in the allocation of recovery resources. Many disaster recovery programs have been primarily designed to restore wealth, and as a result better serve homeowners, particularly those with more valuable properties. Furthermore, studies show that low-income renters often have to contend with steep rent increases following the destruction of housing stock in the wake of both fires and hurricanes.

Climate resilience efforts and anti-displacement strategies can have unintended consequences

In our investigation of urban greening, transportation, and energy strategies, and their relationship to housing costs, we found that higher property values were most strongly associated with parks, transit-oriented development, and energy efficiency measures, particularly in rapidly changing neighborhoods. While the evidence on the displacement-associated impacts of many climate investments is mixed and context-dependent, the literature highlights the importance of bolstering these strategies to better protect residents from the dual threats of displacement and climate change.

Finally, the effectiveness of anti-displacement strategies may be compromised by climate impacts. A large portion of our affordable housing stock is located in high-risk areas like floodplains; while many of these units were constructed prior to the rise of widespread climate concerns, new construction of affordable housing continues in high-risk areas, largely due to the low prices of climate vulnerable lands. Construction of new projects without proper regard for climate threats can end up exacerbating displacement if these developments are destroyed by a storm, flood, or fire.

Coordinated climate resilience planning and anti-displacement policies are essential

Without proactive policy measures to improve climate resilience and address inequities in vulnerability, climate-driven displacement is likely to worsen as climate hazards become more frequent and intense. While our review revealed some of the potential pitfalls of climate investments and anti-displacement strategies, we were also able to highlight new and promising policies that address the dual concerns of climate change and displacement. For example, pre-planning efforts – like Houston’s rapid rehousing model Rapido – have shown great potential for tackling climate resilience and displacement issues. Community land trusts (CLTs) – which are used to safeguard affordable housing in the face of rapidly increasing housing prices – can help communities return and rebuild with reduced risk of climate-driven gentrification following a disaster, as evidenced by the Caño Martín Peña CLT in Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria. Emergency rent regulations in California following the 2019 wildfires may be a model that can support low-income households in returning to their communities post-disaster.
Learn more about UDP’s and EcoAdapt’s climate and displacement research on SPARCC’s blog.