Climate change is disrupting our sense of home (2024)

Climate change is personal. It is not abstract. The warming climate impacts our economies, influences our politics and culture, threatens the food we eat and the water we drink; it even affects our love lives.

As climate change accelerates and extreme heat and climate disasters displace more people around the world, the crisis is increasingly disrupting our fundamental sense of where we belong and what we consider home.

We saw that last summer, in Maui, Hawaii, when the deadliest wildfire in the US in more than a century leveled the historic town of Lahaina, killed more than 100 people, and displaced thousands of residents from their homes.

In the immediate wake of the disaster, many families sheltered in hotels and resorts along the fringes of the burn zone, all to be displaced again a few months later when tourists returned to the city. We’re nearly a year out from the devastating fire and the recovery has intersected with an ongoing housing crisis that still leaves many Maui residents without stable housing.

Millions more have experienced the same over the last two decades. According to the United Nations Refugee Agency, an annual average of 21.5 million people have been forcibly displaced, on average, each year since 2008 by weather-related events such as floods, storms, wildfires, and extreme temperatures.

“Each of these statistics is a man, woman, or child whose life has been destroyed, who has lost home, family, and friends. Said goodbye — perhaps forever — to relatives who are too old or sick to make an arduous journey to safer locations,” said UN commissioner Filippo Grandi in late October.

Those numbers are only expected to grow. According to the international think tank the Institute for Economics & Peace, as many as 1.2 billion people could be displaced globally by 2050 due to climate change and natural disasters.

In sub-Saharan Africa, South Asia, and Latin America, the World Bank estimates that climate change will displace more than 140 million people within their home countries by 2050. For example, more than 1 million Somalis were displaced by drought over a short period of a few months in 2022. The dire drying of the country, combined with devastating floods and ongoing conflict in the region, caused many families to be uprooted from their villages.

“These are alarming figures of some of the most vulnerable people forced to abandon the little that they had to head for the unknown,” the Norwegian Refugee Council’s Somalia Country Director, Mohamed Abdi, told the UN Refugee Agency.

All around the world, the climate crisis is disrupting our connection to place, our sense of home.

All of our lives are intertwined with the natural world, but the changing climate’s effects are not felt equally

Currently, an extreme drought has enveloped much of southern Africa. More than 2.7 million people in rural Zimbabwe are, according to aid groups in the region, facing food scarcity and many families are going hungry. Ongoing drought has “scorched crops that tens of millions of people grow themselves and rely on to survive, helped by what should be the rainy season,” the AP reported. “They can rely on their crops and the weather less and less.”

The southern Africa drought has reached Botswana and Angola, Cambia and Malawi, where in 2023 Cyclone Freddy displaced thousands of people in the small country.

These back-to-back crises highlight a stark contrast between the people moving in front-line nations most vulnerable to rising seas, climate disasters, and displacement and those who move for amenities such as sunny days and warm winters. Particularly in the United States, there’s a lot of sun-drenched magical thinking that continues to drive the movement of people searching for their ideal homes and climate while betting against the odds of climate change and access to water.

A few years ago, The fastest-growing region in the country was Maricopa County in Arizona, home to Phoenix, a desert metropolis that averages more than 110 days per year with temperatures exceeding 100°F. Maricopa County reported 645 heat-related deaths in 2023, a 700 percent increase from a decade ago. Those losses disproportionately hit low-income families, communities of color, and workers with inadequate protections from their employers.

Despite even worse to come, the population in Maricopa increased by 14 percent over the last decade to nearly 4.5 million people. You see a similar trend in Florida, where many people are moving to areas vulnerable to hurricanes, rising seas, and flooding, or in the Western United States where much of the region faces extreme wildfire risk.

According to the real-estate site Redfin, nearly half of Americans who plan to move say natural disasters factored into their decision, and 27 percent of those surveyed said recent natural disasters such as floods or wildfires have made them reconsider where they want to live.

But affinity to a place can trump even the most jaw-dropping statistics.

The shared unmooring

In a previous analysis from Redfin, which my colleague Bryan Walsh reported on at the time, the 50 US counties with the largest share of homes facing high climate and extreme weather risk all experienced positive net migration on average between 2016 and 2020.

I was born in Colorado in the late 1980s, and much of my identity is inseparable from the place where I live in the Southwestern United States. Because of the lifestyle my hometown affords me — a routine where I can regularly get out in nature, move my body, and hike — I accept the trade-offs: frequent smoke from wildfires, aridity, and heat. I’m a person of and a part of this place. I’m happy here. I have a community here. I’m connected here. This is my home.

Yet climate change has already begun to fray those connections: Our winters are changing — becoming, on average, less snowy; our summers are wracked by episodes of triple-digit heat and our mid-century neighborhood is filled with houses (mine included) that don’t have air conditioning.

According to a recent report from the Colorado Climate Center, heat waves are projected to increase in frequency by as much as tenfold by the middle of the 21st century. Wildfires are expected to be more extreme and to occur more often — even during the winter and spring. The Colorado River, which some 40 million people, including myself, depend on for drinking water, hydropower, and agriculture, remains in the grip of a 1,200-year megadrought.

I’m reminded of a story from a few years ago by Cally Carswell in which she writes about Santa Fe, New Mexico, a city she loved and one in which she convinced her family to take root. But she began to worry that she chose a place without reckoning with the particulars of its future. “How likely is this place to become barren? How soon? Will we have the tools to endure it?” And, perhaps most strikingly: “What are we doing here?”

These are deeply personal questions that reach into the future. What do we do? Should we stay? Where can we go?

While the climate crisis widens inequities and hits some communities more severely than others, this shattering concept of home is a unifier. The relative pain, regardless of where you are, is destabilizing. We are all, no matter where we are on Earth, unsettled, in solidarity in our unmooring.

Climate change causes literal displacement and spiritual displacement, too.

This story appeared originally in Today, Explained, Vox’s flagship daily newsletter. Sign up here for future editions.

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Climate change is disrupting our sense of home (2024)
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