The Great Displacement: Climate Change and the Next American Migration
Shortlisted for the 2024 Carnegie Medal for Excellence
“The Great Displacement is closely observed, compassionate, and far-sighted.” —Elizabeth Kolbert, Pulitzer Prize–winning author of Under a White Sky
The untold story of climate migration in the United States—the personal stories of those experiencing displacement, the portraits of communities being torn apart by disaster, and the implications for all of us as we confront a changing future.
Even as climate change dominates the headlines, many of us still think about it in the future tense—we imagine that as global warming gets worse over the coming decades, millions of people will scatter around the world fleeing famine and rising seas. What we often don’t realize is that the consequences of climate change are already visible, right here in the United States. In communities across the country, climate disasters are pushing thousands of people away from their homes.
A human-centered narrative with national scope, The Great Displacement is “a vivid tour of the new human geography just coming into view” (David Wallace-Wells, New York Times bestselling author of The Uninhabitable Earth). From half-drowned Louisiana to fire-scorched California, from the dried-up cotton fields of Arizona to the soaked watersheds of inland North Carolina, people are moving. In the last few decades, the federal government has moved tens of thousands of families away from flood zones, and tens of thousands more have moved of their own accord in the aftermath of natural disasters. Insurance and mortgage markets are already shifting to reflect mounting climate risk, pricing people out of risky areas.
Over the next fifty years, millions of Americans will be caught up in this churn of displacement, forced inland and northward in what will be the largest migration in our country’s history. The Great Displacement compassionately tells the stories of those who are already experiencing life on the move, while detailing just how radically climate change will transform our lives—erasing historic towns and villages, pushing people toward new areas, and reshaping the geography of the United States.
Praise for The Great Displacement: Climate Change and the Next American Migration
“We know what climate change will do, now, if not precisely its scale. But we don't yet see clearly just what it will do to us—our families and communities and homesteads, not mention our politics and culture. Jake Bittle's The Great Displacement is a bracing, vivid tour of the new human geography just coming into view and warning us of what's to come.”
—David Wallace-Wells, New York Times bestselling author of The Uninhabitable Earth
"Jake Bittle travels from Florida to California to see how climate change is already altering people's lives. The Great Displacement is closely observed, compassionate, and far-sighted."
—Elizabeth Kolbert, Pulitzer-Prize winning author of Under a White Sky
"It's hard to imagine a more timely book—as climate chaos gathers momentum, more and more people are forced to make the hardest of human decisions: to leave home and make a new life elsewhere. This deeply-reported account brings those stories to life, and with them a host of policy choices that could make this new era a little less disastrous."
—Bill McKibben, author Falter: Has the Human Game Begun to Play Itself Out?
“Jake Bittle draws close to those communities that are being fundamentally reshaped by climate change and he sticks around, long after the disaster declarations are over, to ask one of our era's most pressing questions: when we are forced to leave the places that have long defined us, what will we encounter on the other side?”
—Elizabeth Rush, author of Rising: Dispatches from the New American Shore
"Until now, the word 'displaced,' has never been strong enough to accurately conjure up what it really means: people driven from their homes, but not out of their countries, by the disruptive forces of climate-driven disasters. America already has millions of such people. We can't call them 'refugees' because they're still here in America. Jake Bittle has found a way to bring us their individual accounts to tell the larger story of a failing system—extreme weather, government error and inaction, and corporate and individual greed have come together to drive an unfolding catastrophe, which already impacts us all."
—Eliza Griswold, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Amity and Prosperity
“[Bittle is] an empathetic writer, but also one with a real gift for explaining the fraught issues—economic, scientific, political—that make the climate crisis and its effect on the population so complex. It sometimes feels too pat to call a book ‘necessary,’ but this one really is.”
"Roving across the United States, this survey explores the precarious environments in which many Americans now live, places irreversibly altered by floods, fires, hurricanes, and drought...Bittle argues that the approaches of both government and the insurance industry are totally inadequate for today’s dilemmas: Where should we build? What should we protect? And what do we owe those who lose everything?"
—The New Yorker
“The foregrounding of individual voices adds to the book’s power and sense of urgency, and Bittle is an expert explainer of policy matters…A captivating look at a pressing issue.”
—Publishers Weekly, starred review
“Urgent, perceptive…a simultaneously fascinating and unnerving report brilliantly delivered.”
—Kirkus Weekly, starred review
“Bittle provides vivid descriptions and accessible technical explanations, but the most powerful parts of his narrative detail the lives of the individuals...He poses disturbing questions: where are all these uprooted people supposed to go?...Powerful and moving.”
—Booklist, starred review
“A superb storyteller, Bittle is at his finest as a chronicler of the loss of place and the sense of belonging, and the frustration that financial constraints pose for the victims of natural disasters.”
—The American Prospect
"Bittle's narratives treat the retelling of his characters' losses with careful compassion and meticulous documentation. He gets to know the families evicted from their homes and derailed from their goals by increasingly regular unnatural disasters. He is privy to their agonizing debates over when to stay, when to go and whether to declare bankruptcy when flood insurance premiums shoot through their soggy roofs. In between these heart-wrenching tales, his book's backbone charts the long course of underlying injustices, negligent zoning, shortsighted policies and climate inaction that have engineered these housing dilemmas more Americans will soon face."
"Through deeply reported pieces, Bittle deftly balances attention to each displaced family’s story with larger structural analyses. To read about people from different states and socioeconomic backgrounds is to be reminded that, on a fast-overheating planet, we are all caught up in the same ecological web. Sooner or later, it will be our turn to move."
—High Country News
"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."
"In the stories Bittle has collected, we are able to see human nature unveiled to a raw and essential state...One can’t read The Great Displacement and deny the insecurity and misery climate change has already wrought on American families and communities."