⭐️ YOU, TOO, CAN BE A CLIMATE REFUGEE!
10 simple steps for increasing your chances for displacement and ruination.
It’s very likely that someone you know will end up a climate refugee. It might be you.
It’s a hard to see, and harder still to talk about.
It’s hard to see because we’ve largely ignored the mounting threats we’ve created through the worsening of the planetary crisis — but also because our ideas of what it means to become a “refugee” (or as some prefer, to be forced into migration, or be displaced by climate) doesn’t map to the future rising up in front of us1.
It’s hard to discuss because it’s tragic and wrong and way too close for comfort.
I’d love if we could roll back the clock and choose a different future. If we had started remaking our society to be more sustainable when the crisis was first becoming obvious — 50+ years ago — we could have avoided most of the catastrophes that are now unavoidably our lot. Had we got going when the science was clear and sustainability solutions readily available (say, two decades ago), the desolation we now face would have been much reduced. Heck, if we were even responding at the speed demanded today (instead of our slow-if-inevitable march towards a less harmful economy), we wouldn’t be bracing for such unforgivably massive destruction.
Action is happening, sure, and will accelerate. Unfortunately, even if we move much more quickly than we currently are, that will mostly mean a reduction in the future magnitude of the crisis, rather than a reversal of the climate change and ecological collapse we’ve already set in motion. There’s a huge gap between how most things function now, and how they realistically need to work to limit the crisis and thrive in this hard new future.
Being outdated brings consequences. When assets remain stuck on the old side of the gap, they end up devalued; when institutions do, they become destabilized; when people wind up on there, they get displaced and impoverished.
Hundreds of millions of people around the world live in dire poverty — usually in places already struggling with massive, complex, and deeply-rooted societal challenges. They now face the transapocalyptic realities of poverty in a planetary crisis.
If we think of the widespread displacement and ruination now rolling over people as the prize in a sort of terrible lottery, these poor folks have already been issued a winning ticket. In the real world, there’s little they can do to give back that ticket, and little appetite in the wealthier countries for cancelling the transapocalyptic sweepstakes.
We in the wealthy world — the vast majority of people reading this — are still lining up to find out what kind of tickets we’re holding.
What a “winning” ticket looks like in the U.S.A. is well illustrated by this fine new story, They Were Proud Houston Homeowners. Then It All Fell Apart.
The article tells the tale of the Fuentes family, who
…had spent years saving up to buy a house in Bear Creek Village, a leafy neighborhood that sits about 20 miles west of downtown Houston.
They were getting ready to have their first child, and they couldn’t think of a better place to be young parents: The homes in the neighborhood were quirky and spacious, the streets were quiet and safe, and the school district was excellent. Even with their combined incomes, though, it had taken them the better part of a decade to come up with the down payment, and a few years more to afford all the furniture.
In late August of that year, Hurricane Harvey barreled toward Houston, having steamed up to Category 4 strength on its way across the Gulf of Mexico.
What happened next was a tragedy for them, but a foretaste of reality for the rest of us: The Fuentes woke up to discover that their life together was brittle.
Their life was brittle, and a climate disaster broke it. The couple was forced to dump their house, lost their furniture and many possessions, and found themselves living in Becca Fuentes’ mom’s overcrowded house. They now face not only the trauma anyone bears in the wake of a personal catastrophe, but the grim need to start over with three kids (and fewer resources) in a hard future for which they’re unprepared. We don’t like to be so blunt, but the Fuentes (and more and more people like them) are refugees, not from another nation, but from the world in which they thought they lived.
Here in the U.S., we mostly don’t find climate migrants in sprawling camps of makeshift shelters (though such camps exist, and more are on the way).
Climate refugees, here, are your kids' new school friends, just arrived from Florida; the out-of-towners bidding against you for the house you hope to buy; the overqualified woman at work who took her new job to fund a relocation; the family sleeping in a RV with out-of-state plates. They’re us, squeezed out of the places they once called home. Dis-placed.
Here’s the thing: from what we read, the Feuntes don’t seem unusually unprepared. That we’re not yet ready for what’s already happened is arguably the central, defining characteristic of our society.
We don’t even have to do anything particularly stupid to wind up under the wheel. All we have to do — in a time of rampant discontinuities — is nothing. All we have to do is mistakenly trust that what’s around us will go on working as promised.
You’re likely not ready enough for what’s already happened. I know that there are still ways that I’m not fully ready, and I’m a veteran climate futurist. Who’s fully ready? Probably no one.
In a fast-changing world, unreadiness is danger.
Here are ten ways to prolong your unreadiness.
#1 DOWNPLAY THE IMPACTS
When the full magnitude of the planetary crisis first rises up in front of us, we often experience what I think of as scale vertigo.
The big weather disasters around us — summer days getting dangerously hot, rivers running dry, wildfires burning out of control, storms growing larger and more dangerous — are already often more severe than most of us understand, costing an average of $150 billion in losses, each year, in the U.S. alone2.
Those losses will grow. The predatory delay of the last five decades has increased all of our odds of winning the climate displacement lottery through global heating, ecological overstretch and so on. And things are now inevitably going to get worse before they (possibly) get better. Worse to the tune of many trillions in loss and damage.
Less visible, slower and more pervasive impacts are at work as well. Worsening air quality. Lost work hours. Greater wear and tear on machines and infrastructure. Crop pests. Toxic buildups in our soils and groundwater. The spread of disease-bearing insects. Interruptions in global supply chains. Increases in violent conflict. Thousands of different vectors of loss and damage, chewing away like termites at the foundations of the systems on which our lives depend.
All of these impacts, large and small, intensify each other —sometimes in ways no one anticipated — producing what experts call compounding and cascading problems. They ratchet-up the potential for huge (and, for those who find themselves caught off guard, seemingly sudden) losses. We’re up against a combinatorial explosion of potential threats.
As I point out in my essay, Ruggedize Your Life,
“[Y]ou don’t have to be in the wiped out to have your life overturned… [E]ach of us is dependent on a vast web of systems and services that make our lives work. Serious, repeated blows to those support networks can cause real, long-term losses. When the power grid fails, when the railroads wash out, when supply chains break down, when the public health system can’t keep up with novel viruses, when the asphalt on the streets melt in the heat, when water gets rationed because of drought: all of these undermine our prosperity, and — added together and happening more frequently — they can impoverish and immiserate whole regions.”
But even when we grasp the pervasive losses spreading through our world, we may underestimate the true impacts of having altered the functioning of our climate and biosphere to this extent. We may fail to count the risks.
Loss, in our experience, is largely local and temporary. Something terrible happens, lives are lost and homes destroyed, but then we do our best to recover and rebuild. Disaster happens. It ends. Life slowly returns to normal. At least that’s the story we tell ourselves.
The worsening of risks, though, is happening everywhere that disaster might befall us, or impacts undermine us — in other words, everywhere people live — and risks will continue to evolve for decades to come. Much of the world around us was built to function in a natural context that now no longer exists, and is at greater risk than ever before. The planetary crisis isn’t an issue, it’s an era, and that era is largely defined by vast increases in uncertainty. The world is getting weirder, fast.
Indeed, the planetary crisis is a crisis because it is a massive discontinuity: it renders current expertise and past experience poor guides to future decisions. The huge range of risks now emerging is hard to anticipate and protect ourselves from, and we’re only starting to learn how to do that. We’re likely to discover that the loss of predictability and need for multiple kinds of hedges against risk are an even bigger impact on our lives than the direct damage from disasters.
There is much we could have done (or could be doing now) to minimize the costs of the disasters now tumbling towards us. We could have been limiting development in flood plains, wildfire zones, and at the edge of the ocean; we could have been requiring new infrastructure to be climate-chaos-ready; we could have reduced subsidies for sprawl and autodependence and practiced sensible growth management; we could have been moving people out of harm’s way.
Now, protecting everyone and everything that deserves protection is simply impossible. We couldn’t do it even if we had a national awakening and took to the task like we took to beating the Fascists in World War Two. The scale of vulnerability has grown too vast, involving tens of millions of Americans and many trillions of dollars. It continues to grow, every day.
TIP: Ignore the growing magnitude of the crisis, and expect the impacts of that crisis to be limited, predictable in a linear way, and easily managed.
#2 AVOID A PERSONAL EXPERIENCE OF DISCONTINUITY
To come to the truth — that the world is not as we thought it was — is also to realize that our lives are not as we thought they were. That’s a blow.
True awareness of the planetary crisis alienates us from our own hopes and expectations. Connecting with global discontinuities also means experiencing a personal discontinuity. It hurls us into a sea of new anxieties, anger and grief from which we’ve been previously sheltered.
It’s easy to get lost in that emotional maelstrom. But even when we find our way to a solid shore, we are not the people we once were. We go “like one that hath been stunned.”
Particularly stunning for many of us is the truth that no one is coming to save us. No orderly transition is in the works. There is no alternate plan. No one else is looking out for our individual best interests, and group solidarity is far from what it might be in a better world. We are not exactly on our own, but neither can we depend on distant institutions, breakthrough innovations, or ideological ties to see us through the crisis.
To go through personal discontinuity is to find ourselves in a strange land with those we love, needing to learn many things, very quickly.
TIP: Avoid unpleasant realities. Rely on your inherited ideas. Depend on others to rescue you.
#3 DENY THAT WHERE WE LIVE MATTERS
Spin a globe and put your finger down: it will land on a place that is experiencing the planetary crisis.
This crisis has morphed the natural context of every place on Earth. That context will continue to flux for centuries. No place is “safe” from the planetary crisis.
Yet some places are safer than others. In regions at risk from flooding, communities at higher elevations offer a better chance of staying dry. In a time of increasingly deadly heatwaves, places with moderate climates offer a better chance of staying cool. In a world with strengthening hurricanes, places out of the likely paths of the worst storms have a better chance of avoiding destruction.
Calculating relative degrees of safety demands teaching ourselves new ways of looking at the world, and of gaining the judgment to balance sometimes conflicting priorities. It’s not easy. But some people are already learning to do it. Many more soon will be, because even moderate reductions in risk may have potentially major benefits.
TIP: Believe that because the impacts of the crisis will hit everywhere, nowhere is safe, and therefore there’s no point in understanding the particular vulnerabilities of your home, community and region. Bet on relative degrees of safety being unimportant.
#4 DENY THAT HOW WE LIVE MATTERS
Adaptation won’t save our places. At least not all of them.
Just as some places are safer than others by dint of location and climate, some communities are more able to manage that risk than others by dint of how they were built.
Form, design and engineering matter. Given the same kinds of stresses, some kinds of communities and infrastructures stand up better than others. Again, it’s not simple, but in general, more compact communities with more transportation options and more efficient infrastructure will be more robust, easier, and cheaper to protect against growing risks.
“Most observed adaptation is fragmented, small in scale, incremental, sector-specific, designed to respond to current impacts or near-term risks, and focused more on planning rather than implementation (high confidence). Observed adaptation is unequally distributed across regions (high confidence), and gaps are partially driven by widening disparities between the estimated costs of adaptation and documented finance allocated to adaptation (high confidence).”
In the U.S., a forthcoming study reports, “Adaptation actions undertaken in the US to date have generally been small in scale and incremental in approach. To adequately meet the risks of current and future climate change, more transformative adaptation is needed.”
The evidence suggests that we lack political will to protect everything we could, and not every community could be saved even if we had that determination. Protecting every city and system that’s still salvageable would demand year after year of multi-trillion dollar investments deployed on accelerated timelines… starting immediately. Few who study these issues think a sudden shift of resources on that scale is likely to happen anytime soon. (Of course, such commitment would likely also demand huge political shifts and policy reforms, a revolution in land use and infrastructure planning, vast new programs to help those who still fall through the cracks, and a sea change in how finance and insurance work. It’s hard to make the case that level of societal transformation is currently plausible in America, much less imminent.)
That means that there is not enough to go around. Who gets the support needed to transform will be decided in part by simple cost-benefit analyses. Places with more easily defensible situations — where adaptation is cheaper — have a greater likelihood of getting enough resources to undertake the transformational steps demanded.
TIP: Believe we’ll defend everything, so how people live, and where you live doesn’t matter.
#5 PRETEND WEALTH MATTERS LESS NOW
The other side of the cost benefit analysis, of course, is benefit. What is that which we seek to defend worth?
It would be nice if we chose the kind of responses we undertake by the number of people helped by each measure — and then prioritized delivering that help first the people who can least afford delay. I wouldn’t hold my breath.
Resources are flowing to where the greatest value can be protected. It’s the simple logic of power: decision-makers want to maximize their potential returns with the minimum of risk. This is as true for politicians seeking campaign donations as it is for investors seeking profits or entrepreneurs starting businesses.
Wealthy communities are at the front of the line. Not only do they have more financial value to protect per acre, they also have more public resources to work with, more easily mobilized donors and reliable voters, and more residents with influence and useful connections of their own. Even in disaster recovery, the rich tend to end up with more. Them that has, gets.
So, too, will places that show a strong potential for economic development. Places that offer better prospects for growth will be prioritized over similar places with stagnating economies or overwhelming social problems. Money will be spent to protect the prospect of future gain.
TIP: Believe that current and expected advantages in wealth and power can be easily overcome.
#6 BE BLIND TO BRITTLENESS
What about less-favored places?
Far more places need resources for preparation and defense than there are resources to distribute. Some places will not get what they need. Others won’t get anything more than token help.
In general, places that are highly valued and relatively easy to protect will get the most resources, especially since the confidence that public investments and infrastructure are forthcoming will trigger an increase in the availability of private investment and credit. Where the advantages are obvious, we may even see local economic booms.
Places that have moderate value and merely difficult challenges are subject to the winds of political favor. With a national commitment to funding the needed work, and local willingness to prioritize and expedite needed changes, a lot of these communities and systems could be made ready. As it is, there will be much muddling through, with varying results.
Where, however, property values are low, residents are disadvantaged and economies are moribund, but the challenges of preparation and adaptation are serious and expensive — there, we’ll see a very different future unfold over the coming decade. There, the bottom is dropping out.
The Brittleness Bubble — the large discrepancy between how we currently value vulnerable places, systems and assets and how we are likely to price them as the risks they face become impossible to ignore — will pop. A grinding revaluation will take place, perhaps more rapidly than we imagine.
It’s hard to assess the magnitude of the Brittleness Bubble. In the roughest terms, we might hold in mind a loss of financial value on the order of the Subprime Crisis and Great Recession, if unfolding more slowly.
Remember loss versus risk? The collapse of value hits not just when places are destroyed, but when their exposure to catastrophic risks for which they cannot prepare becomes clear. Such places are already seeing disinvestment, brain drains, the loss of insurability, and higher costs to borrow (which echoes out in the public sphere as fewer services and less money to build and repair public systems). Brittle places are trapped in spiraling losses of capacity they cannot themselves address, even as it’s increasingly clear that they can expect much help from elsewhere. Where extreme brittleness collides with entrenched poverty, racism, increasing social precarity, and local dependence on outdated and unsustainable industries, the outcomes for those who stay could be catastrophic.
You don’t hear about any of this much, yet. Indeed, one of the things I got wrong when I first started writing about the Brittleness Bubble a decade ago is that I assumed such a huge upheaval in the economic fortunes of millions of people would be front-and-center in our national debate.
"I thought we’d talk about it," as I wrote in The New Ruggedization Calculus: Build or Burn,
Instead, it’s playing out in comparative silence. Sure, threats from rising seas, wildfires, floods and storms are being more widely accounted for among those whose jobs it is to price risk, like insurance actuaries, credit-rating companies, disaster-response agencies. But even as those risks are repriced (with extremely serious long-term consequences for vulnerable communities), our wider public debate about what is and isn’t a viable response to the crisis remains largely unchanged.
We lost the chance to discuss the Brittleness Bubble as an emerging threat we could prevent. Now we’ll see it reported as news. Increasingly, that news will report large movements of people leaving places where holding on just doesn’t make sense anymore.
TIP: Believe that past value is a guide to future outcomes. Trust in economic continuity. Don’t ask yourself how quickly or totally the market could drop out from under the place you live.
#7 DON’T TAKE THE TIME TO UNDERSTAND WHAT “RUGGED” MEANS
The opposite of brittleness is ruggedization.
Ruggedization is the process of preparing a place or system to thrive in a wider range of future climate and ecological conditions that those for which it was built. The key word is thrive.
This demands transformative adaptation measures that don’t merely reduce risk but increase the prosperity, capacities and leverageable value of the places they are deployed. Most adaptation measures seek to defend what exists from change; ruggedization protects places by accelerating changes to that which it defends.
One place our cultural debate about the crisis fails us entirely is in understanding the sheer power of the pent-up demand for safe harbors, prudent opportunities, and future-proofed lives. Many people will be on the move, soon, but quite a few will be moving as much to find new opportunities and purposeful work, as to flee danger and decline.
Ruggedization is the intentional creation of places that are attractive to the kinds of resources, talent and investment required to make on-going, major adaptions possible. (I’ve written about ruggedization many times, in this newsletter and elsewhere.)
TIP: Believe that how places are today are how they’ll be in the near future. Assume that transformative change is impossible, or at very least extremely slow.
#8 ASSUME THE TEMPO OF CHANGE IS CONSTANT
The depth of the gap we see between the world we have and the world we must build to flourish within planetary realities is a measure of failure. But it is also an engine for upheaval.
Solutions disrupt. The scale of the crisis we face is overwhelming. Where we fail, new tragedies spread. But that doesn’t mean our successes will return us to continuity. Indeed success can start seismic shifts.
Opportunities are now emerging for institutions and enterprises to build the world we need at speeds and scales that are fairly unprecedented. Indeed, a giant building boom is what successful climate and sustainability action looks like on the ground. Success at scale will be worldchanging. The prospects for people
At the same time, the unsustainable is itself a bubble. Many of the systems and institutions we depend on to provide our prosperity are wildly unsustainable, which renders them not just problematic, but vulnerable to sudden devaluation, in ways that ricochet through our economy with all sorts of damages. The collapse will leave some big craters. This alone has huge ramifications for institutional strategy and the challenges of leadership.
The learning curves here are steep. The acumen required to innovate, accelerate and ruggedize — and to succeed in a decarbonizing context — is different than the expertise of the past. Indeed, at this point, discontinuity is the job.
TIP: Plan for change that happens at the speed at which change has happened in the past. Assume that climate action and ruggedization will leave the economy not much different than it is now. Decide not to learn how to understand disruption
#9 DON’T SWEAT THE BOTTLENECK
Those who feel compelled by this crisis to move facing a narrowing bottleneck.
There are way more people who will need better communities than there are good places for them to go. There is growing competition to secure those places, and many will not win through.
The advantages offered by rugged (or ruggedizable) places are no secret:
A wave of money is washing towards these places. Durability is currently massively undervalued. Safety and good bones are undervalued. Potential to change is undervalued. The big money can read the same trends we can, once they’re aware to look for them. With decades of underbuilding, population growth, and a trend towards smaller households in larger houses, the housing shortage is already turning many North Americans into permanent renters. Even relatively modest upticks can put things out of the reach of many, and this will not be a modest uptick.
Movement is survival, but residency is security. The best way, almost everywhere, to make residency permanent is to own property. It does you no good to get to a great place, then be expelled as an outsider, or more likely, simply priced out as the rents go up. When the coming wave of money hits the ruggedization bottleneck, it’s gonna get ugly.
The narrowness of the neck of the bottle will be a function of how many people can afford to live in places that are safer, ruggedizing and prospering. That, in turn, is a function of the degree to which the crisis is allowed to worsen, adaptation funds are or aren’t available, and (above all else) how many homes we build in the places with the best prospects.
Here in the U.S., our current housing shortage is already exacerbating middle class financial precarity, fueling risky exurban development and worsening poverty and homelessness. The gap between the housing and infrastructure we need and the supply we have likely represents hundreds of trillions of dollars in under-investment.
We will not catch up fast enough. Not in America. Not in most places. We have created a bottleneck that will exclude billions of people from stability, prosperity, and in some cases, survival.
We should, of course, do all we can to reduce the shortfall. But no plans within our reach will close that gap completely — and we are, at the moment, barely even trying.
Because we accepted decades of delay on new housing, that un-closed gap is now a funnel, down which many millions of people’s futures are swirling. That funnel’s slopes will swallow homes and neighborhoods, jobs and retirements, landmarks and traditions, health and hope.
That funnel will be, for many, the end of the American Dream.
TIP: Believe that there will always be somewhere good to go; believe that when the boom comes down, there will then be time to decide what to do and your remaining options will be good ones.
#10 HAVE NO PERSONAL RUGGEDIZATION PLANS
To ruggedize our own lives is to build a platform for safety, wellness and prosperity in the midst of growing discontinuities:
Since major impacts are locked in, and societal unreadiness is a fact, how do millions and millions of us act as best we can to ruggedize our own lives? How do we make ourselves ready for the chaos and churn ahead?
Personal ruggedization is not prepping or bunkering down. Personal ruggedization is making smart decisions about where we choose to live, the plans we make as families, the systems we embed ourselves in, the professional paths we set, and the ways we work with others to improve our odds of success.
These decisions challenge us. Our decision context is complex, uncertain and (for most of us) discontinuous with our education and training.
One thing I do as part of my work is talk with people about their future plans for personal ruggedization. I suspect that by this point I’ve had as many of these conversations as anyone else. These conversations have taught me that pretty much all of us feel daunted by the magnitude and speed of change around us and scared for the people we love (especially our children).
Discontinuity demands engagement. Starting to think in clear and proactive terms about the challenges we face is the only way I know of to become more at home on the planet we now inhabit and less fearful for the future we face in its worsening crisis.
It takes courage and grit to grapple with hard truths.
TIP: Believe in your own powerlessness — that your actions can’t improve your outcomes. Let apocalyptic thinking lull you into inaction.
There’s a too-often unspoken last reality,
11) Even if you are smart, quick and lucky, you won’t be done with these questions. People you know will need your help confronting hard realities for which they have no preparation. Your ethics will insist on your on-going involvement in community. Your duties as a citizen will demand you work to make things better. In these days, to try to live with purpose means entanglement in the future challenges of others, for a long time to come.
Don’t believe this crisis is a problem to solve. It’s not. It’s the world we live in.
These problems are, of course, all global in their scope. For this purposes of this letter, I’m going to talk about the country I know best — the United States. The basic points hold true everywhere.