A Rich Attempt to Outrun Climate Change

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Illustration by Guido de Boer
Words by Iris Du

In 2017, Phoenix got so hot that planes couldn’t take off. Last summer, California faced a record level of fatal wildfires. A quarter of Louisiana’s wetlands have disappeared, with another football field’s worth going every 100 minutes. And in Miami, sea-levels won’t stop rising.

As effects of climate change are getting ever-closer to home across the US, the demand for safer places to live is on the rise. Many areas, such as the sun-spangled coastlines of Miami, were once gold-standard locations for tourists and residents alike. Now, they’re at high-risk of regular flooding.

As more and more people wish to exchange their sea front views for a peace of mind, real estate on higher ground is becoming increasingly desirable. However, these desired locations aren’t readily unoccupied. People often already live there, and with the rising costs of their land, in most cases, they cannot afford to stay.

As more and more people wish to exchange their sea front views for a peace of mind, real estate on higher ground is becoming increasingly desirable.

This is known as ‘climate gentrification’: when less affluent communities who live on land better equipped to handle the effects of climate change are being displaced by those who can afford the demand.

Observed by a group of Harvard research, one case where climate gentrification is particularly rife is in the city of Miami. Neighbourhoods like Overtown, Little Haiti and Liberty City are all becoming new places of interest due to their elevated distance from the sea. They are also all places which are historically home to ethnic minorities and diasporic communities.

Many Black and Haitian residents of Miami are now being forced to relocate. Unable to sustain the financial demand of their own homes, the only places left for them are either strikingly expensive, or on lower ground — the very areas the richer residents just fled from.

Climate gentrification therefore raises a multitude of complex social and economic complications. Not only is climate change hitting poorest people the hardest, but racial minorities are the ones being forced to draw the shortest straws. Climate-induced gentrification is not just a question of displacement. It becomes an issue of survival.

There’s one big difference between a real estate correction and a real estate correction fueled by sea level rise… The former always recovers, but sea level is not going back down.
— Mark Singer, founder of Singer Xenos wealth management firm

What we see developing is the commodification of safety and mobility. The ability to escape floods, heatwaves, and other natural disasters can now be bought. But what will eventually happen to those who cannot buy their way to safer ground? And what about the ones that can? If temporary escapism can be bought, does it encourage richer communities to turn a blind eye to climate change?

Unfortunately for all, climate change does not favour certain areas or people over others. It can affect anyone, anywhere. Money enables some to momentarily escape it and others to forcibly face it. Either way, outrunning climate change will only work for so long. Habitable land, like so much else, has an expiration date.

Keep reading:

The Harvard study on Climate Gentrification in Miami
An interview with one of the researchers
‘Welcome to the Age of Climate Migration’