Middle class Americans face fire and drought due to inability to afford safer cities amidst climate change.

Middle class Americans face fire and drought due to inability to afford safer cities amidst climate change.

The Burden of Climate Change Falls Disproportionately on Less Affluent Americans


The skyrocketing cost of housing has forced many Americans to bid farewell to big coastal cities like New York and San Francisco in favor of more affordable regions in Sunbelt cities and Southern suburbs. At first glance, this seems like a positive move for those seeking a reprieve from expensive living costs. However, this shift comes with its own set of challenges – namely, the increased vulnerability to climate change impacts.

These affordable regions are experiencing more severe consequences of climate change, including extreme heat, wildfires, floods, and droughts. Americans are unwittingly moving into flood-prone areas in Florida, settling in Houston post-Hurricane Harvey, and relocating to parts of the West and Southwest that are grappling with the worst droughts and wildfires in the country.

Contrary to conventional wisdom, people are not fleeing high-risk areas; they are flocking to them. According to a 2021 Redfin analysis, US counties with the highest concentration of at-risk homes are all experiencing growth in population, while those with the fewest at-risk homes are facing population decline. This trend has been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic, with an increasing number of individuals moving away from expensive cities to more affordable, remote work-friendly locations closer to natural amenities. Unfortunately, these desirable areas, such as Bend, Oregon, are also susceptible to natural disasters like wildfires.

This influx of residents into high-risk regions has long-term implications, as it exposes more Americans to the risk of losing their homes to wildfires, floods, or extreme heat-related issues. Affluent individuals tend to have better means to protect themselves from climate impacts, through strategies like fleeing or retrofitting their homes. Nonetheless, if lower-risk cities continue to price people out, the burden of climate change will inevitably fall more disproportionately on less affluent communities.

To address this dangerous trend, experts suggest several approaches that local, state, and federal governments can take. A recent report from the Brookings Institution provides valuable recommendations aimed at encouraging Americans to seek climate safety:

  1. Factor Climate Risk into Mortgage Rates and Insurance: Congress and the Federal Housing Finance Agency should collaborate with mortgage lenders and property insurers to incorporate climate risk assessments into their rates. Homeowners should be charged higher premiums based on the level of risk they are undertaking.

  2. Enhance Information Disclosure and Tax Riskier Properties: State and local governments should establish regulations that require the disclosure of climate risks associated with a property. Additionally, higher property taxes should be imposed on riskier properties as a financial deterrent.

  3. Reform Zoning and Land-Use Regulations: Efforts should be made to reform zoning and land-use regulations to promote denser development in safer areas and discourage sprawl into particularly climate-impacted regions.

  4. Promote Retrofitting and Strategic Infrastructure Investment: Homeowners and landlords in high-risk areas should invest in retrofitting their properties to increase fire and wind resistance, as well as improve energy efficiency. Furthermore, policymakers should carefully consider where to invest in infrastructure, such as roads, schools, and water and sewage capacity, in climate-impacted areas to either discourage or encourage population movement.

By implementing these recommendations, policymakers can help reverse the dangerous trend of Americans disproportionately facing the consequences of climate change. Ensuring that the burden of climate impacts does not fall solely on less affluent communities is not only a matter of fairness but also a crucial step towards building a more resilient and equitable future.