Climate Change, the University and ‘The Great Displacement’

Cover of The Great Displacement by Jake BittleThe Great Displacement: Climate Change and the Next American Migration by Jake Bittle

Published in February 2023

I finished reading The Great Displacement: Climate Change and the Next American Migration the same day I received my copy of Bryan Alexander’s new book, Universities on Fire: Higher Education in the Climate Crisis.

I’ve not read Universities on Fire yet, but I hope that book will serve as a higher education–specific companion piece to The Great Displacement.

Those in university leadership roles who read The Great Displacement will inevitably ask, “What does climate change mean for my institution and the broader postsecondary ecosystem?” Those are the questions I’ll be going to Universities on Fire to answer.

As Jake Bittle richly explores in this beautifully written and deeply researched book, the effects of climate change will not arrive at some future date. They are already here.

Suppose you are among the 40 percent of Americans (127 million) who live in a coastal county. In that case, climate change–driven sea level rise is already impacting your property values, insurance costs and perhaps even the ability to stay in your home. What if you are among the millions who moved to the Sun Belt for lower-cost housing, plentiful jobs and warm weather over the past few decades? In that case, you are today experiencing climate change–driven water shortages. And if you live in California, Florida or many other states, your life is filled with extreme weather events, wildfires and other climate change–induced calamities.

Over the next few decades, the effects of climate change on sea levels, water supplies and extreme weather will only become more apparent. Likely, millions of Americans will be forced to migrate to areas of relative climate safety. Some of the most valuable property in the country, found in cities built at sea level (think Miami) and innumerable affluent beachfront communities, will likely become nearly worthless.

In The Great Displacement, Bittle zooms down to the people who are now displaced by climate change. We meet young families who can no longer afford flood insurance, farmers who can no longer grow crops for lack of water and homeowners forced to flee their homes due to fire.

Throughout The Great Displacement, Bittle wonders when Americans will finally begin to factor climate change into our personal decisions and long-range government planning. At what point will we decide that buying a beachfront home, or even a town house in a coastal city prone to flooding, is an unwise investment? When will the government stop subsidizing homes in flood plains through a combination of disaster relief for rebuilding and the provision of flood insurance?

From the university’s perspective, what risks does climate change pose for our students and our campuses?

What should we be doing now, if anything, to prepare for sea level rise and extreme weather and water shortages?

On the basic level of geography, how many colleges and universities are situated in flood plains and areas exposed to hurricanes, wildfires and other extreme weather events?

We know from the COVID pandemic that colleges can be resilient when necessary. But what is the resilience that we need to plan for in the face of climate change?

The Great Displacement may persuade you that climate change is the most important trend of this century. I might argue that declining fertility, growing economic inequality and the erosion of democratic norms should also make that list.

What role will the university play in the climate change story? Reading The Great Displacement will cause you to ask that question. Hopefully, Universities on Fire will provide the context to begin to answer that question.

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Sunday, March 26, 2023
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