Even as climate change increases the frequency and intensity of extreme weather events, from fires to floods and hurricanes, two-thirds of Americans say if their home is hit they would rather rebuild than relocate, a new NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist poll finds.
Republicans were the most likely to say they would hunker down and rebuild (81%). But more than 6 in 10 Democrats and two-thirds of independents said so as well.
Forty percent of Gen Z and millennial survey respondents said they would be more likely to move — by far the biggest percentage among generations.
The poll of 1,220 adults, which was conducted Sept. 20-26, found about 3 in 10 Americans say they have been personally impacted by an extreme weather event in the past two years. It also asked whether such recent events generally have changed people's thinking about where they live. For a large majority they have not. Fewer than 1 in 10 said such events have made them want to move from where they currently live. But those most likely to want to move were lower income (12%) and Black (16%) or nonwhite (14%).
In Thibodaux, La., 44-year-old Pamela Wiggins is repairing minor damage to her home after Hurricane Ida blasted her town with Category 4 winds. She's unemployed and says the cost of living in the path of hurricanes has become prohibitive.
"Every time they see there's a storm in the Gulf [of Mexico], we automatically fall under the evacuation," she explains. Wiggins estimates Hurricane Ida cost her $6,000 in savings — from hotel rooms to rental homes, to the $50 of gasoline she needed each day to keep a generator running for three weeks before the power came back.
She has lived in Louisiana her whole life. But once her house is repaired, Wiggins says she is determined to sell it and leave the Gulf Coast.
"This plays on you mentally, when you have to go through that. And it's not the storm itself, it's the aftermath of the storm that weeds you out," she says.
The mounting cost of climate-fueled disasters has been seen in communities across the country, from New Orleans after Katrina to New Jersey after Superstorm Sandy. It's all been to the tune of billions of dollars — and the price tag is only going up.
In 2020, for example, extreme weather events caused $95 billion in damage, "the fourth-highest inflation-adjusted annual cost total since 1980," according to a report from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. NOAA found the total cost of billion-dollar disasters in the U.S. over the last five years exceeded $600 billion.
And those climate-fueled disasters have become more frequent. The Congressional Research Service found 10 or more such events each year since 2015 with a "record-tying 16 such events in just the first nine months of 2020."
The cost to the American taxpayer and insurance companies has also exploded in recent decades as Congress tries to grapple with how to respond. Starting this month, many homeowners in flood-prone areas will see higher rates from the debt-ridden National Flood Insurance Program. The Federal Emergency Management Agency has also faced criticism for racial inequities in disaster aid, with many who need help the most unable to get it.
Westerners are more likely to want to move
The new survey broke down responses regionally, and those living in the West were most likely (14%) to say they want to move away because of recent weather events. The region has faced years of devastating drought, increasingly destructive wildfires and widespread exposure to toxic smoke.
"We have smoke today, right now, from all these fires," Lorie Luiza says from her home in the foothills above Sacramento, Calif. "You can't breathe, you get sore throats and headaches, and so it's difficult, you have to shut all the windows and everything."
Luiza tells NPR that she wants to relocate — at least during the summers — and has been looking for property in Washington state. But as a Republican, Luiza worries the liberal state government there won't be any more effective than California's in reducing the threats from wildfire, something she believes can only be solved with increased logging of federal forests.
"The political arena that's feeding into these fires is really disturbing," she says.
There's debate over which is a bigger factor in the rise of megafires — climate change or the need for more aggressive forest management. Fire scientists say both are to blame.
The two major political parties view the solutions to climate change very differently. Democrats are much more likely to make the issue a priority and believe infrastructure investments and increased regulations on polluters are necessary to reduce greenhouse gas emissions fast enough to avoid the most catastrophic impacts. Republicans who acknowledge the issue, on the other hand, are concerned about the potential energy costs to consumers and expenses to businesses.
Former President Barack Obama signed on to the Paris climate accord to try to curb warming with efforts made by countries across the globe. Former President Donald Trump then ripped up the deal in his early days in office. President Biden has rejoined Paris, but his far more ambitious climate measures are stalled in Congress. They're key to U.S. credibility at a U.N. climate summit in Glasgow next month, where the U.S. hopes to persuade other countries to take more aggressive climate action.