Climate Change Is Everywhere—No Matter Where You Move
Moving away from environmental disaster is a quick fix to a long-term and collective issue.
My parents have lived in Sonoma County, California, since 2015, and have nearly lost their home—and their lives—to wildfires multiple times.
The closest they came to total devastation was in October of 2017, when the Tubbs Fire scorched much of the region. Around 2 a.m., they were awakened by a firefighter banging at their front door, telling them they had minutes to leave before flames arrived. They fled with the few belongings they could toss into bags, grabbed the family dog—abandoned their elderly cat, Ally—and sped down their two-lane road to safety as flames chased them from behind. Many of their neighbors had their homes decimated. My parents were lucky to escape alive.
“God, I hope our property values don’t plummet,” my mom told me over the phone, her voice quivering. “That house is supposed to be part of our retirement.”
There was no mention of the family cat left behind, nor of the traumatic near-death experience the night before. The fear, it seemed, was not of losing a home—a place of safety and security and shelter—but of losing capital.
“What about Ally?” I asked, trying to change the subject.
“Oh, she’s fine. The firefighters told us they fed her. And if the house burns down, we’ll get the insurance money. It’s worth more than the house.”
Wildfires Have Always Been an Issue in California
California has always been a region prone to wildfires—the wildfire season is a predictable affair from May to October. Growing up in Marin County (just across the Golden Gate Bridge from San Francisco) in the 1990s and early 2000s, I knew that fires came annually, in the same way I knew baseball season began in April and ended in October, or mosquitoes arrived with the warming of spring.
I remember being eight years old watching the local news with my family at a Mexican restaurant as a brushfire engulfed Jefferson Airplane singer Grace Slick’s hillside home above Mill Valley. There was no hint of terror in the room. A few heads turned toward the flames on the grainy screen between mouthfuls of enchiladas and molé. It was almost a banal concern; a social obligation to look up and nod, feign compassion, and then return to our food. A mariachi band sang “Sabor a Mi” to a middle-aged couple holding hands under the table, and the news transitioned to box score of the game that day: Giants 1, Reds 0.
“God, I hope her house is okay,” someone said at a table across from us. The collective “mmm” and “mhmm's” chorused momentarily before everyone returned to their food. Grace, it seemed, was of no concern.
Moving Is a Last-Ditch Effort to Avoid an Insecure Climate
“I think it’s time for us to finally get out of here,” Mom told me over the phone in August of 2020. “The sky is covered in ash, and we can’t go outside. It’s time to move to Idaho. Somewhere in the mountains. It will be calmer there. These fires are too intense.”
“Mom,” I said, “You know that climate change isn’t state-by-state. You’ll have to deal with it wherever you move.”
“We just want to make sure we can retire and not have to work until we’re 80,” she replied.
Despite mounting evidence that California’s fire season is now year-round, and insurance companies are rapidly dropping homeowners who live in regions threatened by wildfires, upper-middle-class folks like my parents keep thinking they can skip to a new town, a new region, to escape the ravages of climate change. There’s little to no attention paid to the circumstances causing these fires or these devastating weather patterns. Moving becomes a sort of class-divided gamble, a last-ditch effort to maintain a sense of security in an increasingly insecure climate.
2020 saw a housing boom sparked by the COVID-19 pandemic, from Los Angeles to Boise to Santa Fe, due to historically low housing availability and an increase in remote work. But this migratory flood out of places like California and New York was already well underway years ago. My parents exist in the rare echelon of Americans who, within an era of tremendous inequality, actually have options. They can plan their mobility, while the cities and small towns currently being flipped by ravenous real estate prospectors get turned upside down.
It’s easy to blame the individuals gobbling up cheap housing like Pac-Man, but doing so overlooks the system (capitalism), which encourages and downright praises this Wild West mentality of consumption. When out-of-towners buy up small-town properties, local sellers see dollar signs and follow trends. Landlords see the market adjust and think, pragmatically, that it’s time to raise their rents, too. There’s little accountability for simply saying “that’s enough money for me.” The emphasis is almost always on property, not the ecology of the land they are living on. The result? Housing prices soar. Rents skyrocket. Homelessness increases. Inequality widens.
Climate Change Affects All of Us
I try to explain this messaging—that following the quick fix patterns of cheap housing in new locations doesn’t change anything—to my parents, but it doesn’t stick. Their eyes are on dollar signs, on self-preservation, not on whether local water reservoirs are being depleted by a golf course development or how temperature increase is causing tick-born illnesses nationwide.
There isn’t a collective approach, just an individual one. It’s part of the American ethos. It makes me wonder sometimes if, all those years ago, watching Grace Slick’s home burn down to the char, I should have stood up on that table and shouted. Screamed. Perhaps if I’d quieted the room enough—if the guitarists had ceased their strumming—we all would have looked up and seen that one celebrity’s devastation was actually our own. Perhaps we would’ve seen it as a warning, an omen of a not-so-distant future where skies would be blackened by ash, where emergency kits sat by the door year-round.
And yet, despite all this, dinner chatter remained the fluctuating voodoo of home prices. I’d have flipped the table, if I could. I’d have shattered glasses and tossed plates. Listen, I would say. Listen and look. This is you. This is all of us.
It always has been.