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Mark Gongloff is a Bloomberg Opinion editor and columnist covering climate change.
Fort Myers, Florida, was America’s seventh-fastest-growing city, more than doubling in size during the three decades before Hurricane Ian crashed into it last September. The Category 4 storm laid waste to the area before slashing through the heart of the state. But the storm clouds had barely parted before house hunters flocked to Fort Myers seeking bargains in the wreckage.
“It’s pretty much business as usual,” a local real estate agent told the Wall Street Journal not long after. Fort Myers home prices jumped 21 percent that October from an already inflated level, according to data tracker Redfin.
Americans just can’t stop flocking to places that are increasingly prone to destructive storms, droughts, wildfires, heat waves and floods as the planet warms. Five of the 10 hottest U.S. housing markets for out-of-state buyers in February were in Florida, according to a new Redfin report. One was Cape Coral, the metropolitan area that includes Fort Myers. Florida was the fastest-growing state in the U.S. last year in percentage terms, according to the Census Bureau.
Most of Florida’s transplants are people fleeing places like New York and Chicago, Bloomberg News noted, in search of “sunny skies and cheaper homes.” At first blush, it’s hard to blame them. Those northern cities are expensive and often bitterly cold.
Little wonder that Florida is on pace to add an Orlando’s worth of people every year for the next five, including finance types decamping to Miami and the Tampa Bay area.
South Florida has of course long been known for both oppressive heat and powerful hurricanes. The University of Miami named its football team “the Hurricanes” nearly 100 years ago. The school made the ibis its mascot primarily because of its propensity to warn of impending cyclonic doom. It’s all part of the charm.
But climate change is making Florida even hotter, increasing the risk of “wet bulb” temperatures and humidity levels beyond the human body’s endurance.
A hotter planet also raises the risk of ever-more-catastrophic hurricanes. Warmer air and water tend to make storms bigger, wetter and therefore more destructive. Hurricane Ian caused an estimated $112 billion in damage. Hurricane Andrew in 1992 was the first $20 billion (adjusted for inflation) storm on record. We’ve had seven such storms in the past six years, according to a study last year by reinsurer Swiss Re. Three of those hit Florida hardest.
And beyond disasters, Florida residents must deal with everyday nuisances and hazards made worse by climate change. Miami floods routinely, regardless of weather. Sinkholes are proliferating as porous ground swings between drought and deluge. Red tides and seaweed invasions spoil the beaches.
All of these and more will keep chipping away at the state’s economy and quality of life. Choosing to camp out on the front lines of climate change will become increasingly uncomfortable.
None of this is a secret. Most Americans recognize climate change raises the risk of natural disasters and general misery. So why do so many of them keep rushing into the danger? For the most part, it’s for the same reasons people have always moved anywhere: seeking jobs, cheaper housing, lower taxes and an easier lifestyle. Tromping through snow to your $5,000-a-month apartment gets old fast. And people headed into retirement have always sought warmer weather.
Some may be drawn by the “anti-woke” politics of Sun Belt meccas such as Arizona, Florida and Texas, though they are probably far from the majority. And even if they realize their new home might be unlivable in 2050, that time might seem far off.
But the idea that most of climate change’s ill effects will happen decades from now is magical thinking. Evidence is piling up around the world, from the wildfires of California to the floods of Pakistan, that climate change is fully capable of collapsing future timelines in catastrophic ways.