Can California Plan for Equitable Growth in the Face of Climate Migration?

Blog Post
Jaden Schaul /
Sept. 20, 2023

Wildfires, sea-level rise and coastal erosion, flooding, extreme heat and drought, even tropical storms. California has it all, and is among the U.S. states experiencing some of the first and worst impacts of climate change. One in five residents statewide are now at-risk of flooding, and one-quarter of Californians live in areas considered high risk for catastrophic fire.

Already, massive wildfires and other natural disasters are leading to sudden, large-scale displacement throughout the state. After the 2018 Camp Fire in the Sierra Nevada foothills, for example, roughly 20,000 displaced persons quickly relocated to Chico, exacerbating the city’s rental housing shortage and causing home prices to skyrocket. And earlier this year, thousands were displaced by floods throughout the Central Valley and elsewhere. For rural communities and farmworkers, especially, housing insecurity and displacement were exacerbated by citizenship issues and persistent financial struggles.

Displacement will only intensify in the coming decades: perhaps Californians will continue relocating to neighboring or nearby counties in the aftermath of disasters. Or maybe climate change will push them into inland cities such as Riverside and Sacramento. Regardless, these population shifts will have profound economic, social, and environmental implications. The places that receive an influx of climate migrants could very likely experience a rise in housing insecurity and increased social and economic vulnerability.

But climate migration isn’t a crisis everywhere in the Golden State just yet. In fact, California towns and cities have the opportunity right now to better understand and plan for the impacts of climate-related displacement and migration on their housing supply, jobs, and social infrastructure. The policy and program decisions that communities make today can better ensure equitable economic growth, just and sustainable development patterns, and thriving neighborhoods.

This summer, New America partnered with Northern California Grantmakers and Smart Growth California to convene policymakers, community leaders, and donors and explore meaningful strategies that local governments, nonprofits, and community-based organizations in California can adopt to prepare for climate-driven migration and its impacts.

So what does it look like for California communities to successfully receive people who move because of climate change?

Future Receiving Communities Must Develop Climate-Conscious Affordable Housing Stock.

As attendees were quick to share, given California’s existing affordable housing crisis, there’s an obvious need for future receiving communities to proactively develop climate-conscious affordable housing stock. Right now, some estimates put California’s housing shortage as high as 3.5 million units. And residents are among the most housing cost-burdened in the U.S.一over half of the state’s renters and four-in-ten homeowners with a mortgage spend 30 percent or more of their income on housing. The crisis is driving development in the wildland-urban interface (WUI), significantly increasing risk of both wildfire and flooding.

It’s unlikely that California will ever avoid all new construction in the WUI and in other climate-vulnerable areas, given its housing shortages. State policymakers and their local partners should therefore incentivize more climate-resilient affordable housing, especially in communities expected to receive influxes of newcomers. That could mean more deliberate, perhaps even mandated, consideration of future climate impacts in long-term development strategies. Discussion participants also noted that innovative policy tools, including community land trusts, rolling easements, transferred development rights, and overlay zoning, are potential options to help better plan for climate migration and adaptation.

Climate Migrants Will Need Economic Support Through Workforce Development and Job Creation.

Beyond housing, climate migrants will likely need economic support through workforce development and job creation. To the extent possible, employers in California need help in anticipating where climate migration will occur, and then creating the appropriate training systems and employment opportunities in receiving communities. Policymakers, business leaders, and nonprofits might partner to create relocation programs, especially for low-income workers in the service sector and in agriculture. Statewide focus on fast-growing jobs, notably those related to solar and wind power as part of the green energy transition, could help to both ease economic insecurity amid climate migration and build resilience.

Economic Growth Must Be Matched With Future-Looking Investments in Public Infrastructure and Social Services.

Job opportunities will certainly pull climate migrants towards certain cities and towns in California. But any drive for economic growth must be matched with future-looking investments in public infrastructure and social services. People forcibly displaced by climate change will need access to health care, public transportation, education, and other community resources as they rebuild their lives. California communities can learn from past experiences, such as Orlando welcoming Puerto Ricans after Hurricane Maria, to help with their preparations. Organizations such as the Climigration Network and the Welcome Corps may also have replicable models for resettlement programs.

Decision-makers should pay special attention to rural communities during this planning, as recent trends suggest that Californians are moving from densely-populated areas such as the Bay Area and Los Angeles into more rural areas like the Central Valley. Historically underfunded, rural communities will need more mobile, nimble, and creative social service delivery to meet climate migrants where they are.

There’s clearly a lot to do before climate migration increases in the coming decades. At present, however, event attendees stressed that the financial and technical resources available to communities are outdated and overstretched, leading to distrust in public service systems for many Californians. The gaps left by overstretched and underfunded systems create significant barriers for preparedness, especially outside of wealthier and larger coastal areas. Small and low-resource communities don’t have the staff to apply for, access, and implement climate resilience projects. The federal government and state policymakers must consider reformed approaches to better allocate not only funds, but also human resources such as experienced crisis personnel to support both climate migrants and receiving communities.

That being said, California policymakers are providing more and more funding opportunities related to climate adaptation and resilience. Expansion of the zero-emission vehicle industry, for instance, could be a multi-purpose effort that municipalities and their business partners can take on to create more jobs, transition to green energy, and build out more sustainable public infrastructure. Millions of state dollars in vouchers are still available to encourage this economic growth. Additionally, the Integrated Climate Adaptation and Resiliency Program within the Governor's Office of Planning and Research is about to begin “round two” of its grant application process for the Adaptation Planning Grant Program, and there's also funding available through the Extreme Heat and Community Resilience Program. These open-ended programs are designed to service disadvantaged communities as a priority.

There are also signs of increasing flexibility in federal funding to support this work on the ground. Recent legislation, including the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA), the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA), and the American Rescue Plan Act, provide an unprecedented amount of funds to finance climate work. The IRA, for example, offers funding, programming, and incentives for myriad stakeholders一businesses, nonprofits, educational institutions, and state, local, and tribal authorities一to accelerate the transition to clean energy. The IIJA currently sets aside $1.2 trillion for a range of policy areas, including improving American infrastructure and boosting climate readiness. Because much of this funding is not obviously marked as “resilience” or “adaptation” funding, municipalities need support in understanding how to navigate opportunities and apply for federal resources in preparation for climate migration.

Finally, a community that finds or believes itself to be short on housing, jobs, and other resources will not likely welcome newcomers, and a community that does not welcome newcomers cannot truly be resilient. An unfortunate example is Chico, whose intial reception of Camp Fire evacuees was not sustained with meaningful funding or infrastructure. As a result, the Chico City Council was publicly admonished by the American Civil Liberties Union for the city’s treatment of unhoused people. If and when California communities receive government help, they must instead invest in building a social foundation that will welcome climate migrants. In practice, that could mean the municipal government and its civil society partners providing culturally-appropriate and accessible information on climate migration, community consultations, and opportunities for residents to voice their concerns, preferences, and aspirations.

California towns and cities are in a critical moment to ensure that they develop housing, create job opportunities, and invest in infrastructure and other services for the families who will be on the move in the coming decades due to climate change. The policy choices that local (and federal) leaders make today will determine how effectively and equitably they can receive population inflows, in ways that allow all Californians to thrive and find homes, employment, and public services, even and especially in the face of climate uncertainty.

Related Topics
Land, Housing and Climate Change