Watch CBS News

Climate refugees: The quest for a haven from extreme weather events

Climate refugees and havens from extreme weather
Climate refugees: The quest for a haven from extreme weather events 06:57

Jen and Ryan Cashman used to live in Paradise, California. They'll remember November 8, 2018 to the end of their days.

"We started smelling smoke," Jen told correspondent David Pogue.

"It's pitch black, and we're now scrambling to figure out where to go and how to get out,' Ryan said. "And as we were sitting in that traffic line, the fire just kept getting closer and closer to the side of the car."

"And we saw these horses that were surrounded in flames," said Jen, "and that's when, that's where it hit me."

What hit them was the Camp Fire, the deadliest wildfire in California history. It destroyed 95% of the town of Paradise, including their home.

Ryan said, "It's everything from our childhood, our children's childhood. We lost everything."

Jen added, "I remember turning to Ryan saying, 'We have to get out of California, we have to. We can't live like this anymore.'"

Northern California Wildfire
This Dec. 3, 2018, photo shows homes leveled by the Camp Fire in Paradise, California.  Noah Berger/AP

The Cashmans became "climate refugees" – people driven from their homes by the fires, floods, and hurricanes of our worsening climate.

Jesse Keenan, who teaches at the Tulane School of Architecture, studies the effect of climate change on people and cities. "Some people are being impacted by displacement from storms and forest fires and extreme events," Keenan said. "We think that people are going to be changing their decisions increasingly about where to live, how to live."

Pogue asked, " Are there any examples of that, any cities that you study where that's going on?"

"Really, there isn't a community in America, particularly in coastal America, where we are not seeing some transition away from the coast and moving to higher ground," Keenan replied. "Places like Miami, New Orleans, San Francisco, even in D.C., we see environmental risk from flood shaping property values and shaping where people want to live."

Global Warming, Full Moon, High Tide Cause Flooding In Miami Beach
A combination of the lunar orbit causing seasonal high tides and rising sea levels due to climate change produced this flooded street in Miami Beach on September 29, 2015. Hundreds of millions of dollars are being invested in infrastructure to keep ocean waters from inundating the city. Joe Raedle/Getty Images

Of course, not everybody has the option of moving. "It's not easy for folks to just pick up and leave a place," said Jalonne White-Newsome, a consultant, researcher and advocate who focuses on climate and racial justice. She said that extreme weather hits communities of color disproportionately hard, yet their residents may be the least able to move.

"It's not that folks want to stay in harm's way," she said, "but the fact that they might not have the resources to move, that they have invested all that they have into their home, whether they're renting or owning it. And then there's also this sense of community. It's that sense of connection not only with their neighbors, but their faith community, their jobs, their kids are in school."

Still, 40 million Americans do move every year. They retire, they graduate, they get jobs or lose jobs, they fall in love or break up.

If you have the luxury of choosing where to live, and climate change is a factor, here's the formula:

You want to be far enough inland to avoid the rising seas and flooding … far enough north to avoid the worst of the heat waves … far enough west and north to avoid the hurricanes … and far enough east to avoid the wildfires.

CBS News

Droughts are becoming more desperate every decade in our Western states, so you also want plenty of fresh water.

So, where does that leave you? The Great Lakes.

"The abundance of natural resources and fresh water in particular," said Keenan. "Cities like Buffalo, like Cleveland, like Toledo, Ohio, are really prime. There's a cultural capacity, there's a legacy, there's a history. There's infrastructure there. There's art."

That's a good point; there's more to a city than its weather. You also want good schools, fine hospitals, sports and culture, a reasonable cost of living, and a high quality of life.

At least one American city fits all of these criteria: Welcome to Madison, Wisconsin!

According to Satya Rhodes-Conway, Madison's mayor, the city has no hurricanes, no wildfires, and as for sea level rise? "Well, the lakes look pretty steady to me."

She is also a climate-resilience advocate: "We have solar on almost every municipally-owned building. At this point, we have a goal of being 100 percent renewable for city operations by 2030."

"So, people think of Madison as cold," said Pogue.

"What we like to say here is that there's no bad weather, there's only bad clothing," Rhodes-Conway said. "So, you know, if you're properly dressed, you can enjoy being outdoors year-round here in Madison."

"Is it your impression that with the changing climate, the winters are becoming milder here?"

"Yes, today it's above freezing. We're in January. That's not normal, right? Definitely the average, I think, is getting a lot warmer." [Five degrees warmer, in fact, since 1950.]

"So, tell me about what Madison is like in, for example, the summer and the fall?" asked Pogue.

"Well, in the summer, there's so many opportunities to get outside and to enjoy the lakes, to enjoy our neighborhoods," she said. "In the fall you live in this part of the world and you get beautiful color. We have 270 parks in Madison."

Now, no place is perfect. Even Madison.

"When we make another sort of Number One or Top 10, well, that's clearly true for the White population," said Rhodes-Conway. "Is that also true for people of color? And the answer is almost always, no, it's not also true. And so, that's part of our work going forward."

Madison isn't the only great climate-haven city. The Cashman family moved about as far from California's wildfires as they could get, near Burlington, Vermont (which Ryan described as "a very functional, athletic, happy, healthy place"), and they couldn't be happier.

"It's beautiful, it's green, it's not dry, there's no fires that I know of," said Jen. "The community embraced us immensely with our children, And I knew. I said, 'We made the right decision! We made it!'"

BOOK EXCERPT: "How to Prepare for Climate Change" by David Pogue
The science and technology writer and "CBS Sunday Morning" correspondent offers advice on how individuals can adapt to a quickly-changing planet.

For more info:

Story produced by Amol Mhatre. Editor: Lauren Barnello. 

View CBS News In
CBS News App Open
Chrome Safari Continue
Be the first to know
Get browser notifications for breaking news, live events, and exclusive reporting.