Climate change forced human displacement topic of Geography Colloquium

“God makes floods, man makes disasters,” said Jake Bittle, summing up the theme of his presentation When the Levee Breaks: Climate Change and Housing Displacement for the MSU Mankato Geography Colloquium. Bittle delivered his talk which focused on human displacement caused by climate change via video delivered to Ostrander Auditorium on Nov. 10.

Bittle is a staff writer for Grist, a media company, where he covers environmental issues and is also the author of “The Great Displacement,” which covers how climate change is already affecting human migration patterns. To research his book, Bittle traveled across the country interviewing people who were impacted by climate change.

Throughout his presentation, Bittle emphasized how poor planning and inadequate risk evaluations lead to human-created disasters, which in turn forces human migration.

“Risk is increasing because of anthropogenic climate change and as a result, almost everybody is underestimating risk,” said Jake Bittle. “Either they built where they shouldn’t have and they underestimated the normal risk or they built for a world we no longer live in and as a result when the risk goes up due to global warming, everybody loses their home and they all have to move.”

Bittle focused on two specific disasters to illustrate his points. One was how the Army Corps of Engineers dynamited levees along the Mississippi River in the hopes of alleviating the ravages of a flood in 1927 to protect wealthy bankers in New Orleans. As a result of the levees being blown up, the city of Caernarvon, Louisiana was flooded instead.

“The sheriff of the parish [in Caernarvon] at the time referred to this as a public execution,” said Bittle.

The second disaster Bittle focused on was Hurricane Harvey and its impact on homeowners in Texas. In this part of the discussion, Bittle addressed how social status could impact people’s chances of being a victim of climate change.

“Climate disasters can happen anywhere. They can happen in New York City where I am, or in Mankato where you are tomorrow and be very devastating. Same thing with a flood. But vulnerability to climate change is always socially determined and in particular it’s determined by race and class,” said Bittle.

Bittle also talked about how climate change could impact Mankato as well as Minnesota and the probability that Minnesota could be a place where people end up moving to as the effects of climate change become more pronounced.

“Minnesota has a great deal to recommend it. It has a lot of great water. It’s relatively insulated from extreme heat, as you probably know, and are about to rediscover over the next few months,” said Bittle.

In closing, Bittle argued for greater involvement in government to help mitigate the results of climate change disasters.

“The federal government needs to do more than it currently does to guide this migration or else you’re going to see a lot more chaotic events,” said Bittle.

The presentation included a question and answer session at the end. During this time, people asked questions about sustainable land use policies, how the rise of remote working could impact human migration and ways the government specifically could encourage people to move out of climate change-impacted areas.

Header photo: Jake Bittle gave a presentation called ‘When the Levee Breaks’ where he focused on human displacement caused by 

climate change via video delivery in the Ostrander Auditorium. (Dalton Grubb/The Reporter)

Write to Jeremy Redlien at

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