Part 2. Moving to Higher Ground Due to Climate Change

by Duane Nichols on September 26, 2018

Forced moves from the red areas to the blue areas

‘We’re moving to higher ground’: America’s era of climate mass migration is here

From an Article by Oliver Milman, The Guardian, September 24, 2018

A study published last year found that the economies of the southern states, along with parts of the west, will suffer disproportionately as temperatures rise. In what researchers called potentially one of the largest transfers of wealth in US history, the poorest third of counties are expected to lose up to 20% of their income unless greenhouse gas emissions are severely curtailed. Wealth, and potentially people, are expected to shift north and west.

Meanwhile, cities already struggling with heat will see wealthy residents head for cooler climes. Last year, 155 people died in Phoenix due to a particularly fierce summer. Increasing heat will start testing the durability of the populace, even those shielded by air conditioning. In the western states, wildfires are getting larger, razing homes in ever more spectacular ways and choking thousands of people with carcinogenic smoke.

Further to the south, at the border, there are suggestions that people from Central America are being nudged towards the US because of drought and hurricanes in their homelands, part of a trend that will see as many as 300 million climate refugees worldwide by 2050.

“People will get very grumpy and upset with very hot temperatures,” said Amir Jina, an environmental economist at the University of Chicago who co-authored the research on economic losses. “Even if you have air conditioning, some areas start to look less habitable. By the middle of the century parts of the south-west and south-east won’t look attractive to live in.

“That insidious climate migration is the one we should worry about. The big disasters such as hurricanes will be obvious. It’s the pressures we don’t know or understand that will reshape population in the 21st century.”

Prodded to name refuges in the US, researchers will point to Washington and Oregon in the Pacific north-west, where temperatures will remain bearable and disasters unlikely to strike. Areas close to the Great Lakes and in New England are also expected to prove increasingly attractive to those looking to move.

By 2065, southern states are expected to lose 8% of their US population share, while the north-east will increase by 9%. A recent study forecast that the population in the western half of the US will increase by more than 10% over the next 50 years due to climate migration, largely from the south and midwest.

But these population shifts are uncertain and are bound by a tangle of other factors and caveats. People will still largely follow paths guided by nearby family or suitable jobs. Even those who do want to move may find favoured locations too expensive.

Some will just grimly hang on. “With property rights as strong as they are in the US, some people may choose to go down with the ship,” said Harvard’s Keenan. “The question is whether they have the means and the options to do anything else.”

“People can usually cope with being a little less comfortable, but if you see repeated storms or severe damage to crops, that will trigger change,” said Solomon Hsiang, who researches how climate change will affect society at the University of California.

“There will be pressure to move a little north. It won’t be everyone, though, it won’t be like the great migration of wildebeest in Africa. Whole cities picking up and moving would be hugely expensive.”

Smaller towns are giving relocation a go, however. In 2016, the community of Isle de Jean Charles in Louisiana was the first place to be given federal money to replant itself. The population, situated on an island being eaten away by the sea, is looking to move to a former sugar cane farm 30 miles inland.

“We are called climate refugees but I hate that term,” said Chantal Comardelle, who grew up in the Isle de Jean Charles community.

“We will be the first ones to face this in the modern US but we won’t be the last. It’s important for us to get it right so other communities know that they can do it, too.”

About a dozen coastal towns in Alaska are also looking to relocate, as diminishing sea ice exposes them to storms and rising temperatures thaw the very ground beneath them. One, Newtok, has identified a new site and has some federal funding to begin uprooting itself.

A buyout of damaged and at-risk homes has already occurred in New York City’s Staten Island in the wake of Hurricane Sandy, while certain flood-prone houses in Houston, pummeled by Hurricane Harvey last year, are also being purchased and razed.

But the cost of doing this for all at-risk Americans would be eye-watering. Estimates range from $200,000 to $1m per person to undertake a relocation. If 13 million people do have to move, it seems fantastical to imagine $13tn, or even a significant fraction of this amount, being spent by governments to ease the way.

“As a country we aren’t set up to deal with slow-moving disasters like this, so people around the country are on their own,” said Joel Clement, a former Department of the Interior official who worked on the relocation of Alaskan towns.

“In the Arctic I’m concerned we’ve left it too late. Younger people have left because they know the places are doomed. These towns won’t be relocated within five years and I’m sure there will be a catastrophic storm up there. My hope is no lives will be lost.”

Ultimately, the US will have to choose what it wants to defend and hope its ingenuity outstrips the environmental changes ranged against it. Not everyone will be able to shelter behind fortifications like the ‘big U’ planned to defend lower Manhattan. Wrenching decisions will have to be made as to what and where will be sacrificed.

“We won’t see whole areas abandoned but neighborhoods will get sparse and wild looking, the tax base will start to crumble,” said Stoddard, mayor of South Miami. “We don’t have the laws to deal with that sort of piecemeal retreat. It’s magical thinking to think someone else will buy out your property.

“We need a plan as to what will be defended because at the moment the approach is that some kid in a garage will come with a solution. There isn’t going to be a mop and bucket big enough for this problem.”

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