Thank goodness somebody is studying U.S. climate migration. The sea level is rising, and will force hundreds of thousands if not millions of residents of cities on the Atlantic, Gulf, and Pacific coasts to migrate inland. Drew Costley reports at length for the OneZero website on one such recent study in his article “Rising Seas May Force U.S. Climate Refugees to the Same 5 Cities.”
However, the study by a team led by Bistra Dilkina, a computer science professor at the University of Southern California (USC) has some serious shortcomings. It assumes that future migrants will do as did those forced to flee their homes by Hurricanes Katrina and Irma. Most of those migrants flocked to the inland city nearest to the one they were fleeing. The researchers therefore focused on five cities: Atlanta, Houston, Dallas, Las Vegas, and Denver. All these cities have begun to develop plans for an influx of climate migrants that is expected to swell the “normal” growth of these urban magnets. They do note that several of these cities are prone to droughts, a risk likely to increase as the climate crisis progresses. However, they do not take into account the temperature rise that will affect the entire Southern tier of the U.S. With the exception of mile-high Denver, cities throughout the SouthEast and SouthWest will become ever more inhospitable places to live. They will experience up to six months of consecutive days when the thermometer hits or exceeds 100°F. On many days it will spike to 115°F.
Las Vegas already has its Strip, a stretch of air-conditioned hotels and casinos that make it unnecessary for tourists to venture outside into the scorching heat, but pity the poor residents who will live and work there. Atlanta has an underground shopping and entertainment complex in the downtown Five Points area, but it is struggling. It might attract more tourists and residents when above-ground conditions deteriorate. Toronto’s underground PATH complex, the world’s largest subterranean city, seems to be thriving (especially in the winter). Dubai has taken to air-conditioning the outdoors, but no American city has yet to seriously consider emulating the emirate.
Climate refugees will stress American cities throughout the country. Every city should develop plans to accommodate refugees with housing, employment opportunities, transportation infrastructure, energy, even open spaces. Cities must incorporate within those plans ways to deal with the uncomfortable, even killing, heat that is sure to attend climate change, heat that will disproportionately affect the poor, the elderly, the very young, the medically compromised, the homeless. Southern cities, regardless of their foresight in planning for the climate changes sure to come, will become less attractive living environments. Industry will seek more conducive sites for their businesses. Amenities and services will follow them.
Most American climate migrants will not relocate to a nearby inland city as did their predecessors forced out by Katrina and Irma. They will instead seek refuge from not only rising seas and increasingly frequent severe storms, but also from the ever more debilitating heat that will accompany and characterize the changes to our climate wrought by our addiction to the combustion of fossil fuels. Migrants will head for Northern tier cities — Seattle, Minneapolis-St. Paul, Boise, Des Moines, Milwaukee, Chicago, and in the East — Syracuse, Albany, Bangor, to name just a few. Some will emigrate to Canada — Toronto, Montreal, Ottawa, Vancouver. Others will choose Alaska — Anchorage, Fairbanks, Nome. The watchword for Northern cities that, to date, have been largely unaffected by the climate emergency, is “Be prepared,” or a flood of people will inundate you.
It is regrettable that the Dilkina study confines its focus only to American climate migrants. It ignores the global impact of climate change, it fails to acknowledge the push and pull aspects of migration, and it barely mentions the social and economic consequences of climate-induced emigration. Europe in the last few years has been deluged by refugees from Africa seeking respite from wars or political unrest caused or exacerbated by the hunger and desperation induced by prolonged droughts. The strain — and fear– the hordes of foreigners have so freighted the receiving societies that they’ve spawned and embraced far-right nationalistic parties that have either strained or upended the long-existing political order. The current U.S. administration has responded harshly to a perceived rise in migrants from the Northern tier of Latin American countries pushed by climate changes that have made local farmers unable to sustain their families and by economic conditions that foster violent gangs that prey on defenseless citizens. Those forced from their homes seek a haven and a better life north of the border. So far those braving the dangers of emigrating to the U.S. have been a trickle, but in future decades as the climate worsens they will become a flood that no wall can contain. America isn’t ready for this coming tide. Its social and political implications have barely started to enter people’s awareness much less the national dialog. This dialog must occur, however, because we have seen the upheaval that has roiled Europe. Brexit was in part fueled by fear of unconstrained immigration eroding British customs and values. The U.S. is a nation of immigrants, but it is not immune to chauvinism. Our welcome mat is not the only thing that may be rolled up. Our democracy may be a casualty of climate migration as well.