What are climate migrants and where do they travel? | Immovable

It is easy to see climate change as a future problem rather than a current problem. The reality, however, is that climate change and weather events are already pushing people across the United States — and around the world — out of their homes, forcing them to move to areas where the weather tends to be less. extremes. It’s a concept known as climate migration, and in the years to come we could see a huge shift in travel patterns because of it.

What is climate migration?

Climate migration is the act of moving away from areas prone to weather or extreme weather events and seeking refuge in areas with a more temperate climate. Climate migrants often flee their home areas due to repeated environmental disasters such as floods and wildfires, or due to lingering concerns such as drought conditions.

Climate migration exists globally. There are people all over the world who are forced to leave their homes due to repeated destruction from weather events. In fact, Gaia Vince, climate migration expert and author of the recently published book, “Nomad Century: How Climate Migration Will Reshape Our World”, calls climate migration “the greatest human crisis you’ve never heard of.”

But the problem has been hitting close to home in the United States for years. In 2021 alone, the United States experienced 20 separate billion-dollar climate and weather disasters, according to NOAA’s National Centers for Environmental Information. In 2020, there were 22 such events. And as these events become more frequent and widespread, we can expect more and more people in the United States to permanently abandon the areas that are most susceptible to them.

How soon will climate migration really take off?

It is easy to talk about climate migration as an unfolding future situation. But Anna Weber, policy analyst at the Natural Resources Defense Council, says it’s already happening.

In 2018, more than 1.2 million Americans were displaced due to climate issues, reports the Urban Institute. And as extreme weather conditions continue to intensify, that number is likely to increase.

What parts of the United States are climate migrants abandoning?

Coastal areas are at high risk for extreme weather events, as they are prone to flooding. And in recent years, cities like New Orleans and Houston have experienced catastrophic flooding from major hurricanes.

In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans’ entire population of 455,000 was forced to leave the city and move elsewhere, according to the National Center for Biotechnology Information. And several months after Katrina, the city’s population was still down to a third of its pre-Katrina volume.

But it’s not just southern states, including Louisiana and Florida, that residents are increasingly fleeing due to climate issues. Many coastal cities in Alaska are also affected, as shrinking sea ice exposes them to storms and rising temperatures melt the ground and endanger countless structures. And in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, many residents were forced to leave coastal areas of New York and New Jersey.

“It’s almost like a sci-fi situation,” says Weber. And even worse, many people who find themselves displaced due to climate issues don’t even realize the risks they took in the first place buying homes where they did. That’s because the rules around floodplain reporting aren’t as watertight as they should be, she says.

“In about half of the states in the US, you don’t have to report a previous flood, or even say that (a house is) in a flood zone,” Weber says. And although FEMA publishes a flood insurance map that homebuyers can consult, this map only takes into account existing risks and not future risks.

Where are America’s climate migrants going?

Many climate-displaced people prefer to stay as close to their home areas as possible, Weber says. Very often, the inhabitants of coastal areas will remain in their state but simply move inland.

That said, there has been a big shift in the number of US residents flocking to the Midwest as it is less susceptible to major weather events. And a recent report by Scott Bernstein, founder of the Center for Neighborhood Technology, reveals that some of the safest areas in the United States are in Appalachia and western Michigan. The western interior, which includes Utah, New Mexico, Nevada and Idaho, is also reported as a relatively safe option.

Meanwhile, Jesse Keenan, an associate professor at Tulane University who studies climate change adaptation, estimates that 50 million Americans could eventually move to places like New England or the Upper Midwest to escape. in a harsh climate. And given that US coastal sea levels are expected to rise a foot by 2050, he thinks the migration is likely to happen sooner rather than later.

The Great Lakes in particular could see a massive influx of migrants in the coming years given that they account for approximately 21% of the world’s surface freshwater supply and 84% of North America’s supply. And as people become more aware of air quality, migrants may increasingly flock to Massachusetts and North Dakota, both of which are known to have exceptionally clean air. Hawaii actually ranks first in the United States for air quality, but moving there can be prohibitively expensive for the non-wealthy.

And speaking of Massachusetts, they are, along with Delaware, Connecticut and, perhaps surprisingly, California, the least drought-prone US states, according to NOAA. In contrast, Oklahoma, Montana and Iowa are considered the most vulnerable due to factors other than rainfall or lack thereof, such as the percentage of land used for agriculture, existing irrigation systems and adaptability to drought conditions. This is likely to be a consideration for those who depend on farming and farming for their livelihood.

What are the benefits of climate migration?

The benefits of abandoning areas prone to weather disasters are manifold, Weber says. First, there are the savings associated with not having to make frequent repairs or purchase flood or hurricane insurance.

But just as important, says Weber, those who move have peace of mind. Repeated exposure to weather-related damage can leave people with lasting post-traumatic stress and health issues, she says. Once they’ve moved on, they don’t have to be scared every time it rains.

Additionally, climate migrants can benefit from access to fresh water, clean air, and land suitable for farming and growing food. They can also lead more comfortable, healthy and stress-free lives in the absence of extreme weather conditions and air pollution.

What are the disadvantages of climate migration?

For many people, abandoning an area where they have planted roots can have adverse consequences, Vince says. When people migrate to different parts of the country, they often abandon their jobs, social networks and support systems.

It should also be noted that the ability to simply get up and move around is not equally available to everyone affected by weather events. “People who have the ability to decide to just move to a safer place are likely to be wealthy people who are spared and have good job prospects, leaving people who don’t have those opportunities trapped,” Weber says. .

There are some government buyout programs whose purpose is to financially incentivize residents to abandon flood-prone areas and rebuild elsewhere. But often these programs “sound great on paper,” as Weber puts it.

Often in a government buyout, the price offered for a home that has been repeatedly flood-damaged will be based on its pre-flood value, Weber says. But since home values ​​naturally increase over the years, homeowners could end up being underestimated during a buyout.

Vince, too, worries that those less fortunate have limited options when it comes to escaping extreme weather conditions. “As people move away, the places they leave behind can become less desirable. It becomes a cycle of poverty.”

Climate migrants also have the potential to squeeze the markets they flock to. Cities in the Midwest that are not yet overcrowded, for example, are likely to become increasingly overcrowded as coastal areas become less desirable.

And it’s not just overcrowding that could become problematic. There is also the issue of property values. As climate-friendly parts of the country become more desirable, the cost of real estate could skyrocket. And while that’s good for existing homeowners who stand to see their home’s value increase, it’s bad for first-time buyers with limited resources who want to put down roots in the towns where they grew up but don’t. cannot due to affordability issues.

As a result of the pandemic, increased migration to the south and west has pushed up house prices in those parts of the country, according to Freddie Mac. It is fair to assume that climate-related migration is likely to have a similar impact on areas to which more people flock.

Can risk areas minimize the impact of weather events?

Some can, Vince says, but for others it may be too late. Ultimately, she insists, to avoid a mass displacement of people due to climatic events, everything must change, from our food to our manufacturing processes – and soon. This means we need to change our approach to farming and farming via crop rotation and adapting to new food sources. We need to rethink the way we construct homes and buildings while retrofitting those that are already high in emissions. We need to rethink our energy sources and rely more on wind turbines and solar panels. And finally, we need to accept that climate migration is happening – and find ways to make room for people who need to move by redesigning cities.

“It’s something we’re going to have to deal with in the next few decades,” Vince insists, “whether we like it or not.”