When you turn on the evening news each night, you see various maps of America with each state color-coded to reflect some aspect of the response to the COVID-19 pandemic. One section of the country stands out in relief from its neighbors. New England.
New England provides geographic relief from population centers where the coronavirus is spiking. Wealthy urban dwellers are flocking to their summer homes in Maine, the Catskills, the Hamptons, Massachusetts to escape the virus.
As we continue to experience COVID-19, I see the pandemic “refugee crisis” as a harbinger of a larger refugee crisis looming for New England. Within just a few decades, hundreds of thousands of homes on U.S. coasts will be chronically flooded. By the end of the century, six-feet of sea-level rise would redraw the coastline with familiar parts – such as southern Florida, chunks of North Carolina and Virginia, much of Boston, all but a sliver of New Orleans – missing.
Coastal flooding is only one piece of the environmental emergency facing New Englanders. Ever hotter summers and lower levels of rainfall in the Midwest and the South are forcing generations of farmers to seek a more fertile climate elsewhere, like New England. Warming temperatures will fuel gigantic hurricanes – like the devastating triumvirate of Irma, Maria and Harvey in 2017, followed by Florence this year – that will scatter survivors in jarring, uncertain ways.
People displaced by extreme weather events and slower-developing environmental disasters are often called “climate refugees,” a term popularized by journalists and humanitarian advocates over the past decade. What happens when climate change causes extreme events to become chronic, potentially rendering some communities unviable? This question is fueling a new strand of global research focused on “climigration.” Climigration is the planned relocation of entire communities to new locations farther from harm. And it has already begun.
The population shift gathering pace is so sprawling that it may rival anything in U.S. history. “Including all climate impacts, it isn’t too far-fetched to imagine something twice as large as the Dustbowl,” said Jesse Keenan, a climate adaptation expert at Harvard University, referencing the 1930s upheaval in which 2.5 million people moved from the dusty, drought-ridden plains to California.
This enormous migration will probably take place over a longer period than the Dustbowl, but its implications are both profound and opaque. It will plunge the U.S. into an utterly alien reality. “It is very difficult to model human behavior under such extreme and historically unprecedented circumstances,” Keenan admitted.
“I don’t see the slightest evidence that anyone is seriously thinking about what to do with the future climate-refugee stream,” said Orrin Pilkey, professor emeritus of coastal geology at Duke University. “It boggles the mind to see crowds of climate refugees arriving in town and looking for work and food.”
Pilkey’s new book, Sea Level Rise Along Americas Shores: The Slow Tsunami, envisions apocalyptic scenes where millions of people, largely from south Florida, will become “a stream of refugees moving to higher ground.” New England has a lot of higher ground.
The projections are starting to materialize in parts of the U.S. forming the contours of the climate migration to come. At the moment, our internal “refugee problem” pales in comparison to the global climate-refugee crisis. In 2018, the World Bank estimated that three regions (Latin America, sub-Saharan Africa, and Southeast Asia) will generate 143 million more climate migrants by 2050. In 2017, 68.5 million people were forcibly displaced, more than at any point in human history. While it is difficult to estimate, approximately one-third of these (22.5 million to 24 million people) were forced to move by “sudden onset” weather events – flooding, forest fires after droughts, and intensified storms. The growing climate-refugee movement will exacerbate many humanitarian crises and may lead to even more people being on the move.
The Obama administration undertook myriad efforts to update the institutions that can address climate. Several of President Obama’s executive orders, particularly Executive Order 13677, which required incorporating climate resilience into decision making on development assistance, took on the climate crisis. For the first time in the Department of Defense’s history, the 2010 Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR) recognized climate change as a “threat multiplier,” with the potential to exacerbate current challenges.
Millions of Americans will confront hard choices as climate change conjures up brutal storms, flooding rains, receding coastlines and punishing heat. Many are already opting to shift to less perilous areas of the same city or to havens in other states. Towns from Alaska to Louisiana are looking to relocate, in their entirety, to safer ground. Isle d Jean Charles in Louisiana is the first U.S. community to undergo federally sanctioned climigration. These options were previously considered for the village of Newtok, Alaska. Climate-induced coastal erosion has threatened its livability for many years. In 2003, its residents voted to relocate to higher ground but that relocation looks like it will not be completed until 2023.
Though it’s possible for coastal cities to build new infrastructure and artificial barriers to protect themselves from climate change, time is running out. Here are the eight cities in the US most likely to disappear underwater by 2100. In Boston, where many neighborhoods have been built and recently expanded in low-lying areas, an estimated $2.4 billion will be needed over the next several decades to protect the city from flooding according to one study. That report came as the city abandoned plans to build a harbor barrier that would have cost between $6 billion and $12 billion, which researchers concluded was economically unfeasible. Then there’s Houston, Miami and New Orleans which has yet to recover from the impacts of Hurricane Katrina 20 years ago! Next comes Atlanta, Charleston, Virginia Beach and finally the big one, New York City, where Michael Bloomberg proposed a $19 billion sea wall around Wall Street when he was mayor some 18 years ago.
All of this leads to my question about how New England, as an ideal target territory for resettlement by American and foreign climate refugees, is prepared to welcome and assimilate a growing population base in an eco-friendly way?
John Bos is a contributing writer to Green Energy Times. He has written about his growing concerns of an endangered environment for the past ten years. Your comments and questions are invited at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Check out more on climate migration on page 25 in issue 52 of Green Energy Times, October 2018.