The Next Great Human Migration: America’s Future Climate

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A 2022 report from the International Panel on Climate Change observed that more than 3.3 billion people around the world are “highly vulnerable to climate change.” And more than one billion people could be exposed to “coastal-specific climate hazards by 2050.”

Here in the U.S., the Census Bureau calculated that 3.2 million adults were displaced or evacuated due to natural disasters of all kinds in 2022. And while climate migration is not easily measurable, as there are multiple factors involved, it is no doubt happening.

Investigative reporter at Politico Abrahm Lustgarten delved into the topic of U.S. climate migration in his new book, On The Move: The Overheating Earth and the Uprooting of America. Seeking to understand what climate migration might look like over the next few decades, Lustgarten used data and reporting from places across the country such as New York City, California, Arizona, Chicago, Texas and the Gulf Coast, the Isle de Jean Charles in Louisiana, and from abroad in places like Guatemala and Africa.

Dense with facts and using modeling from Rhodium Group, a climate and economics research provider, to try and predict future migration patterns in the U.S., Lustgarten concludes that climate change migration depends on what happens next in the world of carbon reduction, politics and several other factors, resulting in a book analyzing “a portrait of American society transformed.”

Here are excerpts from a recent interview with Lustgarten.

Abrahm Lustagarten author photo by Seth Smoot

What are the most pressing short-term environmental threats that you write about?

Wildfires, coastal flooding, increasing heat, drought and water scarcity. I also collected some associated data on diminishing crop yields, change in wet bulb temperatures across the country and the economic implications of all of those things.

How was 2020 the tipping point, as you called it?

Instead of it being a sort of a scary far off in-the-distant-future idea, 2020 was a year where we were reading about smoke or hurricanes or flooding every day. Just a moment where the country seemed to grasp what we’re coping with.

What did your reporting tell you about who was going where?

The broad thesis of the book is that we will see a future projection of a movement of population from the South and the most extreme areas affected by both heat and sea level rise towards the North, which according to the specific risks that I mapped is the least affected part of the United States. We see current migration that’s sort of unmeasurable coming out of those high-risk areas already. People leaving Florida, people leaving the Gulf Coast, people leaving wildfires in California, anecdotally leaving heat in the Southwest, but it’s very difficult to measure.

Some of the things you write about are the economics of this migration. Tell me generally how disruptive it’ll be.

People move in response to the climate in slow steps and they go the shortest distance possible. It’s more likely that the rural places around them in those states kind of empty out over time because people will seek the support of those urban environments, that urban tax base, the facilities, the school systems, all of the services that are available. I could imagine an American Southwestern Texas that becomes islands of large, relatively wealthy cities, even in a sea of a much emptier rural expanse.

The second way to answer that question is, what’s the risk for places that are in decline? And this is a pessimistic scenario that universally all of the economists that I spoke with warn about, which is just what happens to a community that loses population for any reason. And it’s the same as what you see in the Rust Belt cities after the 1970s, what you see in post-boom coal towns and things like that. As some people leave, the businesses and the business community shrinks, storefronts might disappear, you have less revenue for the town, city, etc. That government can do less, which self-perpetuates this cycle, right? Your potholes don’t get repaved, and your schools don’t get fresh funding. More parents look at those schools and say, well, this sucks. And it is really hot here.

Do you think these kinds of economic impacts in certain areas might make people fully aware of the reality of climate breakdown?

I really think climate migration will happen in the United States, not because people say it’s too damn hot and I want to leave, or we think it’s going to flood and we’re going to move, but when it starts to affect people’s personal economic resilience. It ultimately will be economic-driven migration, which is catalyzed by climate change. It’s inevitable that when those kinds of things happen in culturally conservative parts of southern Louisiana or east Texas, that those people are not going to be hitting the streets complaining about climate change, but they’re going to be saying, “I can’t insure my home any longer. I can’t make a living any longer. Farming just doesn’t work anymore, and we’ve got to move someplace where we can take care of our families and make ends meet.” And a great example of that, of course, is the insurance blowback in Florida.

I wanted to ask you about wealthy people. Do wealthy people have a leg up in this whole situation? There’s been some land grabs up in Wyoming a little bit, and I think in Montana. Do you see that being magnified? 

Wealthy people have an added layer of protection for all the obvious reasons. Interestingly, it’s actually kind of upper middle-class folks that are most likely to move, but wealthy people who might be the most protected because they have either the means to own properties in multiple places at once, or to move more spontaneously when they want to. There’s been a movement towards snatching up land in Wyoming or Montana, you know, or even in the Great Lakes — the data is very hard to pin with certainty to climate migration, but it appears to be part of the same kind of trend. Bill Gates is now the largest landholder in the United States, and he’s been buying up thousands of acres in northern Michigan, for example.

Might there be a new era of climate-migration boom towns, like the gold rush? 

A lot of that upper Midwest and, you know, along the Canadian border, is rural and quite remote now. What if those cities grew dramatically and became the transportation corridor between the thriving metropolis Pacific Northwest and the Great Lakes region? That’s a far-fetched scenario, but one that’s possible. A place like Fargo — what the data says about Fargo is that its winters will be shorter and not as cold, and its summer seasons will be longer. And the data suggests that the crop yields in Fargo will likely increase while they decrease in other parts of the country. Fargo is the type of place that could see a relative improvement in its environment, a milder climate with probably increasing opportunity for agricultural activity. Which could lead to some kind of boom.

What might the abandoned places be like? Will any human ingenuity be able to make those places livable? Will it just be the very poor who will live there and can’t escape to go anywhere else?

It’s a dark question and a dark image, right? There’s a chapter in the book that looks as an example of this to a place called Ordway, Colorado. It’s a farming community that was very prosperous, but as a result of losing its water over the past 20 years or so has experienced a spiral decline. The people left and the schools shrunk in size. It’s an interesting sort of test case that shows us what the future might look like in other places that you’re asking about. There are people that love living there and will remain there and find their homes and their land beautiful. But, you know, as a community, it’s hard to say that it’s thriving. The people that I talked to there feel very sad about what they’ve lost and not particularly hopeful about the future of their community.

In places like Africa or Central America, in your reporting have you seen that a lot of people there are leaving because of climate migration? 

My top line conclusion is I think we’re entering a new era of permanent, very high levels of global climate change migration all around the world. One very influential piece of research has looked at the human habitability niche around the world. And it models that about a third to one half of humanity will be displaced from this kind of ideal habitat in within the next 40 years. We’re talking about two to three billion people on the planet as potential migrants.

I spoke with migrants in El Salvador who, you know, wanted to leave because they’re experiencing gang threats in the city of El Salvador, but wanted to go home to their hometown in the mountains, but couldn’t because climate change had wiped out the coffee crop there. Climate change was rarely the primary driver but was always a present factor in these people’s decisions.

This article originally appeared on EcoWatch and was syndicated by MediaFeed.

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This article originally appeared on EcoWatch and was syndicated by MediaFeed.

Like MediaFeed's content? Be sure to follow us.