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  • Writer's pictureEloise Bristow

Climate migration is happening in the United States, and here’s why

By Eloise Bristow

New Orleans, United States

Image by John Middelkoop

Climate change is devastating communities across the United States, threatening water security, infrastructure and agriculture; the result is the beginnings of an American climate migragration, which in the coming decades will reshape our nation.

By definition a climate migrant, or environmental migrant, are people who are forced to relocate due to climate impacts disrupting or destroying their home communities. Many citizens of the US don’t imagine climate change disrupting their lives to the point of relocation, but the reality is that more and more Americans are becoming displaced each year. So why aren’t more people talking about it?

At the moment, the exact number of migrants caused by climate change in the US is nascent. But for the future, science isn’t in our favor. A 2018 study from the Journal of the Association of Environmental and Resource Economists, suggests that climate change impacts will drive a daunting one in twelve citizens in the Southern United States to relocate in the next 45 years. It sounds apocalyptic, but with strategic governance, it doesn’t have to be.

How does extreme weather cause climate migrants?

Climate change is unfolding in front of our very own eyes, fueling the extreme weather events which have been felt across the US throughout last year. The 2020 Atlantic hurricanes were unrivaled in both intensity and number, with 30 named storms battering records, 13 making landfall, and 6 being record-tying. This historic hurricane season took a huge toll on local communities, many of which are already under immense stress from the coronavirus pandemic.

And hurricanes weren’t the only climate phenomena we encountered in 2020. Death Valley reached the hottest temperature ever recorded on Earth and ferocious fires tore across the West, notably spawning 5 out of the 6 largest fires ever recorded. Meanwhile, a derechos wiped out roughly 12 million acres of cropland in the Midwestern states. It’s safe to say, the Unites States has had an eventful year.

The future for climate migrants in the US

Ramifications of extreme weather can leave Americans with no option but to relocate. The Louisiana coast is battling with the loss of land the size of a football field every 100 minutes, causing thousands to leave the state. And estimates suggest that as many as 13 million coastal residents in the US could be displaced due to sea level rise by 2100. Without action, more than 250 cities across the US could experience a month or more in heat of 100 degrees Fahrenheit by the mid 2000s. But where will they all go? And how can we ensure their safety and security?

How can we help climate migrants in the United States?

Climate migration presents a logistical nightmare if not handled with care.

Environmental reporter, Abraham Lustgarten, puts it best:

“The best outcome requires not only good will and the careful management of turbulent political forces; without preparation and planning, the sweeping scale of change could prove wildly destabilizing.”

Which areas need attention? Well, the shape that these migrations will take will firstly depend on the ability of regions to absorb people without disruption. For this to occur, migrant-accepting regions must be economically prosperous to allow for additional footfall, or have a clear plan in place to help build the economy of their region using the skills and labor of people moving into the area. People who migrate first will have the means and connections to pick and move, find new housing, and settle their families. But many of those affected do not have these connections or the capacity. The time to start understanding the factors and vulnerabilities as well as the funding and information gaps for those who need to move is now. Communities left with fewer people will also need to understand the impact on their economy and infrastructure, and the steps that they will need to take to adjust to having a smaller tax. Communities can start planning now to understand their needs. But for many communities and individuals, significant federal funding will be required.

Throughout history, we’ve seen how migration can be a positive force for countries when managed carefully. Migrants can provide extra pairs of hands to those who need it, and fresh eyes where innovation dwindles. But, an operation of this magnitude requires us to be strategic. It requires us to recognize our shared accountability for the climate crisis, and those who have been displaced because of it. It requires honesty, compassion and creativity to deal with the hard choices that communities losing people will have to make. Climate change migration is happening whether we like it or not. We must act now to make our communities in accordance with nature’s new reality, before nature acts on us.

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