Anticipating Climate Refugees
At first, all eyes were on Hurricane Harvey. Then attention turned – momentarily – to the wildfires raging out West before riveting on Hurricane Irma.
Cascading natural disasters in a warming world raise the specter of mass dislocation. Sea-level rise, drought, wildfires and floods could displace hundreds of millions of people. Following Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans lost about 90,000 residents, a third of whom settled in Houston – where Harvey affected roughly 100,000 homes.
“Climate change could lead to a humanitarian crisis of epic proportions,” Brig. Gen. Stephen Cheney, CEO of the American Security Project, observed last year. “We’re already seeing migration of large numbers of people around the world because of food scarcity, water insecurity and extreme weather, and this is set to become the new normal.”
People will move across borders and within nations in search of habitable settings. Low-lying coastal communities in the United States face the prospect of “managed retreat” – the deliberate demolition of vulnerable properties following buyouts or abandonment. To date, few people have opted to voluntarily relocate – preferring the familiarity of their home surroundings, despite increased threats.
But that dynamic could change as devastating storms proliferate, policy-makers overhaul the flood insurance program, and sea-level rise extends beyond “nuisance flooding.” A recent study published in Nature Climate Change predicts significant population losses by 2100 in Florida, Louisiana, New Jersey and Virginia.
“It’s hard to predict where people will go,” notes Aaron Strong, a professor of coastal and marine policy at the University of Maine. Human behavior “is one of the hardest things to model in terms of climate change impacts.”
Greater variability and weather extremes will occur everywhere, and no setting will offer a safe haven from climate disturbances. But Maine’s federally designated disasters tend to be less intense and costly relative to many other states, notes Evan Richert, former director of the State Planning Office, based on his review of federal emergency management data; those differentials could potentially lure to Maine businesses that seek “less disruption and less cost.”
Climate projections indicate that Maine will remain relatively wet, despite periodic droughts. Having the attributes of abundant land and water could make the state a magnet for those escaping hotter, drier or storm-torn settings.
“The population of Maine will increase dramatically in the next 20 years,” predicts Paul Mayewski, director of the University of Maine’s Climate Change Institute. “I truly believe that.”
Might climate migrants drive a new wave of growth in Maine, which in recent decades has seen population remain nearly stagnant? What impacts would such an influx have on infrastructure, land use, traffic and the power grid? Where might the newcomers work?
Few people appear to be asking these questions, much less answering them.
Gov. LePage feels little need for forward-looking research (having abolished the State Planning Office in 2012), and the Muskie School of Public Service – which might have tackled these questions – lost many key faculty members in 2014 because of budget cuts.
So climate adaptation planning happens largely now at the municipal level. There, it is “still really focused on the physical end – culverts, waterfront redesign and flood management,” notes Cynthia Isenhour, a professor of anthropology at the University of Maine.
That technocratic approach, she cautions, can exclude people who need to be part of the conversation. “What I worry about is the human dimension. How can we adapt in ways that don’t favor those already best able to adapt?”
Climate migrants from other states and nations could bring new energy, skills and diversity to Maine, one of the nation’s most white and gray states. Communities like Portland and Lewiston-Auburn have welcomed many international refugees in recent decades, and a strong network has evolved to support them. (The Trump administration is obstructing such entry temporarily, but a recent poll found that 64 percent of Americans believe that immigration strengthens the country.)
If the number of climate migrants spikes markedly in Maine, there will be “a huge role for planners and municipalities,” Isenhour says, to guide where people settle and what supports are in place for them. Cultural tensions could increase, something sociologists have already observed between economically challenged residents and what are termed “amenity migrants” (those seeking a higher quality of life, often more affluent retirees).
In-migrants would likely concentrate around metropolitan areas, which could aggravate sprawl and traffic congestion. Communities that anticipate rapid growth can adopt measures to encourage infill development and to maintain the open space that protects groundwater, mitigates flooding, offers recreation and preserves wildlife. Maine’s 1989 Growth Management Act provides a framework to help guide comprehensive planning, but Richert acknowledges that increased population pressures would require “honoring the act in an even more serious way.”
“If we do this in a planned way, it could be wonderful,” observes Cameron Wake, professor of climate and sustainability at the University of New Hampshire, underscoring that “if.” Wake would like to see new growth directed toward inland communities, revitalizing existing town centers. With careful zoning, many settings could accommodate greater population density and still offer a high quality of life.
Facing an age of “weather on steroids,” we urgently need to look beyond short-term forecasts and face up to the far-reaching effects that climate disruptions will have – as they ripple out across the nation and around the globe. What will the “new normal” of climate-related migration mean for Maine? And who will help answer that question?
© Marina Schauffler, 2017. All Rights Reserved. Column reprints available upon request.