Go north, young climate refugee

Worried about climate change? Worried about too much growth in Seattle? They're connected.
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Worried about climate change? Worried about too much growth in Seattle? They're connected.

My colleague Knute Berger wrote an essay earlier this week saying that the region was creating self-fulfilling plans for too much population growth, mostly by laying too much asphalt. I'd like to add to his alarm by pointing to another factor: climate change, which will drive a lot of population to cooler climes like the Northwest.

A fascinating overview of this phenomenon, and its political consequences, is "Warming in America," from the Climate Desk of Slate.com. Drawing on projections by NOAA for 2035, author Jim Tankersley extrapolates these predictions:

  • Climate refugees will pour in from China, Southeast Asia, and sub-Saharan Africa, primarily heading for cities.
  • Northern state populations will swell by 20 percent. GOP strengths in the Sunbelt and Southwest will decline. California will be a big loser, and the Democratic Party power base on the coasts will also decline. Fewer Nancy Pelosi liberals and more Blue Dog moderates. Another factor driving populations from the coast: increased flooding and hurricanes.
  • Urban populations will expand as former suburbanites lose those nice green lawns.
  • Water politics will intensify, with California and the Southwest trying to drain more water from the Mountain states and probably the Columbia basin. Urban America's war with rural American farmers and housing developers will become a pitched battle.
  • Seattle and Puget Sound have been beneficiaries of mass migration patterns since the 1950s, as American investment tipped decisively to the West Coast, largely for Cold War reasons. Notably Seattle and Los Angeles, with heavy aerospace and defense industries, grew rapidly. (Portland, whose defense industry was shipbuilding, turns out to have bet on the wrong horse.) Now, I would suspect the Northwest, not California, is poised to receive another mass influx, driven by climate and extensive Chinese investments in places like Seattle and Vancouver.

    Or not. Some, like Joel Kotkin, think that the amenities coastal cities like Seattle and San Francisco have become too expensive, their politics too exquisite, to absorb much growth. Instead, emerging, interior cities such as Boise and Denver and Sacramento are better positioned for companies seeking lower costs and more sense of community (schools, safe streets, low property taxes) for their employees. I suspect the real growth in Puget Sound will not be in Seattle itself, but in the exurban cities like Mount Vernon and Olympia, particularly if good rail connections are built. As Mossback would understand, to cite the title of his book: "Pugetopolis."  

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