Climate refugees are coming to the Pacific Northwest

Global warming promises to send us a flood of environmental asylum seekers. Do we put out the welcome mat, or pull up the gangplanks?
Crosscut archive image.

Severe weather is already making parts of the world uninhabitable.

Global warming promises to send us a flood of environmental asylum seekers. Do we put out the welcome mat, or pull up the gangplanks?

Climate change is already making its presence felt in the Pacific Northwest. In the near future, we are told to expect ocean acidification, reduced water supplies, less hydroelectric power, more forest fires and insect infestations, more algae blooms, a disruption of agriculture, a rise in sea level and more. The good news, according to the climate models, is that things are likely to be much worse elsewhere, with drought and other extreme weather rendering parts of the world virtually uninhabitable.

Cliff Mass, the University of Washington meteorologist, dug into the topic this summer. "A compelling case can be made that the Pacific Northwest will be one of the best places to live as the earth warms," wrote Mass on his blog. But there may be a downside to that upside.

"The Pacific Northwest is likely to experience relatively minor impacts from climate change compared to the rest of the country and many parts of the world," concluded a 2011 study by The Resource Innovation Group at Portland State University. "However, it is likely that human migration patterns will shift, and potentially the Willamette Basin will experience growth from climate refugees." In short, global warming could unleash a deluge of newcomers.

In his blog post, Mass explained why. A dramatic rise in sea level rise will submerge portions of the Eastern seaboard and Gulf Coast where the shorelines are especially vulnerable and populated. Research suggests that these areas will also experience increasingly intense hurricanes and storms.

Mass also maps the U.S. National Climate Assessment's predictions of huge reductions in the agricultural water supply for the American Southwest, from southern California to Texas, Oklahoma, Nebraska, Kansas, all the way to Florida. Heat waves are expected to be more common and more intense, scorching most of the country beyond the coastal Pacific Northwest.

We won't emerge unscathed, he concludes. We might see some more lowland flooding and our seasonal rain patterns might shift, with less falling as snow. But we'll perhaps be less scathed than other parts of the country. As a result, says Mass, we could well be "a potential climate refuge." Earlier this year, the enviro site agreed, picking Seattle as one of "The 10 best cities to ride out hot times." Instead of damp Northwesterners retiring to Palm Springs, we might find parched Sun Belters migrating north for some of Tim Egan’s "Good Rain."

That idea triggers images of people fleeing the Seven Horsemen of the Climate Apocalypse, and Mass ended his blog entry by humorously speculating about keeping the Californians out with a picture of a barbed-wire-topped fence. It all brings to mind the mid-1970s novel, Ecotopia by Ernest Callenbach, which envisioned Washington, Oregon and Northern California seceding from the U.S. and walling off an environmental utopia. And that raises a question: In a warming world, do we pull up the gangplanks, or put out the welcome mat?

The scale of the problem is unclear. Some 200 million people around the globe "could be forced to leave their homes as the result of global warming within the next 50 years," according to estimates in a 2013 article in the Houston Journal of International Law that looked at the international legal ramifications of climate refugees.

Crosscut archive image.
Millions of people have already been forced to move. Millions more may follow. Credit: Tavis Ford/Flickr

Eco-migrants are already on the move — perhaps some 50 million worldwide — forced to pull up stakes because of desertification in China and Africa, storms in the Philippines and the rising ocean levels in the South Pacific. The people of the island nation of Tuvalu, for example, have made arrangements for the worst. If their islands sink beneath the waves, the entire population (nearly 12,000) will decamp to New Zealand. Some are already on their way.

But climate change is relatively slow moving in human terms, and people are adaptable. Rather than a rush for the lifeboats, for most, considering a climate change move might happen more gradually, one of a complicated series of reasons to relocate. Experts describe the "push" and "pull" factors that determine where people will go.

Hurricane Katrina, a sudden event, pushed hundreds of thousands of people out of Louisiana. Some sought shelter in Texas. Many African-American refugees chose to temporarily settle in Memphis, Tennessee because of the "pull" of family connections. Northwest pulls could be climate, economy, family, familiar migration patterns, proximity and cultural links. Pushes can be sudden like Katrina-level storms and flood or more gradual as people make considered decisions based on jobs and "livability."

The U.S. and Pacific Northwest have seen climate refugees and migrants before. A distinction worth noting is that refugees often flee with an intention to return home. Climate migrants might not want or be able to go back home. There are some ancient examples of climate-related migrations, including the melting of glaciers that prompted an influx of peoples from Asia into North America, the cooling which may have pushed Viking settlers out of Greenland, and the decrease in rainfall whch might have done in the Mayans.

An example of refugees pushed into the Northwest by a single, short-duration event would be those who fled the 1910 Big Burn, a three million-acre firestorm that swept across parts of Washington, Idaho and Montana and forced thousands to temporarily leave the towns in jeopardy and surge into Missoula, Spokane and other Inland Empire communities.

A larger, longer and more permanent climate impact was the Dust Bowl crisis of the 1930s. More than 2.5 million folks fled the parched Great Plains for friendlier climes such as Central California. Many, like the woman below who travelled from Texas to the Yakima Valley in 1939, came to the Pacific Northwest and joined the migrant economy of agricultural workers, fruit pickers and wheat harvesters, or began farming themselves with the help of government programs and irrigation.

Crosscut archive image.Cataclysms aside, people decide to leave home for all kinds of reasons, often economic. Many Okies who fled to California during "The Grapes of Wrath" period made famous by John Steinbeck were failing farmers suffering from poor markets and the Depression. Others went looking for jobs. Climate was a factor, but not necessarily the sole driver. Plenty of those migrants had never seen a dust storm.

From the 1880s to 1920s the West and Midwest saw huge numbers of seasonal migrant workers. These tramps and hobos made up a mobile workforce of single men that moved with the seasons to fields, canneries, orchards and logging camps in the Northwest. They surged into areas where there was work, but they wintered in cities, which raised huge concerns about social services and public safety. With the Okies and tramps, the problem wasn’t just their numbers, it was their level of poverty.

The West and Northwest were built on immigration, from the Oregon Trail to the railroads and beyond. Some of it was massive. California, for example, saw big population surges due to its gold rushes, urban development and wartime industry. Depression-era Okies were a relative drop in the bucket numbers-wise (some 200,000-300,000 came to California). Between 1860 and 1920, the state's population ballooned from 380,000 to 3.5 million with people arriving from all over the world. They might have come for sun, soil or sea, but no one called them “climate refugees.”

Seattle saw massive urban growth between 1880 and 1910. It has ridden booms and busts with Boeing, and seen pretty steady post-World War II growth. With or without climate change, people are coming here. The question is whether some tipping point event will send a sudden surge of "environmental asylum" seekers, or will climate change merely boost our current regional growth projections by some incremental percentage? And if refugees do materialize in significant numbers, where are they likely to come from?

Come back Wednesday for the answers to these and other questions in Part 2 of our climate refugee series. And join Crosscut, the World Affairs Council, Impact Hub Seattle and the Seattle Globalist for The Scenario: Climate Change version, a current events role-playing game.

Photograph of the woman migrant courtesy of Dorothea Lang, the Library of Congress.


Please support independent local news for all.

We rely on donations from readers like you to sustain Crosscut's in-depth reporting on issues critical to the PNW.


About the Authors & Contributors

Knute Berger

Knute Berger

Knute “Mossback” Berger is Crosscut's Editor-at-Large.