Brace yourself for climate refugees, Part 2

How should we deal with an onslaught of newbie Northwesterners? A radical option for keeping things sane.
Crosscut archive image.

Ten feet of water flood nearly 20 percent of the neighborhood throughout the city of Minot, N.D.

How should we deal with an onslaught of newbie Northwesterners? A radical option for keeping things sane.

Editor's Note: This is the second in a two-part series on climate refugeeism in the Northwest. Read part one here. You can also join Crosscut, Thursday, September 18th at 6 p.m. for The Scenario: Climate Refugees, an in-person roleplaying game with drinks, a collaboration with the World Affairs Council, Seattle Globalist and Impact Hub Seattle.  
Seattle saw massive urban growth between 1880 and 1910, and 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 cause a sudden influx seeking "environmental asylum." Or will the climate merely boost regional growth projections by some incremental percentage? Will refugees materialize in significant numbers here at all? And where would they likely come from?
The Southwest's drought problems, combined with large populations in California and Latin American immigration, suggests those would be likely sources. California is already the major source of newcomers to Oregon and Washington and British Columbia sees growth from other parts of Canada.
The region is already seeing a major, non-climate uptick in foreign-born residents. An article from the environmental research group Sightline reports from that 1990 to 2010, the numbers of foreign-born residents of Washington increased nearly 275 percent to nearly 900,000, with a similar increase percentage in Oregon. They include professional tech workers to Redmond as well as Hispanic farm workers to the Yakima Valley. Canada has the largest foreign-born population any of the G8 countries, and British Columbia has the second highest percentage in Canada.
The rising waters of the Pacific are another potential source. Pacific islanders from U.S. possessions like the Northern Mariana Islands, Guam, American Samoa and even the state of Hawaii could connect with existing Pacific communities on the West Coast. If Cliff Mass' maps are right, one can expect that people from Texas, Florida and the Southeast might become drought, storm and flood weary and seek greener pastures.
Most climate migrants move within their own countries, some within their own states. The impact on indigenous peoples could also be severe. In Alaska, for example, a least a dozen native villages are looking to relocate due to warming.
Displaced and migrant populations tend to be those without better options, meaning they are largely poor, folks who won't be able to dip into their bank accounts to mitigate environmental impacts. They might also be dependent on local resources that are vanishing (fish and disappearing species, for example) in their old homelands.
The Seattle immigrant advocacy group, OneAmerica, addressed this issue recently. According to a story posted by their communications director Pavan Vangipuram, "Lower income communities and communities of color—especially immigrant and refugee communities — suffer disproportionately from the environmental and economic destruction that climate change inflicts."
Not only could we see international and domestic refugees, Seattle might also have internal climate migrants displaced within the city limits. The city projects that sea level rise will heavily impact — even drown — neighborhoods along the Duwamish River, such as South Park, not to mention blue-collar industrial areas like the man-made Harbor Island.
In terms of impact, regional growth — climate-related or not — presents challenges. Even if the Northwest gets a pass on some of the worst of global warming's impacts, there are plenty of challenges. Melting glaciers could impact the water supply and hurt both salmon and hydropower.
More people won't improve the situation. Puget Sound's pollution is already hard to clean up with so much non-source-point pollution flowing in from Pugetopolis. More people won't help that either. Forest management, protecting endangered species, curtailing sprawl — none of that is easy even without increased population pressures. Nor is the cost of mitigating expected impacts cheap, such as replacing or moving major infrastructure like port facilities, building drainage systems that can handle bigger flows, adapting agricultural practices, finding new water supplies and power sources.
Greens suggest that the potential of receiving climate refugee or migrants makes it all the more imperative that we ready ourselves, not by building walls on the California border, but getting more active on two fronts.
One is reducing our carbon output and second is making the region more sustainable, such as ramping up wind and solar power to replace hydro; building mass transit; densifying our communities. In the New Scientist, enviro writer Fred Pearce writes "Rather than seeing environmental migration as bad, we need to see it as part of the solution to environmental change."
Part of that response is to create a more resilient infrastructure. The other is making sure that mass migration doesn't overwhelm us by preparing for it in advance and getting a lower carbon economy in place. Another is to remember that migrants might be distressed, but most of them find a way to improve their lot — that's why they’d come here. In other words, depending on the circumstances, they're not necessarily a net negative.
One interesting aspect of thinking about environmentally motivated migration is that it could help jumpstart conceptualizing the regional ecosystem as Cascadia, a movement that identifies our sphere of influence and inter-relations as transcending traditional international, state and provincial boundaries which, given migrations, could get spongy anyway.
Cascadians look at the Northwest as being a region extending from southeast Alaska, through British Columbia, Washington, and including parts of Idaho, Montana,  Alberta, Wyoming, Oregon and northern California. (Here’s a good map.)
Unlike the Ecotopian model, Cascadia is not necessarily secessionist, but more a catalyst for regional cultural and environmental consciousness. It appears to be gaining steam. Cascadians recently held their first “Rainingman” conference on a farm outside Concrete, Wash. to discuss the movement. The website Cascadia Now has given away over 70,000 Cascadia flag stickers in recent months.
In a world of climate change, one benefit of a regional identity might be greater recognition of common interests in solving problems and meeting challenges, settling refugees and accommodating growth. The area has been recognized in the past as a Pacific Rim economic zone based on proximity and natural resources. Could it also be a kind of North American Noah's Ark that can help us make it through a potentially rough climate transition?
The issue of climate refugees is fraught with questions. The climate models might be wrong, the impacts greater then we can handle, the downsides less serious than they first appear, or more serious than we can handle. Is “climate refugee” just another way to stigmatize a group of people based on poverty, mobility or race? If nothing else, the issue gives us the occasion for talking, gut-checking, examining regional values, and gaming difficult scenarios.
Carrie Hawthorne of the environmental group Forterra says her group is currently reassessing their 100-year plan for the region. "The gist of many of our conversations has boiled down to: 'plan for dramatic uncertainty' — climate change is in no way a predictable force."
That makes planning difficult, to say the least, but it makes long-term thinking imperative.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Knute Berger

Knute Berger

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