'We're moving to higher ground': America's era of climate mass migration is here
By Oliver Milman
The era of climate migration is, virtually unheralded, already upon America.
The population shift gathering pace is so sprawling that it may rival anything in US history. “Including all climate impacts it isn’t too far-fetched to imagine something twice as large as the Dustbowl,” said Jesse Keenan, a climate adaptation expert at Harvard University, referencing the 1930s upheaval in which 2.5 million people moved from the dusty, drought-ridden plains to California.
This enormous migration will probably take place over a longer period than the Dustbowl but its implications are both profound and opaque. It will plunge the US into an utterly alien reality. “It is very difficult to model human behaviour under such extreme and historically unprecedented circumstances,” Keenan admits.
By the end of this century, sea level rise alone could displace 13 million people, according to one study, including 6 million in Florida. States including Louisiana, California, New York and New Jersey will also have to grapple with hordes of residents seeking dry ground.
“There’s not a state unaffected by this,” said demographer Mat Hauer, lead author of the research, which is predicated on a severe 6ft sea level increase. There are established migration preferences for some places – south Florida to Georgia, New York to Colorado – but in many cases people would uproot to the closest inland city, if they have the means.
“I don’t see the slightest evidence that anyone is seriously thinking about what to do with the future climate refugee stream,” said Orrin Pilkey, professor emeritus of coastal geology at Duke University. “It boggles the mind to see crowds of climate refugees arriving in town and looking for work and food.”
By 2065, southern states are expected to lose 8% of their US population share, while the north-east will increase by 9%. A recent study forecast that the population in the western half of the US will increase by more than 10% over the next 50 years due to climate migration, largely from the south and midwest.