Climate Migration is Here. The U.S. Must Invest Accordingly.
Updated: Sep 12
This week, parts of the Pacific Northwest and British Columbia found themselves underwater after an “atmospheric river” dumped inches of rain within hours, caused power outages and devastating floods, and forced the evacuations of thousands…
At the same time, President Biden — home from COP26, the United Nations climate summit — claimed victory with the passage of the bipartisan Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, which promises more than $1 trillion in funding for renewing transportation and utilities, and enhancing broadband Internet access.
But as weather events like that in the Pacific Northwest show, the president’s Build Back Better agenda is already deeply at risk from climate change. So it’s crucial, as the United States deploys tremendous new spending to rehabilitate infrastructure, that its leaders think much harder about where the funds are spent to avoid throwing good money after bad.
Six of the United States’s wealthiest cities — Boston, New York, Miami, Houston, Los Angeles and San Francisco — are heavily exposed to climate change. Frequent storms, rising sea levels, forest fires and droughts will plague these great cities more and more. Their budgets will be strained by the billions to be spent on adapting infrastructure and moving people farther inland. For now, they can afford to.
Other cities can’t. Climate models make clear, for instance, that New Orleans is going the way of Venice. In 2005, Hurricane Katrina destroyed thousands of miles of power lines and caused $161 billion in damage in Louisiana and Mississippi. Last year, Hurricane Laura brought Category 4 winds and destroyed nearly 2,000 transmission structures.
Residents need their electricity. But spending billions to reinforce or rebuild power lines isn’t a good investment when they’re sure to be destroyed again. Not every place stricken by natural disaster should be abandoned. Where populations continue to grow, or where there is indigenous will and investment to rebuild, there is hope for recovery. That is not the case for places such as New Orleans, where populations are declining and no new job opportunities are emerging.
The country must realistically assess which geographies are becoming unlivable and which are well suited to larger population settlement. It should then offer incentives for migration toward the latter and away from the former — and direct infrastructure spending accordingly.
Climate models tell us that states such as South Dakota, Missouri and Pennsylvania are becoming more livable over time and ought to gain in population. It makes sense to spend more on roads and renewable energy in those states and others with a similarly stable climate outlook.
Cities such as Atlanta, Dallas and Charlotte are already gaining climate migrants from elsewhere in the South. Millennials and Gen Z-ers have been snapping up houses in New Hampshire and Idaho, and fueling the buzzing tech scenes in Salt Lake City and Indianapolis. They’ve poured into so-called 18-hour cities such as Denver and Nashville that have lively after-work cultures in their downtowns.
A coalition of agencies, including the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the Department of Housing and Urban Development and the Army Corps of Engineers, is pushing an agenda of “large-scale migration or relocation.” The many distressed communities that qualify for the government’s Opportunity Zones, which are eligible for tax-free investment, should be filtered for climate resilience. This would create new jobs in places that need them.
Property developers should lure displaced Americans to gentrify the Rust Belt along the Great Lakes. The people of New Orleans should be given one-way tickets to Detroit, where they can contribute to the city’s nascent postindustrial revival.
A sensible plan to promote migration to climate oases could also ameliorate some of our bitter immigration and trade debates.
The country could import workers with the skills it needs and issue them “place-based” visas, directing them to areas with labor shortages. It could encourage the building of more eco-friendly, multifamily and multigenerational homes, which would hog less space than single-family plots. With more relatives under one roof, there would be greater freedom for working parents and less need for imported labor — which, granted, would mean a cultural shift for many Americans, though one whose appeal might have become clearer during the covid-19 pandemic.
Land not eaten up by sprawling cities and suburbs could be repurposed for agriculture and industry, as well as to fortify the country’s irrigation, energy and transportation networks to achieve greater self-sufficiency.
Mammals are wired with a fight-or-flight instinct, and the residents of devastated coastal areas should heed that instinct’s call to move to safer ground. It would be far wiser to encourage the next great migration than the next climate disaster. This is the way — and the where — to build back better.