Can the inevitable and escalting climate change mass migration work to build America? Changes are coming that are unlike any other experienced during previous eras of rapid transformation.
Can the U.S. absorb the new migrants?
According to the Executive Director of Job One For Humanity, a climate change think tank, Lawrence Wolleraheim, says that by 2035, because of crossed climate change tipping points and climate feedbacks, about 350 million people will come from Central and South America and the Caribbean and will try to enter into the United States. They will attempt this primarily because of accelerating climate change consequences.
For them, it will be "migrate or die" from the starvation that climate consequences will cause in the form of low crop yields and crop failures. Most of these climate migrants (climagees) will be turned away from entering the US because the United Nations has not yet established the fundamental human right of Climate Change Asylum.
But the future of migration is not a simple (!) matter of closing our borders: these new migrants will come from within America as well as from outside.
A 2020 report by ProPublica estimates that at least 13 million Americans will be forced to migrate from coastal areas of the country and that wildfires and other natural catalysts could potentially multiply that amount significantly.
Globally, in 2022 climate change and climate-related disasters led nearly 33 million people to flee their homes. It accounted for over half of all new numbers of people displaced within their countries, according to data from the United Nations’ High Commissioner for Refugees and the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre. This amount will surely increase over the next few decades.
In New York City alone, for example, the Department of Homeland Security recently announced that it would grant temporary protected status to about 472,000 Venezuelans, allowing them 18 months to live and work in the United States.
On a broader scale all three of American’s most recent presidents have tried — and failed — to fix the problem of mass unauthorized migration into the United States. Their various policies have had almost no effect on the number of migrants trying to enter the United States through the Southern border. In 2020, the U.N. notes, the United States held about 51 million international migrants. Technically, of course, unless your last name is derived from a Native American language, everyone in the US is an immigrant.
America’s economy has always relied upon a mass of foreign-born laborers. Some are disempowered laborers, like farm workers, while others are the drivers of America’s economy. According to Forbes, almost half of America’s Fortune 500 companies were founded by immigrants or their children. Since almost 80% of economic growth comes from innovation, and innovation is a networking activity, it makes sense that the more open the network, the faster will be the rate of innovation and growth.
Even the low-age work done by immigrants is vital. Economists at Texas A&M concluded that if immigrant labor were eliminated from the dairy industry, the retail price of milk would nearly double. More recently, in Florida, construction projects stalled and their costs rose after the state passed new laws targeting undocumented residents.
Immigration laws tend to be lop-sided: Congress invests heavily in enforcement but not in the enforcement of labor laws that could dissuade businesses from exploiting unauthorized workers in the first place. Congress is putting up walls and business is waving money at newcomers.
Perhaps we are thinking about the problem backwards: perhaps a population boost in America is a good thing.
In the book One Billion Americans: The Case for Thinking Bigger by Matthew Yglesias, he points out that America is not over-crowded and could take in one billion citizens, and still have less than half the population density that Germany has today. He points out that a substantial increase in its population is necessary to perpetuate American global dominance.
This is a shocking idea, and has been received unevenly by critics, but they all agree that the concept is worth exploring.
It may also be inevitable.
You can spend a $1Trillion on a wall.
Or you can embrace the idea that America will do better as a nation of a billion people, and plan for its fantastic rise.
We have to deal realistically with the shrinkage of our preferred ecology.
Climate change is compressing our habitable terrain. Zones of economic activity will shift and become more concentrated in the interior Northeast and upper Midwest. We are not wise, for example, to encourage expansion in the American South, given the rising climate risks of increasing temperatures and flooding, or to continue to grow major coastal hubs, which would be unsustainable as ocean waters rise.
Modeling suggests that cooler regions along the old manufacturing core and Northern farm belts could be the best places to encourage a national green economy. The interior Northeast and Midwest, as well as the least humid parts of the Upland South, could also be investigated for the creation of mid-sized cities and micropolitan areas.
According to NOEMA, an award-winning magazine devoted to “thinking” (Greek: Noema): “Such a task demands an unprecedented level of economic planning and federal-regional coordination — no less so than the process of building out climate infrastructure. Unless progressives begin to contemplate seriously how climate migration policies must dovetail with the goal of a green economy, the social, political and economic upheaval that climate migration portends could easily overwhelm efforts to realize any clean energy transition.”
Immigration to the US is already facing headwinds about homelessness and food insecurity. Public anxiety will feed ugly racial politics in the years to come, as immigration pressures build. Despite admirable green-economy goals, the U.S. government has still not detailed how it plans to address climate migration.
Climate planners are needed at the forefront of an immigration and growth strategy, to develop a system that ranks zones based on habitability. It can then draw up redevelopment policies for urban and rural activities that will prosper best against the climate model.
Such modeling can also prepare vulnerable states ahead of time for climate grief. In the South, for example, heat waves will create major blackouts and overwhelm hospital facilities. Emergency construction is much more expensive than adequate preparation. We want to avoid the migrations of the 1930s Dust Bowl where 2.5 million people left behind ghost towns. If we can avoid the need to flee the heat we can also avoid the shrinkage of local tax bases for those that remain behind.
Planning for change on a massive scale actually avoids the need for sudden change on an immense scale.
Older ideas need to be revived. The decline that has hit the Rust Belt has taken a climate-unnecessary toll: since 2020, Ohio and Michigan’s populations have both shrunk by 0.4% and Illinois by 1.8%; in contrast, well over two million people moved to the South during this period.
This presents many regions with an opportunity for renewed economic vitality. The only true limits to large-scale economic planning are political. The industrialization of the South in the mid-20th century, was triggered in large part by pragmatic leaders who used economic planning as deliberate tools of growth: the Tennessee Valley Authority, the Rural Electrification Act, and other federal policies that kickstarted public-private regional development and local infrastructure projects.
These programs fly in the face of the myth of individualism that is used to insulate the billionaires in today’s economy from the hand of economic redistribution. The re-invention of positive government actions like the “New Deal” to coordinate mass climate migration would allow the country’s entire political economy to retire the myths of rugged individualism that impede clear thinking about the crisis at hand.
Migration policy can be implemented in a manner that appeals to, and revives, what is at present a dormant tradition of civic mobilization. There is a surfeit of towns and small cities desperate for a new raison d’être — an impetus to produce critical goods, attract creative people and play some positive role in the national imagination.
There will be opposition. But there are also solutions. Organizations like Job One For Humanity can assist with the launch of localized climate-oriented planning.
Organizations like ClimateSafe Villages can help ensure that new settlements are contributing to, rather than eroding, a carbon-free future. There are resources for building homes that have energy-efficient technologies, like the Creative Energy Homes initiative from the University of Nottingham.
Stuart Cresswell has been working with Nottingham to bring its lessons to his home county of Pictou in Nova Scotia. He says “I like to make connections between good ideas. Making people aware of existing technologies means that we don’t have to re-invent the wheel.” There are benefits to real, hard data about savings, temperatures, airflow and lifestyles. “I would like to see Pictou County branded as a centre of excellence in sustainable building in conjunction with Nottingham University and Nova Scotian institutions. There is also space in rural Pictou, to allow people to save money, improve their lives and stay in the county.”
Stuart and other Nova Scotians are driven by an alarming reality: the Chignecto Isthmus — the low marshy strip connecting New Brunswick and Nova Scotia — is threatened with total inundation if the extreme tides in the Bay of Fundy get any higher. Near my house close to the Isthmus, the tides are the highest in the world — more than 50-foot variances in sea level are common — so the situation is very apparent to me. A network of earthen dikes that was first constructed in the 1600s is all that keeps the Province of Nova Scotia connected to Canada. Another foot or so of high tide, and we would be on our way to becoming an island. The Trans-Canada Highway, the Canadian National Railway line, multiple electrical transmission lines and fiber-optic cables, a wind farm, and agricultural land would be swept away in the process.
So large changes are coming to North America as the climate evolves. South of us, in the US, it could push the population to new and exciting levels — if not a billion, then enough to be noticed — and could re-position current populations. New kinds and depths of planning are going to be needed.
America excels at this kind of activity. No matter how much one can despair at a current situation, Americans are world-beaters when it comes to making a plan and pushing it through. I say this as an outsider, as an observation. I get the feeling that our American neighbors sometimes loose track of what they are good at…
This is very much like a Moon Landing. When the Soviets launched Sputnik in 1957 America was a decade behind. Yet Kennedy had the nerve to announce the goal a few years later of “landing a man on the Moon and returning him safely to the Earth.” Most Americans were opposed to it at the time, but only eight years later when Neil Armstrong took “one small step for man and a giant leap for mankind” as his foot touched the lunar surface, Americans across the country rejoiced.
The plans had worked. The logistics and management and engineering had been jammed into an impossible schedule, but it worked.
Now we have a similar scale of challenge. It will require a re-set in how we view the world and how we plan for our future.
But once we have started, we will be delivering on a promise to the Earth: green ecosystems and clear blue water.
The kind of image that will be stunning to our lunar settlers in the future, as they look up with satisfaction at the billion-person America they call home.
Barry is responsible for all content and images in this article.
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