SDG 11: Cities SDG 16: Institutions

Age of Migration 1: time to face it

Want an easy prediction? As climate change worsens, vulnerable cities and communities will flock to managed-retreat plans. Given today's UN Climate Report, they won't have a choice.

The Entry

First of a two-part series. According to estimates, as many as one billion people are expected to flee extreme climate impacts by 2050, an astonishing consequence that will change the face and fate of the world’s cities. This story looks at the originating side.

The timing, and the deadly irony, are eerie. Today, just as we publish these two stories about one of the worst consequences of climate change, the United Nations published a shocking scientific update on the global warming the world can expect.

The irony? Migration was not even mentioned.


Yet, the UN itself estimates as many as one billion climate refugees by mid-century, and given the conclusions of today’s report, that now seems ever likelier.

The report repeats, albeit with an unprecedented sense of urgency this time, the measures humanity must take to fall short of a 1.5º Celsius rise in the average global temperature: a heroic transition to energy efficiency, renewable power and low-emission transportation, plus massive reforestation and carbon capture. All by 2030.

But wait. The carbon already in the atmosphere and the new tons of the coming years are enough to take us to 1.5C even if all emissions stopped today, which of course they won’t, given the momentum and inertia of local and global economics, and the dynamics of climate politics across the planet.

We can all relate to the dream of wishing or pushing those obstacles away, and miracles do happen, but no one should plan based on miracles. As we partake in that herculean agenda, we must embark on a parallel one based on the most likely scenario: an agenda of the fastest and most relentless adaptation and resilience to prepare for the severe climate impacts that are coming.

For once we cross 1.5C, which multiple studies agree will happen as early as next decade, climate tipping points kick in — also downplayed by today’s UN report (!!) — particularly Arctic methane release, and then warming enters an exponential curve that becomes unstoppable, accelerating the consequences the report says will happen later.

So, no, they won’t happen later. They will happen sooner, one of the most challenging being climate migration.

Communities: start meeting and planning

The story is heartbreaking wherever it happens, whenever a natural disaster, and more so a string of them with little recovery time in between, forces an entire community into THE decision. Does it make sense to stay, or should we bid farewell to our homes and businesses, our friends and neighbors, to the place and past that so define who we are?

Nichols, South Carolina, is facing precisely that dilemma today, as told in this riveting account, following the devastation of Hurricane Florence. In this case, as in a fast-accelerating number across the planet, the answer leans toward retreat.

The WaPo story gives it to us in a nutshell. People here are tired of having to get back up, after two major storms in as many years and as many as eight having struck the Carolinas just since the 1980s. In Nichols, they are clearly weary. Small towns like this lack the resources or government support to facilitate the process and make staying worth it. The gap vs. large metro areas is…decisive.

One town leader says it succinctly: “We just aren’t big enough to rebuild.” A whole town, adds Mayor Lawson Battle, is “lost” and “forgotten.” The governor of neighboring North Carolina, Roy Cooper, is “deeply concerned for whole communities that could be wiped away.”

Welcome to the Age of Climate Migration, a phenomenon barely getting started.

This past July, the UN announced completion of a new Global Compact for Migration, a mammoth collaboration among more than 190 countries to be formally adopted during a Dec. 10-11 conference in Morocco, coinciding with the Dec. 3-18 annual UN climate-change summit in Poland. The Compact covers all types of migration, but the climate variety is expected to overshadow all others in the coming years and decades.

Here in the U.S., a country not participating in the latest Compact and due to soon exit the Paris Agreement, the crisis has hit home. Nearly 20% of New Orleans’ residents, or 100,000, never came back after Hurricane Katrina. Maria will push 470,000 out of Puerto Rico, 14% of the island’s total, by 2019.

Vulnerable large metro areas, as it happens, are better able to take the hits than Nichols-size towns, but face devastating outflows nonetheless.

As this Guardian story revealed just last week — the focus of Part II of this series — “whole towns from Alaska to Louisiana are looking to relocate, in their entirety, to safer ground. The era of climate migration is, virtually unheralded, already upon America. The population shift gathering pace is so sprawling it may rival anything in U.S. history.”

The story’s author, Oliver Milman, quotes Duke University geology professor Orrin Pilkey saying he doesn’t see “the slightest evidence that anyone is seriously thinking about what to do with the future climate refugee stream.”

Well, perhaps not in most places, but certainly in a growing number, where community members are gathering, as in the featured image above, to face the facts and decide what to do.

Once they do, they now have people and resources they can turn to for guidance, which brings us to the conversation below.

The Interview

You know how I sometimes urge you to set aside a peaceful hour, perhaps cuddled on your favorite couch, with your favorite drink, to absorb one of our deep-dive video interviews? Well, this is one such moment.

It took a while to coordinate, given the parties’ complicated agendas, but we kinda knew it would be special, so we persisted.

  • Carri Hulet is the director of the Climigration Network of the Consensus Building Institute, which works granularly with coastal communities in the U.S. to help them deal with and plan managed retreat, and makes their learnings available to any city or community that wants to move in that direction.
  • Elizabeth Rush teaches writing at Brown University and is the author of Rising: dispatches from the new American shore, which she presented recently at this bookstore event — if you have a good second hour, you really want to see her captivating talk there.
  • Mariam Chazalnoel Traore is an environment and climate change specialist at the UN’s International Organization for Migration (IOM), the group taking the lead on the issue at the global level, now focused on rolling out and executing the Compact for Migration.

Enjoy, and then share. As Part II of this series highlights, climate migration is not just here to stay; it will soon absolutely take over the headlines and impact everything, and vulnerable originating communities and cities must step up, their brave men and women must step up, and stir the initial reckoning and conversations, lest their people get stuck in a migration trap.

Long-time green-economy and business journalist, sustainability analyst and communications executive, including 14 years as reporter and editor of Caribbean Business in Puerto Rico, five years as Sustainability Director at two banks on the island, general manager of a green marketing agency, and since 2014 independent strategist, blogger, consultant, freelance writer, and now Editor-Publisher of The Resilience Journal and Founder-President of COMMON Future, a climate-adaptation studio scaling game-changing Next Resilience with communications, construction and culture. Alex is also communications adviser to the American Society of Adaptation Professionals and resilience lead at the Puerto Rico chapter of the U.S. Green Building Council.

1 comment on “Age of Migration 1: time to face it

  1. Pingback: Age of Migration 2: the new destination cities – The Resilience Journal

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