Why Towns Should Prepare for the Climate Displaced

Climate change is already causing people to relocate. As more hometowns become inhospitable, yours might be able to help.

This article is part of a special series from our fall 2019 climate issue on how you can level up your actions against climate change. Visit the full Climate Action Guide here

Coastal populations are on the front lines of climate change. According to Mathew Hauer, a demographer at ­Florida State University, 13 million Americans could be displaced by sea-level rise and natural disasters by 2100. About half will be Floridians (and a quarter Miamians). Louisiana, California, and the Carolinas will also be hard hit. But those facing floods, fires, and drought in the country’s interior might also need to abandon their homes, Hauer says. Abroad, the World Bank has estimated that 143 million people in sub-Saharan Africa, Latin America, and South Asia could be forced from their own countries by 2050. Surely a significant number will set out for the United States. 

Is Your Town Ready? 

Here are some questions your community should or might be asking itself. And, conveniently, the answers.

Q: Should we expect to receive climate migrants? People tend to move to familiar places nearby where they have friends or family, and where they’re going to be in a good economic situation. So if you’re in midsize, coast-­adjacent, job-rich cities like ­Orlando, Atlanta, or Austin, you’ll probably see an influx first.

Q: Is there one main thing to focus on? Yes, affordable housing, since many of the people forced to move won’t be wealthy (those with money will have more options). Right now the United States is generally struggling to build affordable housing, so if you’re ready to advocate, that’s a good place to concentrate your efforts.

Q: What else can my town do to prepare? Climate migrants will require services of all kinds. Schools need to be ready to welcome new students. City social services need to be ready to provide counseling. If there’s a local nonprofit experienced with refugees, get involved. If not, start one yourself. 

Q: What will climate migrants mean for my town? 
A: In a positive way. Since at least the Great Recession, towns around the country have been looking for ways to jump-start their economies. Here’s a chance to welcome vibrant new communities to your town—people who can fill jobs, pay taxes, open restaurants and make art. And at the same time, you’ll be helping them out. Forward-thinking towns around the country see this as an opportunity.

Climate Migrants or Climate Refugees? 

While the media sometimes refers to “climate refugees,” in international law, that’s not a legal term. Refugee status—which accords certain protections—is reserved for those who fear persecution in their home countries. However, in December, UN member nations adopted the Global Compact on Migration. Written to promote safe and orderly migration in an age of incredible human movement, it notably recognizes climate as a cause. It’s not refugee-level protection, but it’s a start.