The summer of 2021 will likely go down as a tipping point on the climate problem in North America. It is no longer about the number of degrees of warming or whether or not science says we are at a point of no return. Rather, this summer will mark the start of when climate change became the driver of deep social change in North America.
Everyone knows the news: smoke-filled skies with “don’t breathe the air” warnings, the Colorado River running out of water, a surprise 17 inches of rain in a few hours in central Tennessee, a hurricane in Massachusetts. Along with these are the breathless questions: Is this climate change? Are we past the point of no return? What can I do?
But in the back of many people’s minds is a far different question that will mark the change in 2021. That question is: Can I stay here? And it’s corollary is: If not, where do I go?
Up until now, the impact of climate change was remote — icebergs in Antarctica, methane gas releases in the permafrost, rain in Greenland. That changes when you can’t breathe the air or there is no water to drink. People cannot last long that way. Given our will to survive, people will find another way.
For most, that “other way” is to move. So begins the great climate migration of North America.
There isn’t any easy answer to where people will go. Many in California were relocating to Montana and Idaho, but this summer, Montana started catching fire, too. People in Tucson, who get 82% of their water from the disappearing Colorado River, will almost inevitably start looking toward the Great Lakes region — but Minnesota is burning up, too. While there aren’t any really good or perfect answers, people cannot live without water to drink or air to breathe, so they will start to seek new locations.
Mass migrations tend to cause enormous social disruptions, and if these materialize in subsequent years, they will here too. For example, people who sell their homes in California to leave the state will see a gigantic windfall they can use to buy property elsewhere. If they focus on the same area, property values will increase dramatically in the target areas. At the same time, those who wait it out could see their eventual property values fall precipitously when no one wants to buy their homes because they are all getting out of the area. Consequently, that creates a much less affluent group, maybe even an incredibly needy group, who will also migrate, and where they go will have consequences for that place as well.
I don’t have an answer for this; I’m not sure there is one. But as we think about climate, we need to pay attention to the human side, for that is where the costs will be born and felt more strongly than anywhere.
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This post was previously published on medium.com.
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