The increasingly frequent and intense floods, heat waves, wildfires and other extreme climate events jolt us into realizing that we don’t have the comfortable distance of 2040 or 2050 by which to mitigate climate change. The future we were meant to evade is here already, decades ahead of schedule. As world leaders gather at the global climate negotiations in Glasgow in November, they—and we—need to focus on two imperatives simultaneously.
First, we must avoid the unmanageable by rapidly reducing the emissions that are heating up the planet. And second, we must manage the unavoidable by making ourselves more resilient to the changes that are already here or soon will be. And for billions of people, to adapt will mean to move.
That applies to people in the United States as well. But the search for low taxes and sunshine have lured people to Phoenix, Austin and Miami, cities facing drought, power failure and rising seas, respectively. New York, Houston, Los Angeles, San Francisco—many of America’s principal economic engines are threatened by accelerating climate change damages, from surging seas to wildfire smoke.
Avoiding the worst outcomes of climate change isn’t just about reducing carbon emissions but about preserving human life. The “climate niche” for habitability is shifting, and so too must we.
Climate model projections point to safer geographies where investment is needed today to support the population of tomorrow. There were two great migrations of the 20th century: African Americans moving from south to north, and New Englanders moving from east to west. In the 21st century, we must shift from coastal to inland, from low to high elevation, and from resource-depleted to resource-rich areas—and we must do so sustainably, for our next habitat may well be our last chance to coexist with nature before there is nothing left to sustain us.
To re-sort ourselves according to better latitude and altitude is not to “retreat” but to embrace the future guided by tools that identify topographies better suited for human habitation.
Unfortunately, current plans for new investments in renewable energy, a modern electricity grid, water pipes, and transit are insufficient to meet the scale of the challenge, and not close to the $6 trillion in infrastructure upgrades by 2029 recommended by the American Society of Civil Engineers.
Unless we get much more aggressive about cutting emissions than current policies and commitments imply, the result will be a continuation of the present: America will continue to drift into a patchwork of livable and unlivable zones. Livable zones will be those located in temperate regions, that generate energy through solar, wind, geothermal and other renewable resources, have sustainable water resources and irrigation systems, and grow food sustainably. Unlivable zones will be those with Sahara-like heat and depleted water tables, or coastal inundations and uncontrollable flooding, their finances and credit ratings in tatters and their populations fleeing.
If we want the United States to remain meaningfully united, it may require graduating beyond our antiquated administrative boundaries of states and toward a system of resource zones and the infrastructures within and across them that enable the mobility of people, goods and resources. The new American geography must be governed by the location and conservation of watersheds, as proposed more than a century ago by John Wesley Powell as director of the U.S. Geological Survey.
While there’s no escaping climate change, there are places that are less likely to experience extreme heat, regular flooding and fresh water shortages. The regions projected to become future population magnets need more support today. Those are the places where we need to predesign to sustainably absorb America’s next migration waves. Many American towns are investing in climate resilience, such as Hoboken’s strategy to manage storm surges and collect excess rainwater, and Massachusetts’ grants to communities to replenish streams and promote wildlife.
From Minnesota to New Hampshire, cities and towns are even branding themselves as climate havens. Civic groups such as the American Society of Adaptation Professionals bring together officials and businesses to ensure that gentrification doesn’t worsen existing inequality. In Vermont, The Collective operates a regenerative agriculture commune that welcomes Gulf Coast climate migrants into its solidarity economy.
Just as states like Vermont offer cash bonuses to remote workers to move there, a “heartland visa” proposed by Moody’s Analytics and the Economic Innovation Group would incentivize people to move to climate-resilient but depopulating regions. “Opportunity Zones” to promote investment could focus on rejuvenating the urban districts of Great Lakes towns across Michigan and Ohio, and immigration channels such as the EB-5 program should direct foreign real estate investors not to Louisiana but to Illinois. Detroit was once America’s largest city and could be again.
But in a climate-changed world, nothing is certain. Geographies once considered climate havens such as the Pacific Northwest have recently suffered extreme heat waves and forest fires. That is why we need to enable greater ease of mobility for all people in the U.S., especially 100 million young adults who aren’t sure where their next job will be or which places will be ecologically stable. Already young people are using their sixth sense, avoiding mortgage debt and moving seasonally for jobs or remaining digitally connected to their careers. Some are buying 3-D printed homes tailored to suit small family sizes, which can be moved on the back of a truck. (A Boxabl home costs just $50,000.) Imagine a high-tech Nomadland. We are a nomadic species, and ought to consider embracing that.
We can no longer afford to be passive observers of how human geography unfolds. Instead, we must proactively realign our geographies, moving people and technologies where they are needed while keeping livable places habitable and more hospitable. Only then will we bring our human geography, natural resources, industries and borders into better alignment.
Resettling humanity will not be a one-time proposition but an ongoing process that will pit our present political cartography of borders against our will to maximize our survival as a species.
To move is human. Humankind has been migrating for more than 200,000 years since Homo sapiens populated Africa and wandered through the rest of the continents. In the 20th century, most migration was towards economic opportunity and away from political persecution. Today’s world features twice as many climate refugees as political ones. We can start now to help resettle those in the most vulnerable locations, who are already feeling devastating impacts of climate change. Foresight can guide our next migrations before they become truly involuntary. You may not be interested in migration, but migration is interested in you.