Concentration of CO2 in the Atmosphere

Climate Migration: A Glimpse of Our Probable Future


By Barbara Whitchurch

The phenomenon known as “climate migration” refers to the forced movement of living things to escape the life-threatening impacts of climate change.

Increasing temperature swings, droughts, tidal flooding, storm systems and wildfires are all causes of this evolving problem. But other shifts are also developing: rising sea levels and temperatures, and the degradation of the polar ice cap. Animals of all types are dying. Those who survive have to move, as their food migrates away, and their habitat changes. This is true of people as well.

… we need to reduce our GHG (greenhouse
gas) emissions by 45% before 2030 and reach
net-zero emissions by 2075 in order to have a
chance to avoid catastrophic climate change.

Climate migration has already been occurring around the globe for years, where rising sea levels and the disappearance of arable land has forced migration into cities and towns, stressing the social and economic fabric of previously peaceful regions. A World Bank Report ( issued in March, 2018 projects that in three of the most vulnerable regions — sub-Saharan Africa, South Asia and Latin America — 143 million people could be displaced by these impacts by 2050. In West Africa, the almost total disappearance of Lake Chad because of desertification has empowered terrorists and forced more than four million people ( into camps. The report projects that without effective climate action, around 2.8% of the population of these three regions could be forced to move within their own countries to escape the near-term impacts of climate change. They will migrate from areas with lower water and crop availability, and from areas affected by rising sea level and storm surges. This migration will accelerate over time.

But the grim predictions of this report have been eclipsed by the much grimmer predictions of a more recent one. On October 6, 2018, the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released a special report ( in support of a global response to keep global warming to less than 1.5ºC above pre-industrial levels. Widely reported in mass media, the Summary for Policymakers provides a clear warning: we need to reduce our GHG (greenhouse gas) emissions by 45% before 2030 and reach net-zero emissions by 2075 in order to have a chance to avoid catastrophic climate change.

Predictable or inevitable?

Climate migration in the United States is one of the effects of climate change that is now predictable. Recent research ( has focused on the entire Gulf region, in particular the South Florida coast, and most notably, the city of Miami, where the Army Corps of Engineers and other scientists have predicted sea level rises of twelve inches by 2030. An eighteen inches rise would threaten the existence of that city ( This would result in millions of people losing their homes and their livelihood.

What will happen when millions of Americans are displaced due to rising sea levels? Some will go inland, and some will move to states perceived as “safer,” with higher elevations, no coastline, and a viable economic infrastructure such as interior New England. Climate scientists have projected a general migration from southern and western states to the Northeast.

“We have a small window now, before
the effects of climate change deepen, to
prepare the ground for this new reality.
Steps cities take to cope with the upward
trend of arrivals from rural areas, and
to improve opportunities for education,
training and jobs, will pay long-term
dividends.” Kristalina Georgieva

What types of economic and social disruptions can we anticipate? We already know from organizations such as the Vermont Refugee Resettlement Program, that an increase in population means an increased need for public transportation, housing, employment, retraining, medical care, social services, schools, food and water. Burlington has been a microcosm of immigration and its consequences for the past 20 years.

Vermont will also continue to experience a phenomenon known as “climate gentrification,” in which richer people can afford to move to safer ground, while poorer people will have to stay where they are or be forcibly evacuated. So far, the first wave of climate refugees consists of affluent folks from the Coast or the South, people who have the means to purchase property in Vermont or who already have a second home here.

What are the best ways to prepare for this?

According to an article in The Montpelier Bridge (, some plans are already in the works. Brian Shupe of the Vermont Natural Resources Council states, “Historically, when we have had an influx of new residents and development pressure, Vermont has responded with things like Act 250.” Anticipating another influx is one reason the state has formed a commission to re-examine Act 250 (Vermont’s land use law) and issue a report by the end of the year. Vermont Senator Chris Pearson, vice-chair of the Act 250 Commission, recommends protecting agricultural land to provide more food, protecting forest blocks and wildlife corridors, and improving decision-making around the location of housing. Steve Crowley, Energy Chair of the Sierra Club’s Vermont chapter, in examining climate migration, states that climate-related changes to food security pose serious challenges. Crowley advocates building more densely-packed housing in the future and “preserving all the agricultural land that we can.”

Barbara Whitchurch is a freelance writer and editor. She lives in Middlesex, VT and owns a Passive House and a Nissan Leaf.

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