Concentration of CO2 in the Atmosphere

Climate Refugees and Regional Sustainability

Wolfger Schneider

In the fall 2020 issue of Green Energy Times, John Bos familiarized the readership with “climigration” and the ever-increasing rate at which climate refugees in New England (NE) are seeking new safe havens. At our co-housing community in Vermont, we have seen a ten-fold increase in real estate requests within the last year from families seeking a cooler climate, smoke-free air, secure fresh water access, a safer place to raise children in the age of Covid-19, and less congestion. Most inquiries have been from the far West and the South.

Bos asked, “How are we to welcome and assimilate a growing population base in an eco-friendly way?” To answer that question, should we not first determine how sustainable our current state or NE regional population will be as we transition to a lower energy economy to help reign in global warming? How many more people could we shelter and feed from our local and regional resources and yet keep our quality of life and leave room for wildlife to survive?

In 2013, a report commissioned by Vermonters for a Sustainable Population, “What is an Optimum/Sustainable Population for Vermont,” attempted to answer the report title’s question. (The report is viewable under the Press tab on the website). A sustainable human population within a geographically defined area would not exceed Nature’s ability to supply renewable resources for human consumption and have the ability to process the resulting wastes in perpetuity.

For the last several years, Vermont’s population has hovered around 628,000 (628K). Stable, yes, but not long-term sustainable, as we will see. Of the 15 indicators of sustainability presented in the report, let’s look at three. The number in parenthesis indicates Vermont’s population that can be sustained for the given category.

Food Self Sufficiency (433K). This sustainability number assumes today’s diet and productivity per acre utilizing today’s available cropland and fossil fuel derived energy. Crop rotation was assumed. It should be realized that this is an average assuming typical weather. A resilient number, considering variation in annual weather and long-term climate change would lower this number. The future decrease in fossil fuel usage will require more human and animal labor working on more local land to supply our food, as convincingly argued in Chris Smaje’s new book, A Small Farm Future.

Ecological Footprint (150K). Assuming the 24 acres per person required for our current U.S. lifestyle and the available land in Vermont, we would have to reduce our personal footprint by around 50% to be sustainable. Footprint analysis considers land needed for agricultural, industrial, mining, fishing, transportation, housing, waste disposal, and activities.

Biodiversity (310K). This assumes present forest cover and fragmentation and land use. More people would impact land use, and the decline of fossil fuels may increase wood-energy harvesting for residential heating.

It can be argued that food self-sufficiency sustainability is most important to us humans. So, if we aren’t sustainable with our current population, we certainly won’t be with an influx of climate refugees. Yes, we may be short-term sustainable with food imports but not long-term sustainable with decreasing per capita energy availability and loss of local farmland.

It is important to strive for sustainability world-wide and to do so rapidly. If we want to avoid the cultural, racial, religious, and economic conflicts that can result from mass migration due to war and famine, as we are seeing around the world, we need to change our attitudes and beliefs on growth, both economic and population.

Fortunately, there are recent reports of positive trends. A 2020 national survey by the Center for Biological Diversity found that three out of four Americans think the world’s population is growing too fast. Sixty percent said population growth and consumption are responsible for the rapid loss of species biodiversity. In a November 2020 a study published in the journal, Climatic Change, about how potential parents view the future: 59.8 per cent of respondents reported being “very concerned” or “extremely concerned” about the carbon footprint of procreation, and a stunning 96.5 per cent were very or extremely concerned about the well-being of their existing, expected, or hypothetical children in a climate-changed world. Interestingly enough, should we be able to zero unwanted births today, we would nearly stabilize the U.S. and world population.

Schneider is currently President of Better Not Bigger VT. He retired to Vermont after 40 years at the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Lab. He hopes that Vermont can avoid the growth mania that has so changed Maryland.

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