Considering Climate Migration

A strategic narrative of immigration planning for the 21st century.

Over the past week, I’ve seen at least two large mainstream press articles on climate migration, and as more people seem to be tossing around their next move locale—something between North Dakota and anywhere else with the word “north” it. Often, in a simplified, single-issue flattening of the full-range of shifts happening around us.

For the past couple of years, I’ve been in the fortunate (or misguided) place where I was able to focus extensively on trying to understand larger societal patterns and trajectories: climate change, education, finance, and capitalism. I went through a weird wealth bubble and allowed myself to ponder what was the most rewarding and meaningful work I could be doing outside of everyday considerations. I was able to pursue my research for research’s sake. And I had a team of people that wanted to pursue an alternative living and working structure, where my role was figuring out the logistics: the where, the how, the business plan, the interpersonal dynamics.

The resulting takeaways regarding the where, listed below, came after an endless hopscotch through articles, forums, projection maps, and white papers. They were further informed by many long conversations with colleagues, a planetary futurist, climate journalists, and climate science researchers. And, finally, stitched together by a glue of instinct, past experience, and conjecture.

Timeline

How long do we really have?

The first question that I tried to answer was: What’s the timeline? How frantic is the required response? Shortly after Jem Bendell’s 2018 paper gained traction, I followed up by studying as many scientific projection papers as I could. I wanted to extract the probable time ranges. Growing up in the Pacific Northwest, and having worked at an environmental nonprofit, I was no stranger to general cause-and-effect climate awareness. I understood the direction we were heading in. What I was still underestimating was the full force of the speed, and the momentum it was gathering. (Planetary futurist Alex Steffen is a wonderful advocate of this, coining the phrase “predatory delay,” though it was really time looking at the graphs and numbers that made it hit home for me.)

There’s a natural biological tendency to think if things are fine today, if things were more or less fine yesterday, how much worse could they possibly get tomorrow? We have a built-in constancy bias, which has helped us for many slow-moving centuries. But in an era where everything is rapidly speeding up, this normalizing bias blurs our ability to see or understand what’s happening under the surface. Change tends to happen slowly at first, then all at once. And, as we get closer to an inflection point, we get closer to the “all at once” of the equation. To understand this in the environmental context, there are two useful concepts:

Exponential Curves. This lecture by Dr. Albert Bartlett, first given 1969, is a good primer that helps visualize why “slowly at first, then all at once” is a thing.

Feedback Loops. Feedback loops are when outputs of a complex system are routed back as inputs, forming a loop. With climate, it refers to the way that everything on this planet is interconnected.

What I’ve noticed as we’ve caught up to previous climate science projections is that they’ve proved somewhere between accurate and underestimates rather than panicky exaggerations. My hypothesis is that those projections factored exponential curves (they’re math) but perhaps failed to involve the accounting of all the feedback loops, as they’re both numerous and varied, but also projecture.

So, for my personal heuristic, I started buffering slightly to interpret the projections that way. Things will likely happen sooner than expected. They will be more extreme. But they won’t necessarily happen everywhere or to everyone at once. (A good reminder, less and less needed by the day, that climate catastrophe isn’t the future but has already been taking place with various force in different regions.) This makes the felt personal effects simultaneously more and less catastrophic than I assumed on first read.

Triaging the resources I had at hand, I invested in an international move and some farmland. I told my mom, who lives in Oregon, to check her fire insurance, consider selling before the market crashes, and make sure there was no shrubbery alongside her house. I pointed friends to presentations on what series of events happen, and what helps, when a state collapses.

Stay, Fight, or Flee

What are the moral implications of abandoning a place, or becoming an immigrant?

Is the best answer to always stay where you are? Yes and no. For some, ties to their ancestral lands, culture, family, tradition, and roots supersede all. For others, if your life has been a process of migration since childhood, or displacement over generations, the link of home or rooted family has already been irretrievably severed. For others that are chased out, threatened out, or where home already lacks resources or safety, staying rooted might not be an option. For others still— and here we’re already edging into muddy waters—their birth, in a place, might have been in itself an act of aggression, such as colonial or settler lineage, where there are others fighting for their land back. Where, with the chain reaction of unintended consequences, presence itself creates a kind of harm. Morality, safety, and survival are all murky, as is where we can do the most good. Sometimes, doing the most good is fighting; sometimes it’s shining a light toward a new set of possibilities; sometimes it’s getting out of the way.

For me, in 2017, I was living in a country that was not my birth home. That for whatever affectionate ties and knowledge of, I never consciously selected. Speaking a language that felt like a wad of marshmallow-fluff in my mouth. And surrounded by a populace that for the most part had bought into the bootstrap myth that was too damn doggedly individualistic. Small pockets aside, it lacked some of the deeper interdependencies I craved in my life, that I thought we were all likely to need amid a tougher future.

For me, home wasn’t a location I could find on a map. Was it St. Petersburg, where I had lived until the age of eight? Was it our dacha (Soviet-style cottagecore with a supplemental food garden) where I fondly remember running around? On the dacha we were “one with the land,” but it was also land that was handed out as a likely act of aggression and resettlement to ward off the local population and the Fins. Was it part of my adopted United States (but then which part)? Staying where I had ended up wasn’t obviously doing more good than harm. And an opportunity to be open and mindful of what was next was on the table.

Choosing Where to Go: Climate Change Edition

What things are there to consider when trying to project future climate in an area?

I wanted to move to a place that would become home, that was land, that was investment. I don’t have the kind of resources with which to make a mistake, shrug it off, and then start over elsewhere. So with that, part of the consideration for me was trying to understand what the region might look like 10, 30, 50 years down the line. Of course, not fully predictable, but there are some starting metrics that one can kick off with; it becomes a process of elimination: remove the obviously hazardous choices, and the rate of success, by chance, within the remaining ones ends up more likely.

The Land

First, climate change is about our natural environment. So I started by listing, and mapping, some of the greatest natural threats.

  • Sea rise and flooding. Avoiding low-lying terrain, even the landlocked kind. Saying no to those beachfront Florida properties people somehow still keep building and rebuilding. There are projection maps for pretty much everywhere of expected sea rise. Some of the far-out projected global ones get pretty epic.

  • Heat and humidity. It is called global warming, right? To avoid unsurvivable heat, you’ll want to avoid places that are already nearly too hot; avoid places too close to the equator. Wet-bulb temperature becomes a key metric—the combination of heat and humidity, and the threshold at which evaporation-based cooling no longer occurs. (What all your desert friends have been saying when they reference that it’s a dry heat, so it feels different.) Same as for above, there are articles, maps, and projections decades-out that are easily available.

  • Ecosystems in flux. This one requires more reading between the lines. Basically, there’s nowhere that’ll be stable; everywhere is going to change rather dramatically. Shiftwise, though, the greatest temperature rise is actually happening toward the poles. That’s also where I’ve been noticing the most out-of-control wildfires (with the least resources to fight them), houses slipping off into the sea, rapid animal rehabituation, and—not that you’re likely to live by them—methane bubble emissions. This contrasts the assumed takes of running from global warming by going somewhere simply colder, or further north.

  • Desertification. Drought and land degradation is another looming hazard. Staying out of places that are already on the border is wise, and maps for desertification exist. If land degradation is happening in the area due to poor farming practices, there have been experiments to start taking care of it and reverse the process. Looking for water, the best route is to look underground. Glaciers and ice caps are melting too fast for that to be a long-lasting source, and ocean desalination still too expensive and far away to rely upon.

  • Wildfires. I started writing this in late 2018. Since then, we’ve seen the orange photographs from Australia, the red photographs from the U.S.’s West Coast. Wildfires will likely blanket a lot of ground, but to mitigate risk you can take a look at what type of plants are growing (eucalyptus bad, oak good), how closely together, how fast the trees are dying or drying, and how fast the rate of fires have been multiplying thus far. There are macro and micro trends. You might not be able to avoid all possible risks, so pick your poison. I chose a region with a slight increase in wildfires, banking on a relatively slow rate of increase, an existing system in place to fight them, and ability to further mitigate damage via architectural practices and community action.

  • Hurricanes. If you live in a tropical cyclone/hurricane/typhoon region, whether it be Southeast Asia or in the U.S. Southeast, plan on the frequency and severity to continue escalating.

  • Diseases. Our current pandemic wasn’t fully unexpected, nor was it unrelated to climate change. There are analyses out there concluding that as we encroach on nature at a greater pace, the rate of new pandemics will creep up. Tropical insect-borne diseases will sprawl their geographic reach as the insects that carry them migrate into newly tropical areas. Tick-borne diseases will escalate in regions where they already exist (U.S. Northeast corner, Switzerland).

  • And other extreme weather events. Part of chaos is that everything tends to escalate and become less predictable. The above points are the ones that have grabbed headlines and are geographically spread out. But regional issues are also metastasizing. Whatever is normally present in the region or nearby, it is probably best to look at some predictions at what causes it, and how it might shift in the future.

The Politics

As our experience of living somewhere is far from the days of being guided solely by terrain, I moved onto sketching in the political realities of different nations. This is slightly more amorphous, but still easy enough to research and place bets on.

  • Inequality. Traditionally, countries or municipalities with low inequality tend to translate to stability, happiness, and good living for their inhabitants (Scandinavia loves to flaunt these statistics regularly). High inequality tends to leave its population less satisfied, even for those toward the top. How a region is set up to redistribute will likely become especially relevant when natural resources start waning.

  • Instability. How stable is the region currently? How does the government approach the population’s struggles? Who’s nearby? What are the various interests? And, in a zig-zag redemptive fashion, regions with historical memory of authoritarianism (Portugal, Chile) might be more secure from falling back into it than, say, teenager nations that assume themselves to be immune (U.S.).

  • Migration. Geographic migration paths are already streams where they’ll potentially be rapid rivers (Turkey, Greece). As the hardest-pressed and least stable regions get hit harder, people will need to leave. So, look not only at your chosen country in isolation, but also the neighboring ones as well, assuming some spillover effects (the Middle East, Russia).

  • Economics. One of the places I most coveted I ruled out because there were resources in the ground that were valuable, and that other countries wanted to acquire. I assumed they would destroy the region’s livability in order to do so. Countries’ relative wealth, and international economic pulls, become another factor to consider.

The Community

And then, more granularly, and more personally, I looked for places that felt like a right fit for me. People really do make all the difference between what’s possible, and what will become. I’ve chosen a lot of my career that way, based less on what I do and more on whom I want to be around. It made sense to also pick a home that way. (Oddly, I haven’t always applied this metric to relationships.)

  • Longtime neighbors. We tend to become more and more like those we are surrounded by, on both a macro and a micro level. Does the region have people you want to learn from or be guided by? Are you willing to listen? I’ve looked at areas where older people seem to be happier, I glanced at what type of shoes the women wore, how stressed they seemed.

  • Fellow newcomers. Who else is migrating to the region? Is it a community you’d be proud of? There are plenty of articles on where the billionaires are building their bomb shelters, but even if the region seems strategic, who will you want to collaborate with and live next to? Does the region have amble resources to support additional immigration?

  • Local production. What are the basics that are needed, and how many of those is the region capable of manufacturing when the geopolitical tensions rise or borders shutter? How diverse is the food source, and who grows it? Do people still make clothes and shoes and traditional craft? Where does medicine come from? Modes of transportation?

  • Local resiliency. What’s the recent history of tough times like? How has the community responded? How did the region fare in the crash of 2008? And how did it respond to the Covid-19 pandemic? Looking for clues as to how the government and the population respond over time to different scenarios might be the best predictor on how they’ll fare and rebound from future shocks.

Being a Good Guest

What can we do to offset the disruptions we might unwittingly cause when immigrating?

I’ve been having discussions about all of the above, and the nuances of being an immigrant, for years. There are articles and arguments, and anxiety on all sides, with regards to gentrification and migration. That historical tension might seem heightened as it takes political center stage, but as more and more people relocate, migration has also never been more accepted or made at ease. People are moving, and that trend, globally, will only escalate.

I’ve lived this experience, in some way, my entire life. Sometimes as a local, sometimes as a newcomer, oftentimes as something in between. The conversation worked all the way down to my given name, Ksenya, an alternate spelling of Xenia, which is both a photosynthetic soft marine coral and the ancient Greek concept of hospitality and manners between host and guest.

The Land

There are regions, such as wetlands, where human presence brings degradation. Where human settlements are encroaching on the forests, the wildlands, the natural ecosystems. Where there is already not enough water to go around (ahem, Nevada and California), and where more is being drained by every wave of newcomers. While you can move there, going there does damage.

There are other places, such as rural Portugal, where they are actively seeking resettlement. Where shepherds of the land are desired to keep it managed. Where the history is already entwined with human habitation, and where the move to the cities caused abandonment, which now contributes to wildfires because of untamed land.

And then, once there: If the move is prompted by climate change, as so much of migration will escalate to being, the best thing to do once there is to help take care of your new home and help it build its natural resiliency. Volunteer your time, plant a food forest, landscape a rain garden, work with native plants or plants healthy for the region’s visible future.

The Politics

There are countries that are actively recruiting more immigrants. Because, where carefully managed, they do a lot of good. They bring in income, skills, and a desire to work. They bring global knowledge and connections. In some countries, there are already government initiatives or government outreach to bring people there. That’s a pretty good guide on it being a place where one’s presence is useful.

While population rises globally, there are pockets that need more people, whether due to the aging and low birthrate of the local population, or desire for investment and new industries. These are usually the countries that’ll make it easier for you to move there, so this works out. Countries that recognize how much immigration can help them are more likely to carefully manage it, and promote it, within its population.

Once there, you can contribute with what you have to offer. Learn the local issues and talk to people that’ve been there a lot longer than you have, then get involved. Pay your taxes. Contribute your talents.

The Community

Then, once gathered that one’s presence may indeed cause some good, there is the courtesy and humility of trying to be a better guest. This starts with listening first, and trying to understand the new community. Learning the language, the customs. Unraveling the political history on the ground.

Being considerate of what you buy, from whom, for how much, so as to not rattle or change the existing infrastructure too much. Trying to act as the locals do, as much as possible, at least initially, tends to be a working heuristic. Talking to them, and asking around, gives even more insight.

Watching who you interact with, give jobs to, consume from. While maybe not foolproof resource-wise, for me, buying a new home where I knew no one was getting evicted, and where the construction and design of it was driven by local companies and resulting in local jobs, seemed like the best way to go.

And finding ways, however small, to give back. Share your knowledge, skills, connections, resources. For me, if the art residency makes its way from my imagination to reality, it means spending time working with the local community on things useful for them, that involve them. It means sliding-scale fees for my design services working with local companies.

Addendum on Coping

What helps in coping with the knowledge of our climate era?

When I really dove into everything above, and started seeing the world around me in a harsher light, climate grief hit me hard. I found it nearly impossible to produce capitalism (i.e., work). I was so concerned about speed, and external realities, I didn’t pause to make sure my team was all caught up on the same page. I had to do a lot of emotional processing to get to a new place of equilibrium.

I almost feel like a short addendum should be added to every climate change article, as we are all in our different stages of processing the shift in understanding that our planet isn’t exactly as we were led to believe for so long. The ongoing pandemic (not itself separate from climate change) has pushed to the forefront the mental health needs, both individual and nationwide. Some points that might help:

  • Spend time learning to understand and process grief. Whatever your age or situation in life, it will for sure come in handy at some point. Invest in it early. General grief work is transferable, and there are networks and groups sprouting specifically for handling climate change grief.

  • The future is never locked in. Changing things slightly for the better, is changing things for the better. While some giant environmental shifts, and losses, are already locked-in, there are still far larger catastrophes that can be avoided via both individual and collective action.

  • Between hope in the dark and silver linings, we might be the first generation in a while that truly gets to live for the present. Appreciate the sunset. Savor the last of the wine. So many generations have sacrificed, or restrained, themselves to pass down a legacy or attempt to secure a certain future. A break from that opens a window to experiencing the world as it is now.

Featured image: Mapping permafrost thaw, desertification, and major typhoon regions. Courtesy of Samarskaya & Partners, 2020

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