As he welded in a dimly lit corner, I would busy myself by playing with magnetic metals, watching these tiny bits of material with their amazing ability to both attract and repel. The closer each piece moved towards the other, the stronger the force in my hands felt, until I could no longer keep the two from their inevitable fate of pull or push.
For a long time, I thought that acting on climate change in America was like playing with magnets—that the desire to save our planet would immediately and intensely pull people together towards cooperative action, or that the goal of reducing our impact on the environment would push people away from unsustainable development.
I was wrong.
Acting on climate change can pull even the most unlikely people together in the face of a grave external push.
One year ago, President Trump announced that he would withdraw the United States from the 2015 Paris climate accord. In a sweeping proclamation against global action on climate change, Trump’s argument for the abandonment of American action was simple: “I was elected to represent the citizens of Pittsburgh, not Paris.”
In the wake of that statement, Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto responded that he and his city were still committed to act on climate change despite federal inertia. Since then, thousands of leaders in all 50 states have joined the We Are Still In movement. Governments and businesses representing 160 million Americans have committed to pursue ambitious climate goals, working together to ensure that the U.S. remains a global leader in reducing greenhouse gas emissions.
The Trump administration’s climate denial and apathy have pulled local leaders across blue and red states together into a collective climate of hope.
A year into this newly chartered movement for localized climate action, it’s now time for those leaders to extend that hope to America’s weather and climate migrants by planning for the climate-related displacement we can no longer avoid.
The need to plan for climate migration is important and immediate. In a recent study, World Bank researchers found that climate change could force more than 140 million people to migrate within their own countries by 2050. America is not immune to this looming crisis.
Ove the past year, America experienced 11 billion-dollar weather and climate related disasters. Wildfires in the West, drought in the Midwest and hurricanes in the South forced many thousands of American families to leave their homes in search of safety. Some estimates put that number as high as 1.5 million Americans having migrated in the face of such disasters, temporarily or permanently, to other parts of the country in 2017 alone.
Families displaced by climate disasters often migrate to cities, with their concentrated resources and economic activity. In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in 2005, researchers found that families displaced by the hurricane moved to major cities like Houston, Baton Rouge, Dallas and Atlanta. More recently, more than 135,000 Puerto Ricans have relocated to the U.S. mainland since Hurricane Maria hit in September 2017, the majority of whom migrated to cities within Miami-Dade County.
And with better standards of living and easier access to public services, many of these climate migrants choose to stay beyond the time of disaster recovery and make cities their permanent homes. Those households require assistance with housing, education and employment to adapt to city living and rebuild resilient lives.
Currently, cities like Miami do not include weather- and climate-related migration in their climate change plans. While the focus on reducing carbon emissions is vital to meeting the goals of the Paris Agreement, cities are missing a big part of the climate change challenge by failing to plan for climate migration.
During America’s first year of withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, mayors and governors championing local climate action have shown the world that there is immense hope in our climate change story. As we accept our new normal of federal inaction and brace ourselves for the 2018 hurricane season, it is now time to do more than mitigate their impacts on the planet. By including displacement in their planning, city governments can rise up to proactively address the mass migrations of climate change—and bring the country closer together in the process.