07 Oct

The new Oregon trail: Crowded with climate migrants

Time to go into the garage and get out those old “Visit, But Don’t Stay” lawn signs.

Just don’t put them up anywhere near a water fountain.

The image might be too alluring.

Last week, New York Times reporter Jennifer A. Kingson asked where global warming might direct migrants, and Ben Strauss, vice president for climate impact at the research collaboration Climate Central, explained, “The answer is the Pacific Northwest, and probably especially west of the Cascades.” Noted Strauss, “You see a lot less extreme heat; it’s the one place in the West where there’s no real expectation of major water stress…”

Kingson quoted Clifford E. Mass, professor of atmospheric science at the University of Washington, predicting that the Pacific Northwest will be “a potential climate refuge,” with “climate change migrants” streaming to the Seattle and Portland areas.
“Water is important,” points out Mass, “and we will have it.”

The first Oregon Trail was marked by prairie schooners and bleached buffalo bones. This time, it will be overheated Pontiacs and abandoned iguanas.

For years, it has seemed clear that the remorselessly irrigated golf courses of Arizona and Nevada were on a collision course with a climate drying like a tomato in the sun. But this year, with most of California baking like an Alaska, the pressures became more immediate, and the attraction of a region where rain seems, um, reliable is even more fertile.

Three years ago, in a report on “Environmental Migrants and the Future of the Willamette Valley,” Professor Ethan Seltzer’s Urban Planning class at Portland State forecast, “The expected in-migration of climate refugees
from across the United States and around the globe in the next several decades will place additional burdens on existing social structures and public services.”

And that was before this summer, when in much of California watering your lawn became a misdemeanor.

This May, a new National Climate Advisory, issued by a federal commission, reported that in the Southwest, “Increased heat, drought, and insect outbreaks, all linked to climate change, have increased wildfires. Declining water supplies, reduced agricultural yields, health impacts in cities due to heat, and flooding and erosion in coastal areas are additional concerns.”

In the Pacific Northwest, writes Knute Berger in the regional blog Crosscut, “The good news, according to the climate models, is that things are likely to be much worse elsewhere…”

So the forecasts favor, once again, an increase in new Northwesterners, this time seeking not livability but just liquid. Last month, the Seattle World Affairs Council, with some other groups, put on a community simulation game to deal with the impact of climate migration – an event, the announcement pointed out, “with drinks,” which pretty much underscored the regional climate differences.

The greatest impact, calculates Seltzer, will be not over the next five years but over the next 20 to 50 years – although another summer like the past one and we might see a surfer’s wave of California license plates cresting at the Oregon DMV.

With statewide land use planning and regional government, he points out, Oregon is in position to devise ways to absorb new arrivals. The question he asks is, “How will their values affect the place?”

Local priorities have been reinforced recently by newly arriving young people who came here because Portland is cool. There might be a different effect from people who move here because Phoenix is getting too hot.

Two years ago, recalls Seltzer, he spoke with two out-of-state Toyota executives who warned that Oregon was in line for a large wave of new arrivals, and needed to build lots of highways and cul de sacs to welcome them. When Seltzer suggested that Oregon might not want lots more highways and cul de sacs, they seemed perplexed.

Over recent decades, Oregon has faced – and agonized over – several waves of settlement, but each of them receded, due to economic change or the word getting out that we might be closing our schools in April. A planetary reprogramming, with some regions grilling and others submerging, might be more difficult to turn back.

We’re also getting notice of change from other signals. In wildfires this year, through September, Oregon lost 57,493 acres, against an average over the last 10 years of 22, 515 acres. In September, just over our southern border – right where we might be tempted to set up the barricades – the summer heat melted glacier ice on Mount Shasta, sending a flood of water and mud cascading through the forest.

In a warming world, Oregon may be a refuge.

But we’re hardly a haven.

NOTE: This column appeared in The Oregonian, 10/1/14.

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