Last October, we had an unexpected visit from my in-laws. They live in Savannah, and as Hurricane Matthew headed up the East Coast, the local government strongly advised residents to evacuate. For us, it was a pleasant surprise. A long weekend with 2 extra adults to help wrangle our son. A break from routine to be with family. But while they made the best of it, I could tell that my wife’s parents were becoming increasingly anxious. This wasn’t a planned visit; they were forced out of their home for their safety. They wanted know what had happened and if their house and belongings were ok. My father-in-law had them packed and headed back to the coast before they were even cleared to return.
This story has been going through my head since the first of June, when the President announced the US would leave the Paris Climate Agreement. I’ve been hearing about the growing concerns over the effects of climate change my whole life. I’ve swung from skeptical to highly engaged in the ramifications of the scientifically agreed upon position that we humans are strongly impacting the world in a negative way. I was grateful when the Paris Agreement was reached, when we as an entire global community acknowledged that we have a problem.
There are a multitude of reasons to worry about what the next century will have in store, especially as the United States takes a step away from leading our world in the effort to improve our environment. Many feel abstract when you live in a small mountain town this far inland. Overall warming (a bit less than 4oF), ocean acidification, glacial melting and tundra thawing, mass extinctions (1/4 of all species by 2050), and more extremes in seasonal weather can be just vague or distant enough to allow us to push them out of our attention. Just more noise about bad news. But one effect that often gets lost in the shuffle is human displacement. And that may strike us in a very real way, whether we chose to believe or deny the warnings we hear.
Over 13 million Americans are projected to live in communities that will be underwater within the next 80 years…And while that sounds like another problem for coastal people to wring their hands over, those people will have to go somewhere. Which is where Pulaski fits into this.
A massive displacement of coastal populations is predicted in response to estimated sea level rise of 3-6 feet by 2100. Over 13 million Americans are projected to live in communities that will be underwater within the next 80 years. Globally, 50-150 million people will be displaced in the next 30 years, a crisis that is already contributing to the instability we see in Syria, Pakistan, and Somalia. And while that sounds like another problem for coastal people to wring their hands over, those people will have to go somewhere. Which is where Pulaski fits into this.
Over the last year, University of Georgia demographer Matt Hauer has run and published papers on his simulations of depopulation and migration caused by the projected sea level rise which climate change will bring. Included in his studies are almost half a million Virginians (behind only Florida, Louisiana, and New Jersey in displacement). Virginia Beach ranks 22nd nationally of localities facing major depopulation, with 50,000-150,000 anticipated to be affected. More shockingly, the city of Poqueson, with a population almost the same as Pulaski County, will lose 67% of their population. Accomack County is projected to see 30% of their 56,000 residents leave, even as our President reassures citizens of one of the county’s islands that they will be there for centuries.
So, where will they go? If these climate refugees had to stay in Virginia, and were distributed evenly into our 96 unaffected counties and cities, Pulaski would see 2,000 to 5,000 unexpected residents in the years ahead. 300 miles and 1,900 feet of elevation away from the ocean might be just the change migrating coast dwellers are looking for. Of course, nothing will be that symmetrical, and big cities like DC and Richmond will likely see a higher in flux. Hauer predicts Georgia, Texas, and Nevada will receive the most climate migrants. And the drift of people will be slow and unpredictable, with spurts of activity from every intensified hurricane season.
These uncertainties will still come with some cost. Louisiana has become the first state to receive a special grant from the Department of Housing and Urban Development to relocate an entire community at risk of rising sea levels: $48 million to move 60 residents off Isle de Jean Charles. Virginia may follow suit to avoid future disasters like those seen from major storms and flooding more recently.
Closer to home, it is hard to predict what other ways Pulaski could be affected by climate change. We may see higher levels of precipitation which lead to heavier flooding along the New River, Peak Creek, and our local lakes, which could create our own population displacement. Or we could experience the droughts we already see in California, with farmland browning and our reservoirs depleting. Reaching out to local scientists at the National Weather Service, I learned that, past sea level rise, the Southeast is a difficult region to predict. We sit in a climatic transition area that could go either way, but we should not think we won’t be affected at all.
Right now, I’m left wondering what face we in Pulaski will show as our fellow Virginians are leaving lives and homes behind from the coast. Will we turn our backs as hundreds of thousands lose their homes and communities? Or will we offer welcome and compassion to folks who may seek refuge in our little town? I sure hope for the latter. But I also pray that we won’t have to face the choice at all.