February 25, 2009

Swimming Against the Tide

Filed under: Adaptation

The Washington Post ran a front page story on Monday, February 23, describing ecomigration—in this case, people moving to avoid the impacts of global warming. The story was odd because in the starring role was a fellow moving his family from Montgomery County, Maryland, to New Zealand! When we think of reasons people want to leave Montgomery County, global warming doesn’t jump to the top of list—perhaps moving to try to get away from all the traffic produced by the large influx of all the other people moving into the region is a more likely candidate.

Another potential ecomigrant highlighted in the Post article who was considering fleeing from global warming’s way was a guy who was thinking of moving back to Michigan from his home in Florida. Again, someone who is apparently swimming against the tide of domestic (and otherwise) migrants into the state of Florida—one the fastest growing places in the U.S.

Now maybe these examples were selected by Washington Post staffwriter Shankar Vedantam to show that people in places other than the Pacific atolls of Tuvalu or Kiribati are concerned about the coming climate, but the choices were strange.

[As an aside, for an amusing and enlightening glimpse into what kind of earthly paradises Tuvalu or Kiribati are (not), we recommend J. Maarten Troost’s descriptions of his time spent there as chronicled in his book The Sex Lives of Cannibals: Adrift in the Equatorial Pacific (hint: Chapter 7 is titled “In which the Author settles into the theme of Absence, in particular the paucity of food options, and offers an account of the Great Beer Crisis, when the island’s shipment of Ale was, inexcusably, misdirected to Kiritimati Island, far, far away from those who need it most”)]

For one thing, you’ve got to wonder just how on earth the Post writer managed to find someone in Montgomery Co. moving to New Zealand because of global warming? Is there a national registry of ecomigrants somewhere?

For another, while these folks are moving out (or at least thinking about it) many tens of thousands of people are moving in. Figure 1 shows recent population growth across the U.S., and the DC area and Florida are leading the way. Apparently, these intrepid souls are throwing caution to the wind and moving (voluntarily) into places that will increase their climate risk. Obviously, in their minds the rewards won out over the risks.


Fiigure 1. Typical example of U.S. population trends, in this case, the trend from 2000 to 2003 (source: http://academic.marion.ohio-state.edu/schul/400/0003popchg.png)

Which brings us to a question that has been nagging us for some time, and that maybe someone would be interested in helping us figure out the answer (if so let us know!)—are Americans assuming more climate risk voluntarily (by moving around) than they would be assuming involuntarily from climate change (by staying put)? If it is the case (and we would guess it is), then clearly the impacts of climate change are something that are not a major factor in our ultimate choice of our places of residence (with a few exceptions that Shankar Vedantam managed to ferret out).

That a recent poll by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press that found that climate change was last on our list of top rpiorities for the new Administration to deal with seems to further support this contention.

Basically, Shankar Vedantam’s article in Monday’s Post completely missed the mark, or at least did not set the proper context. In the U.S., at least, ecomigration is most likely driven to a far larger degree by “climate” rather than “climate change” (and many of our choices are made despite assuming a greater climate risk).




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