Top, Distribution of projected extreme hot days in 2056 (A2 scenario). Bottom, Distribution of projected extreme cold days in 2056 (A2 scenario). Graphic: Johnston, et al., 2018 / Journal of the Association of Environmental and Resource Economists

By Francesca Paris
20 October 2018

(NPR) – The World Bank predicts climate change could create as many as 143 million "climate migrants" by 2050. The result would be a mass migration twice as large as the number of refugees in the world today.

Though the size of potential displacement is unprecedented, the relationship between migration and climate has played out on a smaller scale throughout the history of North America, say historians Nathan Connolly and Ed Ayers.

Connolly, a professor at Johns Hopkins University, points to long-lasting droughts from the 12th and 13th centuries that caused relocations of indigenous communities in the American West. Archaeological records show periods of drought that lasted decades, starting as early as the 11th century.

For Native American populations heavily reliant on crops like maize and consistent rain, those droughts pushed entire populations to leave their homes. Connolly says empty villages in the southwest, now tourist attractions, are a product of those migrations.

"You're talking about thousands of people who are forced to move and relocate, oftentimes abandoning whole cities or civilizations," says Connolly.

Dust Bowl migrants of the 1930s

Centuries later, drought, economic depression and devastating dust storms created the perfect conditions for migration in the 1930s, away from the southern Plains states and towards the west, says Connolly.

Facing millions of dollars of crop losses per day in the Dust Bowl, millions of residents from Oklahoma, Texas, Arkansas, and Missouri had no choice but to move or starve. They packed their bags, with many traveling west to California.

The state of California resisted, citing the 1933 Indigent Act to turn back poor migrants along the state's major points of entry. John Steinbeck's novel The Grapes of Wrath, written in 1939, depicted this vilification of climate migrants through its story of a poor family of tenants driven out of the Dust Bowl and mistreated in California.

Ayers, a professor at the University of Richmond who co-hosts the Backstory podcast with Connolly and others, says Steinbeck's novel is a useful glimpse at how climate change migrants may be received in the future, but the book doesn't paint a complete picture.

"One reason we have Grapes of Wrath is that it was about white people moving," he says. "We don't really have representations of people of other ethnic backgrounds who have been displaced and moved." […]

The future of climate migration

A recent study from the University of Chicago finds that climate-change-induced migration in the next 50 years is expected to increase population in the West by more than 10 percent, with most of the new migrants arriving from the South and Midwest.

As a report from the U.N. forecasts drastic effects of climate change in the next few decades, Connolly says looking back at smaller snapshots of climate displacement may help us begin to envision the migration that could occur, and the places those migrants will leave behind. [more]

What Migrants Displaced By The Dust Bowl And Climate Events Can Teach Us


ABSTRACT: Recent studies predict that climate change will lead to a redistribution of population across the United States, as people choose to locate in regions less susceptible to extreme climate. However, these studies ignore the fact that migration will be dampened by changes in wage rates and housing prices as a result of migration. In this study, we apply a novel approach of linking a residential sorting model to an interregional computable general equilibrium model of the United States to capture wage and housing price feedbacks to assess the economic impacts of climate-change-induced migration. We find that endogenizing wages significantly dampens migration patterns. However, there are significant positive impacts on gross regional product and consumption in the Northeast, West, and California at the expense of the South and Midwest. In addition, wage effects are found to dominate housing price and climate effects, which results in larger welfare changes.

Climate Change, Migration, and Regional Economic Impacts in the United States

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