Around 150 million people around the world could be forced to move because of climate change within the next few decades, according to the World Bank. Americans tend to think of climate migration as happening far away or in the far future. But it’s already here — in California, Florida, Louisiana.
And it’s rapidly shaping the political environment in some communities, according to POLITICO energy reporter Ben Lefebvre. He uses the example of Chico, California, where survivors of the Camp Fire in Paradise migrated to in 2018. That population growth drove up the costs of new homes there, but new residents who didn’t have financial power ended up unhoused.
Lefebvre says that caused an uproar among residents, including political groups who took advantage of the situation, such as a PAC group called the Citizens for a Safe Chico.
“They were taking photos of trash strewn, and they were basically calling these people ‘professional homeless,’ and agitating against the liberals on the Chico City Council saying, ‘You haven't done anything about it. We need to have more of a law-and-order approach to this.’”
As a result, the PAC group pumped about $250,000 into the local city council race, and the council went from having a majority of liberals to a majority of conservatives.
“This PAC was able to fan the flames of anger at the current leadership. So they were able to say, ‘Look, you got a homelessness problem. Rents are rising, there's fewer homes available because of all these people moving in.’ Some of these problems are already there,” he explains. “They were able to shift the blame to an influx of people who are moving in because their own homes had been destroyed in the Camp Fire. So by channeling that anger into the local elections, they were able to flip the makeup of the council.”
On the other side of the spectrum, Lefebvre references a political shift in Kissimmee, Florida, where a large group of Puerto Ricans migrated following Hurricane Maria in 2017.
Over the years, the demographics of local political leadership changed in Kissimmee, with more people of Puerto Rican descent being elected to the City Council or the local school board. That includes Olga González, who became the town’s first Latina mayor.
These demographic shifts are to be expected, but Lefebvre argues that migration prompted by weather-related disasters push a much larger group of people to move in a short time period.
“Everybody moves, but you don't have a sudden disaster that will kind of force tens of thousands of people to move at one time. So you'll be seeing more of that as climate change kind of makes hurricanes worse or fuels droughts and wildfires. You know, in California, you'll have whole communities wiped out,” he says. “Whenever you see them on TV, you have to think, where are these people going? … Just moving to the next county can create tensions or create change politically when you have a sudden influx of population.”
And while moving away from disaster-prone areas might be possible for financially stable households, that can create new problems for a community at large.
“Those are the people who have the means to move. But meanwhile, there's folks who are maybe older or maybe [have] less income, they don't kind of have that luxury. ... They move away, they take the capital with them. And the folks who have to stay now have governments who have to figure out, ‘How are we going to provide basic services when, for instance, a couple of main streets keep flooding? Should we shut it down or not?’”
He adds, “I think you already are seeing these conversations increasingly take place in communities that are having to make decisions about how to accommodate folks in a changing climate who can’t afford to relocate.”