Refugees From Your Own Backyard

A UK report has landed climate refugees back in the news with scenarios that include the establishment of settlements in the Antarctic to house those escaping mid-century disasters. This is not the first fantastical solution to the impacts of climate change I've covered (remember those floating titanium cities?). Visions of Polar cities adds a gloss of fantasy over a very real problem; estimates peg the number of people displaced by a 2 degree rise in temperature to be somewhere close to 200 million people, or about 3% of the World's population, by as soon as 2050.

This has been discussed in the media for some time, largely in terms of international flows of migrants from Small Island States or vulnerable coastal areas of countries like Bangladesh. But it was a surprise to hear officials in Portland (OR), where I'm doing research, talking about the city's own concerns: it's inter-regional, not international, displacements, that they are worried about. More than one official here has pointed out that with recurring extreme droughts in Georgia and increasingly severe forest fires in California, the Pacific Northwest may soon find itself as a prime destination for homegrown environmental refugees.

These would be movements of people that would outclass and outlast those that resulted from hurricane Katrina. They would be not so much temporary escape as permanent resettlement, and people in Portland are starting to consider what that would mean for their region's development. There was an excellent article in The Oregonian a few weeks ago covering the story. The specifics of Portland's case aside, the city is clearly not unique. In countries, like the United States, whose regions have varying exposure to climate change the impacts of internal migration on urban development will be considerable. For many cities who have only just begun to consider how they will adapt to climate change, this adds a further and even more unpredictable variable to the mix.

One of the larger debates around calling environmentally displaced people "refugees" is whether or not it weakens the standing of people seeking protection from political persecution. The rights of political refugees are increasingly coming into question and it would be a bitter pill if the practice of using the term to emphasise the seriousness of climate change ended up further watering down our commitments to other kinds of refugees. By calling them refugees we are in fact aguing that the principles of care and protection which we currenlty extend for political grounds need to be expanded - not cut back. It is also worth asking -- in a time where natural disasters uproot more people than war -- if our failure to reduce emissions isn't infact a form of persecution.

Calling them "refugees" also frames the problem as an international one. It's now clear that it is also a regional and municipal one. How cities will address it will be an issue to watch in the coming years. What will be do when we have more refugees coming from both far away, and close to home? And, the question that is top of mind here in Portland, where will the money come from to build all the infrastructure we are going to need?


4 Responses to "Refugees From Your Own Backyard"

dan said... 21 October 2008 at 22:36

this is a great post. have we talked before? about polar cities? i am the director of the Polar cities research project in Taiwan, worldwide, see news here, james lovelock backs us. ny times covered us last year too

maybe blog on my idea with illusteations pro or con?


Tufts 1971
email me offline at
danbloom GMAIL

Alex said... 22 October 2008 at 23:27

Thanks for reading Dan. The polar cities project is fascinating. I'll keep an eye on it!

dan said... 23 October 2008 at 00:06

thanks for your good post, above, and the comment just above this one. Have you heard of Robin Bronen in Alaska, she is doing important research on climate refugees, in fact, it is she who coined the word climate refugees, I believe. I have her email address if you want to chat with her. Alaskans are worried that the refugees will move up en masse from the Lower 48, including Portland and Seattle areas, and flood into Canada and Alaska. Not now. 500 years from now. I am thinking ahead with the polar cities idea. Of course, they won't be really POLAR cities, just climate refugee settlements, they won't be at the poles per se, although some might be in Antarctica for those who live in OZ and NZ and Africa and India, but most will go north to Canada, Alaska, Russia, Norway, Iceland, Greenland. Portland won't exist anymore, Seattle neither. Forget NYC and Miami. Gone. in the year 2500.

So my polar cities project is to try to help raise the alarm for this kind of future thinking, but surely the settlements will be given a different name in 2500, i also call them Lovelock Retreats in homage to Sir Lovelock in the UK, who saw all this coming 40 years ago and who inspired me directly to come up with the polar cities project. He has seen my images and emailed me back and said "Yes, it may very happen and soon." He says soon. I say much much later. But who knows when, really? Could be 2121 or 2323? But for now Portland is safe and yes, many refugees will flock there first. Before moving up to Alaska. I already have situated a norther WHITE HOUSE in Juneau, and a northern US CONGRESS in Anchorage. Google both terms to see images. It's coming one day. Plain as the way Mt St Helens will erupt again some day. Earth talks. We must listen.

BTW, Alex, I used to live in Corvallis and Eugene, 1981-83. Often visited Portland, wonderful city. Drove all over the state. Was doing grad work at OSU. Girlfriend at UO.

Now in Taiwan. from Boston. A few more years left on Earth and then RIP. So giving my last years to the polar cities idea, hope to inspire others to take up where i left off. new ideas will sprout.



dan said... 26 October 2008 at 22:39

after reading your good post here and then the Oregonian article, which I would never have seen if not for your blog, BIG THANKS, I have revised my concept of polar cities to change the term to CLIMATE RETREATS in most parts of the world, and POLAR CITIES only for those settlements in Antarctica and the extreme north of Norway or Alaska and Canada. Because as this article says so well, CLIMATE RETREATS will be needed for populations of places like Portland. Here's my intro on my blog:


One of the most important news articles about the fate of humankind in regard to climate change and global warming appeared in the OREGONIAN newspaper on October 5, 2008, but the story was not picked up by any of the wire serives or other news outlets. This is a story that must be read worldwide because it is not only about PORTLAND OREGON, it is also about all other major cities around the world. Read this and when you see the word PORTLAND, substitute the name of your city or town. Because this is the future. Reporter Eric Mortenson deserves a Pulitzer Prize for this important enterprise feature. -- DB


This is a blog for news and views on the future of sustainable cites. A major revamp is in the works. Until then I am keeping this version up as an archive of my past writing.

You can expect occasional updates, but not with the same frequency as in the past.

You can also find my writing on urban redesign and sustainability in ReNew Canada, The Mark, Sustainable Cities Canada, WorldChanging, and other more specialized academic publications.

Info on my consulting work, c.v. and current research focus is all here.