The Bold Idea To Move Millions To Climate Havens


Justin H. Vassallo is a writer and researcher who specializes in party systems and ideology, political economy, American political development and modern Europe.

The race against time to plan for climate migration has begun.

In 2022, climate change and climate-related disasters led nearly 33 million people to flee their homes and accounted for over half of all new numbers of people displaced within their countries, according to data from the United Nations’ High Commissioner for Refugees and the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre. This amount will surely increase over the next few decades.

Outside the United States and Canada, the World Bank predicts that climate change will compel as many as 216 million people to move elsewhere in their countries by 2050; other reports suggest that more than one billion people will become refugees because of the impacts of a warming planet on developing countries, which may exacerbate or even precipitate civil wars and interstate armed conflict.

A 2020 report by ProPublica, meanwhile, estimates that at least 13 million Americans will be forced to migrate from coastal areas and that wildfires and other natural catalysts could potentially multiply that amount significantly. Regardless of how such displacement is measured and reported, it seems likely given current trends that slower-moving migration flows will be routinely punctuated by extreme weather events and climate-aggravated infrastructural collapses. This has already been exemplified by the devastating floods in Libya earlier this month, which claimed thousands of lives and reportedly displaced over 43,000 people.

The extraordinary pressure that continued international and domestic climate migration will impose upon state resources and social goods like schools, hospitals and housing is difficult to fathom. Over the past year, city and state governments in the U.S. have feuded over the distribution of migrants stemming from the Southern border, with New York Mayor Eric Adams declaring that the current migration wave will “destroy” the city.

Though such rhetoric is plainly demagogic, Adams’ remark nevertheless channeled deep-seated fears about whether U.S. cities can absorb new migrants amid the ongoing crises of homelessness and food insecurity. The episode is a preview of the public anxiety and ugly politics to come in this age of the Anthropocene.

Beyond Industrial Policy

In conceiving how to manage internally displaced persons and high-risk populations in a wealthy country such as the U.S., policymakers must factor in how regional inequality, deindustrialization, and other structural changes in the national economy have conditioned the migration flows of recent years.

They must consider that climate migrants can not be simply relocated to other densely populated areas or to more rural locales that might seem to benefit from an influx of people but need capital and ample federal support to accommodate this sort of demographic transformation.

Such a task demands an unprecedented level of economic planning and federal-regional coordination — no less so than the process of building out climate infrastructure. Unless progressives begin to contemplate seriously how climate migration policies must dovetail with the goal of a green economy, the social, political and economic upheaval that climate migration portends could easily overwhelm efforts to realize any clean energy transition.

And yet, the dynamic between large-scale climate migration and the pace of decarbonization remains a distant concern in day-to-day governance: There is virtually no public debate about how climate change itself may constrain the spread of green technology.

The Biden administration has heralded the preliminary investments sparked by the year-old Inflation Reduction Act — the manufacturing basis of a sustainable green economy — and the prospect of a long boom generated through manufacturing and installing various components of climate resilience like solar panels, advanced batteries and electric vehicle charging stations. But while it is encouraging that the IRA and other industrial policies have pushed the private sector to announce new factories that produce such technology,  the administration’s renewable energy agenda has not addressed the economic viability of large swathes of the U.S. over the next several decades.

The administration’s 2021 report on climate migration, for instance, only focuses on international impacts and contains few specific prescriptions about how to manage said flows. Beyond a brief mention in the report of the need to take a future look at how to coordinate domestic “migration/relocation” with special consideration for high-risk, densely populated areas, the U.S. government has still not detailed how it plans to address climate migration. Instead, the administration has trumpeted fixed investment in renewables that, outside of Michigan and Ohio, looks to be especially concentrated in the Southeast and Southwest.

While this is a worthy goal under normal conditions, encouraging a disproportionate amount of manufacturing investment in the South could be ill-conceived given the risk of annual, prolonged heatwaves with increasing wet-bulb temperatures and multifarious floods that threaten to severely undercut the region’s future labor productivity.

According to a 2019 report by the International Labour Organization, the expected productivity loss from heat stress in 2030 will be equivalent to 389,000 full-time jobs and will primarily affect outdoor workers in Southern states. The potential for adverse feedback loops is significant given that hundreds of thousands of installation-based clean energy jobs are projected to involve outdoor work.

“Climate migrants can neither be simply relocated to other densely populated areas or to more rural locales … but need capital and ample federal support to accommodate this sort of demographic transformation.”

And yet, despite these realities, the current approach to green industrial policy treats the regional distribution of the nation’s demographics and economic sectors as essentially static factors and overlooks how extreme weather and climate migration will likely destabilize important nodes of the energy transition.

The stark fact is that the amount of carbon dioxide already amassed in the atmosphere all but assures that certain zones will become uninhabitable by the end of the century, regardless of whether global greenhouse gas emissions reach net zero by 2050. If factories cannot operate at full capacity due to life-threatening climate conditions, periodic grid failures and difficult-to-replace labor shortages over the next two decades — and these challenges reverberate throughout their surrounding economies — the output of the renewables sector will falter and stall projects to decarbonize businesses, government agencies and households.

To the extent these shifts can be forecasted, the flow of future subsidies to prospective new plants and fiscal support for things like energy-efficient municipal retrofitting should be adjusted to reflect local adaptability to climate change in the aggregate. Regardless of where the IRA has helped allocate green industry investment to date, any additional federal investments in local green infrastructure cannot go to places that will end up unlivable fiscal sinkholes.

More prudently, government officials should begin evaluating which regions are likely to experience reverse migration or rapid, temporary and extended growth due to shifting notions of “climate security.” Accordingly, planners should formalize a system that ranks zones based on habitability and draw up industrial, rural and urban redevelopment policies to match this modeling.

Drivers Of Displacement

Based on projections for lost productivity, recurrent bouts of oppressive, life-threatening heat will likely have the most pervasive and enervating effects on society. Modeling indicates that by 2060, dozens of counties across the Southwest and Southeast could experience temperatures above 95 degrees Fahrenheit for a third or more of the year.

The creation of new labor regulations and other rules governing market activity, alongside new business practices, could conceivably adapt parts of those regional economies to extreme heat. But not every locale will be preservable.

While extreme heat threatens a public health crisis for vulnerable demographics and is predicted to overwhelm hospitals in states like Georgia and Arizona in the event of a major blackout, it also disrupts schooling, family recreation and routine business operations. And it also promises to increase the frequency and intensity of wildfires. The most exposed locales will likely fall into a state of semi-permanent emergency, making it impractical and unwise to rebuild homes, businesses and farms destroyed by past conflagrations.

Conditions that prompt sudden evacuations could swamp neighboring regions with needs that cannot be readily met by their existing housing stock, educational facilities, commercial districts and supply chains. In the longer term, the steady desertion of afflicted places will force policymakers to shutter towns and disincorporate municipalities whose infrastructure must be abandoned. Just as the 2.5 million migrants of the 1930s Dust Bowl left behind ghost towns, so too will those who flee immiserating heat — shrinking the local tax bases for those that do remain.

Ruinous flooding from rising seas and storm surges in coastal cities will be another major catalyst of domestic migration. For over a decade now, scientists and reporters have warned about the hazards facing the populations along the Gulf Coast and South Florida, where significant territory is expected to be continuously flood-prone or underwater within 30 to 50 years.

But several metropolises and smaller coastal communities across the Eastern seaboard and Pacific coast are at considerable risk as well. Changing market perceptions of sustainability underscore that there is a threshold at which rebuilding after a storm of the magnitude of Katrina or Sandy becomes prohibitive even for affluent zip codes and lucrative real estate markets.

A leading indicator of this is in the insurance market, where some of the largest property insurers have started pulling out of zip codes that their modeling has deemed high-risk because they are expected to generate billions in property destruction from fires and floods.

Should previously rare powerful storms and other extreme natural hazards strike regularly, we will likely experience damage to municipal services and infrastructure that leads to ongoing reductions in economic output and escalating social disorder. The subsequent steady retreat of large private investment in goods like housing, commercial facilities, supply chains and financial services for small businesses would make it more difficult to ever regain equilibrium in these places again.

“Government officials should begin evaluating which regions are likely to experience reverse migration or rapid, temporary and extended growth due to shifting notions of ‘climate security.'”

Today’s movements championing mixed-use neighborhood development to address acute urban housing shortages must realize, like local and federal legislators, that an economy dominated by major coastal hubs is unsustainable and, frankly, unwise given already emerging climate threats. These generally laudable goals cannot be pursued in a vacuum.

As with industrial policies in the IRA that aim to reinvest in places left behind in recent decades, proposals to make today’s superstar cities more equitable and more focused on community amenities must take into account the gravest obstacles posed by the climate crisis. In particular, outmigration will permanently hollow out the worst-affected neighborhoods while potentially inundating other nearby cities similarly plagued by inequality with new demands upon already constrained resources.

Any viable solution to the profound pressures of climate migration cannot settle for a system of nearest “safe” havens. To ease the socioeconomic and geographic impacts of displacement, policymakers must commit to reversing the trends of regional inequality that have persisted over the last 30 years.

In short, planned migration must be part of a comprehensive reinvestment strategy for places formerly hit hard by globalization that may now present an opportunity for renewed economic resilience because they are more likely to avoid the worst effects of climate change.

Where Migrants Might Go

Should extreme heat and severe coastal erosion become as prevalent as expected, modeling suggests that cooler regions along the old manufacturing core and Northern farm belts could be suited to helping a national green economy mature.

In the future, these revitalized regions could support denser populations through ambitious investment in high-speed rail, an array of urban cooling strategies and social goods that raise individual and family welfare. Any investment in social goods must encompass universal child care, new medical centers, revamped public schools and research universities, an expanded parks system and a coordinated interstate agenda to achieve “Housing For All.” Such efforts would be a boon to both migrants and existing residents, thereby buttressing planned migration’s political legitimacy.

More specifically, policymakers should survey the interior Northeast and Midwest, as well as the least humid parts of the Upland South, for mid-sized cities and micropolitan areas that could become revitalized sites of economic and civic development. Assuming the U.S. begins to substantially reduce emissions in the next two decades, the high probability of shorter durations of extreme heat in these regions could help steady the national economy, aid efforts toward sustainable agriculture, and preserve, to some degree, familiar societal rhythms.

Well-structured inflows of labor and demand could generate more goods for both local consumption and export, if absorbed by capital and public expenditures that prioritize social needs. Sensing the increasing unsustainability of other regions and the threat of climatic events to their livelihoods, working-class families and entrepreneurs alike would come to associate the Rust Belt with opportunity. But this confidence has to be built by policymakers through bold developmental projects. The region’s fading and derelict engines must be converted into vehicles of collective welfare that allow future generations to advance rather than simply maintain a constricted and impoverished existence.

Many will regard these goals as herculean because of their sheer technical demands. The process of determining migration flows is complicated, moreover, by the chicken and egg problem of regional economic growth. Specifically, how does government enlist people to move to regions it has committed to redeveloping and ensure that such a vision of renewal is actually realized?

At a minimum, a successful system of planned migration must feature easy-to-use transition benefits, such as advanced tax credits, and guarantee high-quality public services for individuals and families willing to resettle; potential migrants must be convinced that the government has spared no reasonable expense to ensure redeveloped zones meet their expectations for comfort and productivity.

In practice, this entails overcoming the narrative of irreversible decline that has plagued much of the Rust Belt and is reflected in demographic trends that militate against facile notions of whatever economic resurgence might be orchestrated.

In the Midwest, the percentage of the population age 65 and older generally rose from 2010 to 2019, and by as much as 60% in certain areas — a demographic inevitability given the region’s failure in most cases to retain or attract prime-age workers and those who want to start families.

The pandemic has also inflicted a clear toll: Since 2020, Ohio and Michigan’s populations have both shrunk by 0.4% and Illinois by 1.8%; in contrast, well over two million people moved to the South during this period. An excessively “business-friendly” growth strategy bereft of amenities or efforts to attract long-term residents and families has further exacerbated the decades-long decline of small postindustrial cities across the Midwest and the greater Northeast.

“Planned migration must be part of a comprehensive reinvestment strategy for places formerly hit hard by globalization that may now present an opportunity for renewed economic resilience.”

Despite these challenges, the relative proximity of several large metro areas with significant potential for more growth suggests new settlement patterns from New England to the upper Midwest could emerge as the climate crisis worsens, making a new set of public and state-steered investments even more prudent.

Those who are skeptical of the scale of a program that combines regional reinvestment with planned migration should also consider the astonishing industrialization of the South in the mid-20th century, which was facilitated in large part by pragmatic leaders who could countenance forms of economic planning — from cornerstones of the New Deal such as the Tennessee Valley Authority and Rural Electrification Act to other federal policies that kickstarted public-private regional development boards, local infrastructure projects and R&D at new technical institutes.

These accomplishments remind us that the only true limits to large-scale economic planning are political. With the right incentives and support — including new home construction — regions from upstate New York to downstate Illinois could be seen less as relics of Fordist growth and more as part of an “industrial commons” essential to the country’s cohesion.

An expansive view of economic planning could, in turn, help avert bottlenecks and ensure climate migration policies support inclusive and intelligently dispersed growth. Large reinvestment zones afford policymakers an opportunity to reduce the stark inequalities between rural and urban areas that have dogged the knowledge economy. Incentives should be tailored to overcome local intransigence, whether in affluent districts or insular depressed areas, that blocks new avenues for growth, fixed investment and economic diversification.

In general, policymakers need to structure different yet complementary types of migration subsidies that compel local authorities and private enterprise to expedite development and meet the collective needs of expanding populations in formerly stagnant areas. From targeted “supply-side” measures and worker retraining programs to generous packages that draw skilled labor to regions suffering a deficit of tradespeople and care work, these programs should be designed to fulfill many of the promises to revitalize the Rust Belt and Northern rural communities that have been deferred since the 1980s.

To be sure, programs that combine redevelopment with mandates to provide security and opportunity to climate migrants will rest on deft negotiations that forge local and regional coalitions in support of the federal government’s objectives. As in past periods of state-led development, planned migration will need more than a semblance of decentralized and democratic decision-making in its initial stages.

Coordination between the federal government, municipalities and regional planning bodies should respond to local population needs and concerns while also steadfastly promoting the establishment of new industry and the integration of newcomers. Widespread environmental literacy must also be promoted in order to prevent fundamental threats to the nation’s food supply like topsoil erosion and groundwater depletion.

Daunting as it sounds, migration policy can be implemented in a manner that appeals to, and revives, what is at present a dormant tradition of civic mobilization. There is a surfeit of towns and small cities desperate for a new raison d’être — an impetus to produce critical goods, attract creative people and play some positive role in the national imagination.

The reciprocity between migration policy and the country’s long-term industrial strategy has enormous potential to provide this and thereby emulate the virtuous cycle of productivity, innovation and rising living standards that drove the second industrial revolution and postwar growth.

Navigating Uncertainties

Regardless of its economic benefits and humanitarian objectives, there is no question planned migration presents many challenges. One looming objection is that inducing a more organized migration in the near future could prematurely depress some local economies decades before they might experience the worst ravages of climate change.

Elected officials in more vulnerable districts may insist they have mitigation strategies sufficient to protect most property and maintain the productivity and safety of their populaces for years to come. And for individuals and families, the personal sacrifice migration requires may not be quantifiable nor convincingly offset by financial aid or other resources provided through official resettlement programs.

As policymakers deploy various carrots and sticks to direct sustainable flows of people, they cannot be deterred by the inevitable resistance they will meet. The very worst-off locales must understand that their sole choice is either a controlled, orderly shutdown that is cushioned by finite federal aid or a chaotic unraveling of societal fabric sans fiscal support.

At the same time, progressive political leaders must recognize how past developmental agendas and economic transitions involved very steep social costs for specific regions and groups to better prepare for the transitions that lie ahead.

“As policymakers deploy various carrots and sticks to direct sustainable flows of people, they cannot be deterred by the inevitable resistance they will meet.”

For example, the manufacturing growth of the Gilded Age entailed a sectional wealth transfer that led to the underdevelopment of the South until the New Deal programs of the 1930s; the deindustrialization of the 1970s especially undercut the upward mobility of Black Americans in the urban North; and the trade shocks of the 1990s and 2000s deprived many formerly unionized and middle-class locales of future paths to prosperity.

Policymakers must take pains to avoid similar inequities but also be forthright about what cannot be undone in the Anthropocene: The trade-offs the country faces are unlike any other experienced during previous eras of rapid transformation.

Simply put, our habitable terrain is inescapably contracting. Ultimately, the human development indices of the U.S. — its educational levels, life-expectancy rates, infant and maternal mortality, improvement in life chances and general protection from disease and indigence — can only progress if the zones of economic activity shift and become more concentrated in the interior Northeast and upper Midwest.

It hardly needs to be said that this vision will require an extraordinary level of political capital and grassroots support. Far beyond anything contemplated during the height of the Cold War — when the threat of nuclear exchange promised to incinerate entire cities — ­­­planned migration proposes an exercise of the state’s infrastructural power and economic authority that has no obvious democratic precedent.

One can imagine vitriolic opposition to planned migration from anti-government conservatives, but also Americans who simply cannot conceive of giving up their local attachments. As every major hurricane or wildfire in recent memory has demonstrated, there are countless, otherwise rational people who refuse to abandon their homes, belongings and pets in the face of impending danger. Convincing them to move when mortal threats are not imminent will involve a bevy of incentives, robust educational campaigns and staggered mandates that clarify the risks of staying behind.

There are other unnerving contingencies to consider. Even the most sophisticated, rigorous and humane policy of planned migration will have to contend with high-risk cities where tenacious populations continue to function at a much-diminished capacity. Ethically, the decision to cut off an ill-fated rural town or suburb from fiscal support is problematic enough. The prospect, a few decades from now, of maintaining pockets of tens or hundreds of thousands of people on economic life support, through government programs like basic income, food subsidies and remedial urban maintenance, could also generate new political grievances and forms of polarization.

To avoid this scenario, while also preventing the Midwest and Northeast from becoming overwhelmed by additional unplanned flows, policymakers will have to strategically accept higher gradations of risk in select Southern and coastal regions and spur more aggressive adaptation strategies within them.

That decision-making process will likewise prove highly contentious given that, in the most extreme cases, planned migration will transform the composition of local districts for elected office and even possibly redistribute congressional power away from the least preservable Sun Belt states.

But federal agencies, in some consultation with climate scientists, Congress and state government delegations, must have the power to set population quotas and order permanent neighborhood evacuations in high-risk zones while also determining which municipalities have the most time to deploy plausible climate mitigation strategies.

The development of small nuclear reactors, the construction of hundreds of cooling centers and an array of inventive, biodiverse “green corridors” and “living shoreline” defenses for the most salvageable cities, comprise a few of the methods that may help preserve local ways of life.

A final and sobering “known unknown” must factor into any system of planned migration: An unexpected turn of events that renders previously optimal zones into new sites of destruction and disorder. Like the rest of the country, the Midwest faces its own profound set of challenges if it does not rapidly implement adaptation strategies that protect agricultural output, support biodiversity and forest management, and limit the heat island effect in key metro areas.

Although some Northern farm regions may experience less hardship under global warming and even see some benefits extend to their harvests, neither the Midwest nor the interior Northeast will be spared from devastating droughts, floods, storms, polar vortices, heatwaves and other threats. Securing the nation’s food supply in these regions through crop diversification and careful ecosystem management will be paramount to any successful resettlement program.

Upgrading the infrastructure of older cities considered prospective “climate havens,” moreover, remains an expensive and time-consuming problem to solve. As the catastrophic flooding in Vermont this past summer illustrates, climate change is rapidly challenging our assumptions about the places expected to be better off in the long run. Even with advanced modeling, our criteria for what makes for safer ground are bound to be unsettled.

“Climate change is rapidly challenging our assumptions about the places expected to be better off in the long-run. Even with advanced modeling, our criteria for what makes for safer ground are bound to be unsettled.”

Visionary policymakers and politicians must therefore recognize there is no new Eden — no perfect solution to the chaos, hunger and loss of work and shelter unfolding. There are only better and worse choices. Among those who reject bold interventions and try to paralyze federal action, many will dissemble about the costs of planned migration while others will cynically invoke the chilling and deadly forced expulsions of World War II as a warning against too much state authority.

Those who resist will do so for a simple reason: The use of positive government actions to coordinate mass climate migration would reshape the country’s entire political economy and would, at last, retire the myths of rugged individualism that impede clear thinking about the crisis at hand. It would base national economic resilience on a more circular and “pre-distributive” model, thereby irrevocably legitimating economic planning along quasi-socialist lines.

These transformations, however, need not extinguish all ideals of self-government. The purpose of planned migration is to not only avoid future untold horrors, but also to invest in citizens; to counter receding borders and lost vistas with new roads toward collective welfare, while upholding, as best as possible, the liberty of humans to pursue their talents and vocations. When such possibilities are juxtaposed with visions of a forbidding world of urban anarchy, mere subsistence and climate apartheid, we have few choices but to propel society forward.

Correction: On Sept. 29, 2023, this essay was edited to make clear that the estimate of at least 13 million Americans who will be forced to migrate from coastal areas could multiply significantly but not by “tens of millions.”