Washington demographers are concerned about climate change — they are the scientists who study population trends and publish the state’s annual population forecast.
Specifically because climate is a people mover. Across the U.S., about 1.3% of the population reported displacement in the past year by natural disasters; some hot-spot states like Louisiana and Florida suffered 6.6% and 4.4%, respectively, of their total population displaced in the past year.
Globally, those numbers rise substantially among the most climate-vulnerable nations. Millions from particularly vulnerable nations like Bangladesh and South Sudan have fled their homes in recent years, with climate change as a contributing factor.
While this dilemma is already at our doorstep, demographers don’t yet understand how to account for it when determining where people are going, whether within state lines or across them.
“[Climate change] is an unprecedented event,” said Rob Kemp, a senior data scientist for Washington’s Office of Financial Management. The way that his office forecasts population trends is in part retrospective, he said. Meaning, the climate issue isn’t in their wheelhouse. Climate change is relatively new and rather unpredictable, unlike economic drivers that demographers often look toward.
“We don’t have anything that we can look back on that easily gives us a view of what the future is,” said Kemp. “And a lot of demographic and economic modeling requires some level of relying on the past for clues about the future.”
That knowledge gap is a problem because it makes it difficult for agencies across Washington to properly plan for the future. Put plainly, areas where the population is expected to grow need more funding, services and housing, while areas with less expected growth need less. Miscalculating that balance could instigate costly growing pains that Kemp said are hard to recover from.
Eastern Washington’s agricultural sector is one area that is front and center for Kemp and his office when it comes to climate-affected migration trends.
“A huge question mark is … how is agriculture affected,” Kemp said. “Because that’s a huge economic driver for, geographically, an enormous part of the state.”
Depending on climate’s impact, the eastern portion of the state could see a major and abnormal decline in seasonal migration, one that is going to be very difficult to definitively project. However, western population hubs like Seattle are planning for continued growth, but so far those considerations don’t explicitly incorporate scenarios of climate displacement from other regions of the U.S.
Seattle’s Office of Planning and Community Development (OPCD) tackles the city’s growth outlook through its Comprehensive Plan, which is currently undergoing its scheduled 10-year update. When asked if and how the uncertainty surrounding national climate displacement affects her office’s thinking, communications manager Seferiana Day said OPCD is leaning toward overshooting any housing and population goals it sets to meet the challenge.
“That uncertainty, which could mean greater population growth in the future, is one reason why our comprehensive plan update now emphasizes housing abundance as a key goal,” said Day. “Seattle generally approaches comprehensive planning from the perspective that we need to provide more housing capacity than our [Office of Financial Management]/Countywide Planning Policies (CPP) targets indicate.”
In its current form, the Comprehensive Plan considers the impacts of climate on neighborhoods but not the prospect of growth or decline tied to climate displacement. As a note, the plan’s update is currently behind OPCD’S established schedule that expected a draft in May of this year — OPCD said they do not yet have a release date.
With the effects of climate change diffusing unequally throughout the nation, some regions may become more habitable than others. But that’s hard to decipher. Is wildfire season more tolerable than hurricane season? Drought more livable than inundation? In states like Florida, California and Louisiana, some insurance companies have wholly withdrawn, leaving residents to foot the bill for natural disasters. And for many, it may become too financially risky to live in some parts of the country entirely.
Politics also comes into play. Local governments could enact adaptation measures to stem displacement if they have the support and financial backing to do so. They also need adequate research and guidance, a challenge faced nationwide. These factors all influence where and why people move.
Climate change will still affect the Pacific Northwest, giving the area whiplash dry and wet years, as well as frequent and severe wildfires and compromised ecosystems. However, relative to other states, those challenges may be preferable.
Solely in terms of sea level rise, maps of the Southeastern Atlantic and Gulf Coasts will be effectively redrawn in less than 80 years under an “intermediate scenario” presented by a recent U.S. interagency study. Despite this, Florida, which is particularly vulnerable to sea level rise, is the fastest-growing state by population according to 2022 U.S. Census data.
Add in frequent and intensifying storms in the Southeast and the economic toll of reconstruction, coupled with insurance companies backing out and a mountain of other climate-related factors, and you have a recipe for significant climate displacement. How that takes shape — where people go and how many — is unclear.
The push to understand climate displacement is a national one. Earlier this year, Congressmember Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-Washington, D.C.) sent a letter urging the Biden administration to establish an interagency workgroup on climate migration. The letter calls for the White House to fulfill its own recommendations from a 2021 study that expressed deep concern about the nation’s limited understanding of the issue. Forty-six members of Congress signed onto Rep. Norton’s letter, including Washington state Reps. Adam Smith (D) and Pramila Jayapal (D).
For now, Washington’s Office of Financial Management does not expect a major population reshuffling to place unprecedented strain on the state. But the topic is absolutely on their minds and in their research, according to Kemp.
“From a forecasting perspective, we’re actively working on how we incorporate understandings of uncertainty into our forecast,” said Kemp.
“What we can do is say, ‘Here’s the range of possibilities.’”
Devin Speak is a climate and environmental journalist whose work has appeared in NPR.
Read more of the Oct. 18-24, 2023 issue.