How ‘Climate Migrants’ Are Roiling American Politics

“Hurricane Maria … was a relocation of Puerto Ricans to central Florida,” said Fernando Rivera, director of the Puerto Rican Research Center at the University of Central Florida. Now, “We are seeing leadership growth [of Puerto Ricans]. ”

The concept of climate migration – population shifts forced by devastating climate changes – has been studied for years. But most Americans still think of it as something happening elsewhere, or a future doomsday scenario about people flocking to North Dakota to escape harsh weather along the coasts. But experts say this is already happening in more subtle ways, forcing people to take steps as dramatic as the influx of Puerto Ricans into Central Florida and as mundane as people in Virginia’s tidal waters choose one county over another to live in to avoid a potential flood plain.

But as evidenced by Gonzalez’s election, such changes are significant enough to start a scramble on the political map, with experts predicting the ripple effect of the changes to come.

Carlos Martin, David M. Rubinstein on the Brookings Institution’s Metro Program: “We’re Seeing It Now.” “It is not a managed retreat, it is an unmanaged retreat. Any demographic change usually leads to a political change.”

The effects vary, from a quarter of a million Louisians who fled New Orleans, mostly to Texas, after Hurricane Katrina, with 40,000 that kept bringing more non-white and Democratic voters into former conservative districts; to the influx of people fleeing the California wildfires who ended up in Chico, California, sparking a political backlash from local residents.

Now, as climate change fuels more powerful hurricanes, causes sharper rises in sea levels and fuels ever-increasing wildfires, researchers expect “climate change” to become progressively more powerful force to alter political currents.

Tracing a migration path due to climate can be more difficult than tracking a storm. Analysts combed through IRS tax returns and cell phone bills to determine where people who have left areas affected by climate-related disasters are staying in new homes. But they were able to piece together enough data to conclude that climate migration is indeed driving population change.

“What we can say is that while the number of people moving due to environmental disasters is small, it is increasing and responding to disaster events,” said Elizabeth Fossell, associate professor of population, environment and society studies at Brown University. “This disaster-related mobility is responding to these very large crises, and these very large crises are on the rise. The trend is towards more disasters.”

But it does not require a massive catastrophe of weather concerns to change the political map. For example, Fossil’s research shows that population growth patterns are becoming more responsive to environmental change, with the higher interior of the Hampton Roads growing faster than the lower, resulting in neighborhood-wide shifts in the economic makeup of one of the more conservative regions. Virginia regions.

Most people who move out of their homes in fear of climate change, like Hampton Roads and Virginia Beach, try to stay close to their former homes, researchers said. This keeps them at a commute distance between their jobs and enables their children to stay in familiar schools.

But even relatively short moves can create political turmoil. About 37,000 people lived in the 240 square miles ravaged by the infamous Camp Fire in 2018, which burned for more than two weeks to become the most devastating wildfire in California history. California State University, Chico, used postal data to track 13,000 adults in the area and found that a third of those people — many with families — drove 20 miles south and west to Chico within six months of the fire.

Immigration added thousands of new voters to Chico, whose population has ballooned from about 93,000 to more than 111,000 in the three years since the fire, according to city records. But it also sparked a growing sense of panic among longer-term residents. Karl Urey watched the fallout first hand. He was one of five liberals on the seven-seat nonpartisan city council when the influx began. In the following election, in which he was not a candidate for re-election, a conservative bloc overturned three Liberal seats. By the time he resigned soon after, he outnumbered the Liberal Conservatives by 6-1.

The governors were motivated in part by the new PAC, Citizens for a Safe Chico, which has spent more than $250,000 to draw attention to increased homelessness and chaos in the real estate market, among other issues.

“If you want to stop the illegal camps and fires that come with it, vote” for the conservative candidates for the board of directors, the PA declared on its Facebook page, amid images of parks littered with rubbish.

“People were upset,” Ori recalls. “It changed their whole lives. The opposition took advantage of that. We had more and more people coming to [City Council] meetings. So annoying, so abusive, he blames us for everything.”

The Liberals felt that the PAC was a scapegoat for the fire refugees, but denied any such motive. Citizens for Safe Chico, who did not respond to requests for comment, continue to call for crackdowns on the city’s homeless population. On its Facebook page, the group described the idea that the exodus of Camp Fire refugees played any role in its campaign as an “insult.”

“Political activists have invested heavily in concealing the failures of the old regime trying to deviate,” PAC leaders said on its website. “They want you to believe that under the tarps in Bidwell Park lie the victims of Camp Fire and locals who simply went through hard times. They want you to believe that the new city council is tough, and they want to prevent the council from fulfilling its promise of enforcement against professional transients. If you ask me, those who protect the legacy of The failing old system is promoting a toxic level of empathy.”

Similar complaints have emerged in other areas that have seen an influx of wildfire victims in California – including Treasure Valley in southwestern Idaho.

Katie McConnell, a doctoral student in environmental sociology at Yale School of the Environment who researches the influx of Californians into Idaho to escape wildfires, said the area, which includes Boise, was already seeing an influx of Golden State residents looking for cheaper housing. But as climate change worsened drought conditions and increased the frequency of wildfires in California, many families headed north to Idaho.

The level of damage that occurs routinely [by fire] It’s just fundamentally different than it was five or six years ago,” McConnell said.

At least 70 families have moved from the area devastated by the campfire within six months after the fire to Idaho’s Treasure Valley area around Boise, according to data from California State University, Chico. McConnell said that many residents of the area did not accept it. McConnell said “California Sucks” graffiti is painted on highway bridges and anti-immigration attitudes are growing in local politics.

A recent Boise State University survey found that the vast majority of respondents believed that the biggest problem facing Idaho—the seventh least densely populated state in the country—is that it has been growing too fast.

“It’s an interesting thing that happens when you talk to people about Californian arrivals,” McConnell said. “If you talk to a politically liberal person, they will complain about all the wealthy conservatives moving from Orange County to Idaho. If you talk to a politically conservative Idaho, they will complain about all the wealthy liberals moving from the Gulf to Idaho.”

However, not all of these movements cause friction. Researchers tracking the crowd of people who fled Puerto Rico to Central Florida in the wake of Hurricane Maria said there was little evidence of any backlash directed at the newcomers.

Hurricane Maria, a Category 5 hurricane that gained strength amid warm waters in the Gulf of Mexico, hit Puerto Rico with more than three feet of rain in 24 hours and destroyed much of its infrastructure. In the months following the 2017 storm, about 133,000 islanders headed to the United States. The mainland, according to data collected by the Puerto Rican Research Center at the University of Central Florida. Those who made it to Florida were easily assimilated into a community that already had a strong network of former islanders living in the area.

Rivera, of the Puerto Rico Research Center, said the population shift after Hurricane Maria was enough to catapult Florida after New York as the state hosts the largest number of former island residents. Rivera said both Democrats and Republicans view the newcomers as potential supporters.

You can see both Democrats and Republicans saying, ‘What are we going to do? Rivera said. “you have [President Joe] Biden is coming to Tampa, Kissimmee. There was great communication by both political parties.”

Rivera added that Puerto Ricans who decided to stay in Florida permanently are now beginning to flex their political muscle.

“Now in places like Osceola County, you have more representation, you have the mayor of Puerto Rico, you have the first president in Puerto Rico in Orange County, you have school board leaders being elected,” he said. “And so, you’re starting to see sort of those changes in representation, especially for Puerto Ricans, here more and more.”

This year’s Hurricane Ida, a Category 4 storm that once again hit Puerto Rico, sent thousands of islanders fleeing to Florida. Carlos Torrealba, director of the Climate Justice Program at Central Florida Jobs with Justice, a nonprofit that advocates for workers’ rights, emphasized that the constant influx of new arrivals has stressed the area’s already aging infrastructure, putting some new political issues on the area’s agenda.

Many people from Puerto Rico have found jobs in the region’s tourism industry. But they were surprised by the low payroll jobs, particularly with regard to the high cost of living in the Orlando area.

“You come here, you move somewhere else because of climate change, and then it gets bad because of wages and lack of benefits,” Torrealba said. “Puerto Rico has better labor laws than Florida. They come in here and say, ‘What is this, is this legal?’ Then they join the union.”

Sofia Ortiz was one of them. She had spent her life in Puerto Rico, most recently working as a legal aid. Hurricane Maria actually spared her home, but the resulting power outage killed local businesses and forced her and her partner to move to Florida in search of work.

“I was so lucky to be able to stay with my partner’s family” in Deltona, Ortiz said. She remembered that others escaping from Maria were worse off: “Some of them had to live in motels or cars. It was crazy.”

Then Ortiz and her partner set out on their own, and moved to Orlando, where she worked as a housekeeper at Disney World. And while she was there, she became more interested in the issue of climate change, she said. She was also tired of her working conditions and joined Unite Here Local 737, the union that represents service workers at Disney World and other tour operators in the area. It eventually became a syndicate organizer.

Ortiz traveled with Etihad to attend the United Nations climate conference this fall in Glasgow, Scotland. She said their goal is to raise the issue of climate migration.

“This is our problem,” she said. “It is something that happens every year. We need to discuss what to do with people. We need to hear ideas and offer solutions.”

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