The record heat wave that the Pacific Northwest is experiencing right now, where Portland has reached an all-time high of 116 degrees Fahrenheit, Seattle has hit its own record of 108 degrees, and the southwestern Canadian locality of Lytton hit 117.5 degrees (48 degrees higher than what’s normal for this time of year) confirms an unnerving reality about the position that we on this continent are going to be in amid the climate crisis: even the places where climate migrants will initially relocate to are themselves going to be unsafe.
Last year, environmental reporter Abrahm Lustgarten wrote about the options that the first wave of climate migration are going to have:
The nation’s federal flood-insurance program is for the first time requiring that some of its payouts be used to retreat from climate threats across the country. It will soon prove too expensive to maintain the status quo. Then what? One influential 2018 study, published in The Journal of the Association of Environmental and Resource Economists, suggests that one in 12 Americans in the Southern half of the country will move toward California, the Mountain West or the Northwest over the next 45 years because of climate influences alone. Such a shift in population is likely to increase poverty and widen the gulf between the rich and the poor. It will accelerate rapid, perhaps chaotic, urbanization of cities ill-equipped for the burden, testing their capacity to provide basic services and amplifying existing inequities. It will eat away at prosperity, dealing repeated economic blows to coastal, rural and Southern regions, which could in turn push entire communities to the brink of collapse.
This doesn’t even fully account for the 60 million U.S. residents who live in the coastline areas that are most vulnerable to hurricanes. Out of these residents, 13 million are confidently expected to become displaced by the end of the century, many of whom are anticipated to move to the Midwest — which itself will experience massive declines in agricultural yields due to warming and crop diseases. The Mountain West is also not going to be safe; quoting the National Climate Assessment, Northeast resident Zoya Teirstein has written that “Our region is looking at ‘the largest temperature increase in the contiguous United States’ — 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit by the time 2035 rolls around. We’re going to be slammed with the highest rates of sea-level rise in the whole damn country, and we’re going to have the highest rate of ocean warming. Urban centers are particularly at risk (remember Superstorm Sandy?).”
For perspective on just how destructive this process is going to be for the country as a whole, look at what this will likely mean for my community along the Redwood Coast. Since my area is so temperate due to its proximity to the ocean, and since water is relatively abundant here due to the region’s mountain ranges, it’s unlikely that I’ll be forced to flee anywhere during my lifetime, at least for weather-related reasons. It’s estimated that under a high-emissions scenario, my area will only be stuckwith a nearly 55 degree Fahrenheit temperature average by the end of the century. But while the temperatures themselves won’t force anyone in my community to get out, and the area has tribal and corporate-built power stations that will make its residents for the most part exempt from the country’s larger blackouts, numerous other factors will drive my surroundings into chaos.
The impacts that we’ll see, such as the inundation of around a third of the town of Arcata when the sea level rises by 1 meter or the fact that many sections of our highways will also be submerged at such a point, are going to be made very difficult for us to adapt to by the destabilizing factors within society that Lustgarten described. Since our area is relatively safe in terms of temperature and water access, and since this range of relative safety stops so close to where I live (there’s a town in the Central Valley whose residents are currently being forced to either live off of bottled water or stay with relatives), we could see a great influx of climate refugees.
Our area’s infrastructure and housing are built to accommodate the over 130,000 or so who make up Humboldt County’s present population, so what will happen if just several hundred thousand relocate to here? How easy will it be for us to feed ourselves and these refugees when agriculture in the outside world has collapsed, as is increasingly occurring in the Central Valley amid unprecedented depletions of reservoirs? How will we find the resources to solve this humanitarian crisis after neoliberal shock policies have wreaked far greater havoc upon our economy than they have even now? Decline in affordable housing is already a problem with California that’s multiplying the humanitarian fallout from climatic disasters. And since global warming’s impacts are estimated to be soon to create the largest upward transfer of wealth in U.S. history, our economic situation in this scenario is indeed going to be dire. How well will we fare while we’re being hit by the pandemics of the coming decades, which scientists predict will be more deadly than Covid-19 due to the increased disease risks posed by warming temperatures?
What’s alarming is that this is one of the lower-risk areas when it comes to being impacted by the climate crisis. Just outside my little temperate zone — which is itself experiencing an unprecedented decrease in rainfall levels — the question is no longer whether or not society can manage the impacts of the climate crisis, but for how long the land itself will remain habitable. The California Natural Resources Agency has written that:
By the year 2100, if greenhouse gas emissions continue to rise, one study found that the average area burned by wildfires would increase 77 percent and the frequency of extreme wildfires burning more than 25,000 acres would increase by nearly 50 percent. In the areas that have the highest fire risk, the cost of wildfire insurance is estimated to rise by 18 percent by 2055…By mid-century, the Central Valley is projected to experience heat waves that average two weeks longer than those today, and the hot spells could occur four to 10 times more often in the Northern Sierra region.
As millions upon millions of people within these zones leave, the places they settle in will not just undergo social collapses as a consequence. They’ll also experience even worse environmental damages. Oregon resident Elise Herron wrote two years ago that “Fire counts are already up in the region. As of late June, AP News reported, the number of fires in western Oregon, 48, was double the average for the past decade, 20. At the same time, cities are increasingly creeping closer to forests. Western Washington and northwest Oregon combined contain around 1,400 square miles of forest-edge development.” What will happen in these kinds of urban areas when they experience the rapid urbanization that Lustgarten describes? A perfect storm of humanitarian crises.
They’ll be overcome by the series of destabilizing factors that a 2016 Pentagon training video described as “criminal networks,” “substandard infrastructure,” “religious and ethnic tensions,” “impoverishment, slums,” “open landfills, over-burdened sewers,” and a “growing mass of unemployed.” In response to these and other social ills, say this training video, a 2016 War College report, and a 2019 Pentagon document, the military is going to have to step in. According to the latter resource, the country will likely experience unprecedented blackouts within the next two decades due to how poorly our electrical infrastructure is built under neoliberalism, speeding up the process towards this importing of America’s foreign wars.
The Army, say the first two of these resources, will be prompted to occupy the country’s largest cities. Human intelligence assets and digital surveillance will be used to monitor those within these places and pick off political dissidents. To ensure that the Army’s actions within these zones can be presented to the country as justified, says the War College report, internet and cell phone access will have to be cut off within the occupied areas to prevent reporting on “controversy over US military intervention.”
The impoverished and desperate masses will be met with horrific warfare tactics from the hyper-militarized police, the military itself, and private mercenary companies that serve as paramilitaries in the coming class war. These tactics, which the American internal security state has lifted directly from Israel’s Gaza siege model, will show the masses within U.S. borders how much their government really cares about them. On top of the cruel neoliberal policies that have strangulated their communities amid the environmental collapse, this is going to discredit the capitalist state’s claim to legitimacy, opening the door for an anti-colonial proletarian revolution in the core of global imperialism.
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