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It's Not the End of the World 

Why planning and resilience trump panic and retreat


As climate change becomes a more pressing reality than looming threat, those still sitting pretty are starting to take note of the devastating impacts of changes in weather patterns across the globe. As close to home as Alaska, the first domestic so-called "climate refugees" are grappling with the fact that the land they've called home is increasingly being swept out to sea.

NPR reports that in Newtok—a native Alaskan village of about 350 people—the nearby Ninglick River is rising so rapidly due to ice melt that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers predicts the town's high point could be entirely submerged by 2017. And while the Deschutes River is more likely to reduce in flow than flood, severe drought in California or Central Oregon could send people packing.

To find out how climate-related migration might impact the region, we talked to Portland State University Urban Studies and Planning Professor Ethan Seltzer, whose students in 2011 produced a report titled "Environmental Migrants and the Future of the Willamette Valley." The takeaway from Seltzer's remarks? That no matter what the still-uncertain future may hold, Central Oregonians are better served by smart planning that bunker building.

Source Weekly: Do you anticipate that, even if we experience some measure of drought and increased wildfires, we might still be a destination for people in worse affected areas (i.e. California)?

Ethan Seltzer: It's all relative. People live where they do for a range of reasons, but for the most part, they choose where they want to be. Choosing to leave is a big step, and it would take either a catastrophe of some sort, or the elimination of something they really like where they are to get them to start to think about moving. And then, where they move could be anywhere, not just Oregon. So, if things get really bad in California, then yes, even with local droughts up here, we'll probably see folks coming. But, in the absence of a real catastrophe in California, it likely won't be a tidal wave of migration.

SW: There's been speculation that when The Big One (earthquake) finally hits, Oregonians living west of the Cascades will flood Central and Eastern Oregon. Do you have a sense of the relative timelines for The Big One and for the degree of climate change likely to inspire migration to Oregon? How might one affect the other, and which is likely to happen first?

ES: If I knew the answer to this question, I'd probably also know the winning numbers for Power Ball. And again, if Western Oregon falls into the Ocean, western Oregonians will go many places, not just or exclusively or maybe at all to eastern Oregon.

SW: How can Central Oregonians prepare for the likelihood of climate-related migration, whether they are planning to flee or expecting an influx?

ES: The best thing that could happen is to think through what folks want their communities to be like should they grow due to climate-induced migration in the decades ahead. That is, what makes a community a better version of what it is today? What would you put in place to try to realize that vision rather than something else? And, what can be done now to make sure that water supplies and other needed infrastructure can be built to implement the desired vision, rather than simply waiting to see what descends? Bottom line: Plan for what you want and for resilience, and that will be about the best you can do.

SW: Is there anything else you'd like to add?

ES: There will be a tomorrow. The world is not coming to an end. But, the world we'll live in in the future will be different than the one we know today. This is a time not to try to defeat or stave off change, but to sharpen our focus on what makes a good place, and to redouble our efforts to move in that direction. It'll be about working with change to sustain core values, if that makes sense. Fundamentally, it's like crossing a river: you have to work with the current or you will surely drown.

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