July 30, 2014
Vol: 21 No: 31

Arts & Entertainment

Movement of the people

By Tom Watson / Contributing Writer

Book Review - American Exodus: Climate Change and the Coming Flight for Survival / By Giles Slade

Droughts and superstorms could shift national migration patterns, with the Northwest as a favored destination

Photo by Matt Ulrich / Illustrator

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Climate change will result in mass migrations in North America, similar to those caused by the Dust Bowl in the 1930s. These migrations will lead to conflict. Seattle will be a prime destination for climate migrants, along with other cities in the Pacific Northwest, Alaska and Canada.

Are we surprised? Once we think about this, it seems obvious — and it has already begun. But we can all use a wake-up call when it comes to climate change.

“American Exodus,” a grim and educational new book by Giles Slade, based in Richmond, B.C., provides detailed predictions of these events. He also describes historical precedents and gives insights into how Americans and Canadians could and should respond.
Until recently, I had thought of climate change as primarily an environmental issue. Then I realized it’s also a social justice issue, linked inextricably with wealth inequality. Now, thanks to this book, I understand climate change is also an immigration issue.

Climate change, as manifested by droughts, extreme weather and rising seas, exists beyond a reasonable doubt. In Slade’s view, most climate scientists have been overly cautious in describing potential future threats. “I respect the dedication, training and integrity of people of science,” he writes, “but I prefer to follow my soldier-father’s example of preparing for the worst so that whatever happens, it will come as a more welcome surprise.”

Individuals and families who journey far from their home because of diminishing economic prospects are preparing for the worst and looking for a better life. Many of us who live in the Seattle area have moved here from somewhere else.

But the new wrinkle is that climate change could turbo-charge these migrations. What if you lived in California and the continued drought weighed heavily on you and affected your livelihood? Or you lived in the New York City metro area and your home was damaged by Superstorm Sandy in 2012?

Then in the next couple of years, suppose another devastating storm occurs or the drought worsens, and your regional economy withers. Then let’s say you have a friend or family member in Seattle or your spouse has Canadian citizenship. You know you’d at least think about moving.

“It will take several decades, but the migration I foresee will be definitive,” Slade writes. “The latitude and rains of America’s Northwest Coast, British Columbia and Alaska will present a last hope to desperate people in desperate times. They will come. They will have to.”

It’s entirely possible Seattle will only be an appealing destination for a few decades, if extreme weather, drought, rising oceans or all three begin taking a toll here. Slade mentions Whitehorse in the Yukon Territory and Yellowknife in the Northwest Territories as Canadian cities that could be extremely inviting to move to if the climate drastically changes.

So if we agree this kind of climate change and mass migration could happen, how do we respond now? Making a concerted effort to resist regionalism and racism is a good start. Many of the new climate immigrants looking for opportunity may be Latino, including some without U.S. citizenship.

But no matter where people are from, they must be treated with respect by individuals, governments and organizations. Institutions and safeguards must be maintained or put into place to ensure this. We should help new arrivals, not hate them. We also need to do the same for everyone who’s already here. Yes, that’s obvious too, but it has become far too easy in 21st century America to let our basest instincts take over. 

We also must take more steps to slow down climate change, even though it’s already well underway. Reducing the use of fossil fuels may buy us more time.

We can act individually and collectively to reduce America’s carbon footprint. This also sets an example for the rest of the world and puts the U.S. in a better position to ask others to join with us. We should also assist other nations, since many have much worse potential climate change and migration problems than America. Climate change is a global problem, and America bears significant responsibility.

Although I was glad I read this book and learned more about climate change and previous climate-related migrations, I can’t unequivocally recommend “American Exodus.” It seemed more like a long magazine article that got stretched into a book, and not quite enough care went into the writing and editing.

I’m sure this topic was difficult to write about. Scaring people about climate migration could easily do more harm than good and, to his credit, Slade did not play to people’s fears or sensationalize.

Positive actions, not fear, must be the response to climate change and the resulting migrations. We still have time to make a difference.

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