Firebird Journal

Survival and Renewal in the Anthropocene

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Oregon’s (and America’s) coming internal climate refugee crisis

Hungry Attribution: Jeremy Brooks, 2007 — Courtesy Flickr CC (Creative Commons)

This is the second post in a two-part series on climate migration. Read post #1.

“We can’t deter people fleeing for their lives. They will come.” ~ Antonio Guterres, Secretary-General of the United Nations

When my wife and I moved to Oregon from California about 18 years ago, I predicted that we would be among the first of a large wave of “economic migrants” coming here. My reasoning was that a significant segment of California’s population would reach retirement age about 10 to 15 years after we arrived. Like us, they would realize they could sell their California house and, if they owned it outright, pay cash for an equivalent but much cheaper house in Oregon, and bank the difference.

These financially secure retirees wouldn’t burden Oregon’s social services, though they might cause something of a labor shortage as they frequented restaurants and medical facilities. All in all, their presence would strengthen the local economy, even if it did increase crowding.

Today, I see evidence of that increased crowding all around the state in the forms of burgeoning suburbs and other new construction, and I hear long-established Oregonians complaining about the typical impacts of growth — longer lines, harder parking, higher fees. But the sad truth is, those established residents “ain’t seen nothin’ yet.”

In my last post, Most of the climate refugees roaming the U.S. will be U.S. citizens, I described how the overpopulated and drought-stricken Southwest is on the cusp of a full-blown water crisis. Much of the region’s agricultural and economic activity will have to be abandoned, starting soon, and thousands or even millions of people will be forced to migrate to greener pastures, many of them to the Pacific Northwest. Going north through California, which will be increasingly inhospitable due to drought and the high cost of living there, their first stop will likely be Oregon.

And unlike the self-sufficient or readily employable economic migrants who have come here in recent years, many of these climate refugees will have lost their home’s equity in a real-estate market that’s collapsing because of the drought, and, as their numbers in Oregon swell, will find diminishing employment prospects.

In 2020, a U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development study estimated that there were 14,655 people “experiencing homelessness” in Oregon. While that’s a relatively small number compared to those of larger states, it still places Oregon, with its population of just 4.25 million, in America’s top three states for per capita homelessness.

A 2020 city government estimate put the homeless population of Portland, Oregon’s largest city, at 3,800 people. That figure is likely higher now due to the pandemic and, most important, the shortage of affordable housing throughout Oregon. (Oregon’s housing is cheap, compared to California’s, but expensive relative the state’s overall economy — how much money is available to the less affluent for purchasing or renting a home. This disparity will worsen as more people intentionally move into, or, due to their circumstances, seek shelter within the state.)

City, state and federal funds provided $51 million to support Portland’s homeless in 2020. Looking ahead, we should ask how much that support would cost if an influx of climate refugees increased the city’s homeless population by a conservative estimate of, say, fivefold by 2035. For that matter, how much would similar climate migrations cost the nation as a whole? In a decade or two, we may be able to subsidize only a small portion of the growing homeless population, leaving most homeless destitute and trying to forage for themselves — “by hook or by crook,” as the old saying goes.

While Oregon’s homeless population grows, its stock of housing, especially affordable housing, is not keeping up with the demand from people who can afford to buy, or at least rent a home. According to an Oregon Homebuilders Association report, there was a statewide demand backlog of 110,000 homes in 2021, and 30,000 homes would need to be built annually in order to keep up with projected growth — that is, pre-climate-migration projected growth. (The current demand is driven mostly by economically-secure incoming migrants, as Oregon’s internal population actually shrank slightly in 2021 due to pandemic deaths and low birth rates.) At the time of the report, an average of only 20,000 homes were built annually over the past five years. Ominously, Oregon has also lost 4,000 homes to climate-exacerbated wildfires in that time span. (Although Oregon and the Pacific Northwest are relatively wet parts of the country, they have experienced drought — almost certainly exacerbated by climate change — in the past few years. Witness the more than 1,500 wildfires, some massive in scale, that flared in British Columbia in 2021 alone.)

These are some of the conditions that will greet American-citizen, internal climate migrants when they arrive in Oregon. How many will come, and how soon they’ll arrive, is uncertain. But given the conditions in today’s Southwest, it’s certainly not too soon to start thinking about how to plan for climate migration in Oregon and across the country.


Editor’s Note: A version of this article appeared previously in other publications as part of an ongoing series called “Your Ecological House,” written by Philip S. Wenz, the publisher of Firebird Journal.

This is the second post in a two-part series on climate migration. Read post #1.

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Books by Philip S. Wenz

Your Ecological House is a homeowner and designer’s guide to creating a “home ecosystem,” an integrated habitat that conserves and produces energy, reduces waste and produces food and other goods.

This upcoming book discussed three possible futures — ” bad,” “good,” and “likely” — for the planet and humanity in the Anthropocene.

Read the Synopsis.