A Green New City Plan? How Local Governments Should Plan For Climate Refugees

Shantal Pai 

Politicians, especially democratic presidential candidates, are competing to release the best “Green New Deal.” These proposals are national-scale climate plans that are meant to reduce carbon emissions to mitigate the impact of climate change. But, as these plans are released, a difficult reality remains: we may be less than one year away from irreversible changes to the climate.

Regardless of which Green New Deal eventually becomes United States Law (and one will—because climate change grows more undeniable each day), in addition to a climate mitigation plan, the U.S. and its cities need a climate adaptation plan: a way to survive in the new reality.

At the point of no return (2 C average warming, worldwide) the most inhabited regions of the world will face extremely hot temperatures, dramatic weather events including storms, flooding and drought, and sea-level rise. Though some regions have developed strategies to mitigate these damages—  such as a proposed levee surrounding Manhattan—the best possible solution may be to move threatened communities to higher, cooler ground.

So, in addition to national-scale plans, local governments in communities that will be attractive in our post-industrial climate, places like Minneapolis, Cincinnati, Buffalo, and Denver, should prepare. They need to be ready for a large influx of refugees from the coast looking for a secure future.

If Hurricane Katrina serves as an example, the first people to move permanently inland will not be the predominately white, wealthy residents of the city, but working-class residents and people of color. There are two reasons for this: (1) racially discriminatory housing practices mean people of color are most likely to face flooding and storm damage and (2) these groups are least likely to get government aid after a flood.

There has been a similar trend after Hurricane Dorian. Since the Trump Administration declined to grant temporary protected status to Bahamians fleeing uninhabitable conditions after the storm, many victims are fleeing with visas that will allow them to live in the U.S., but not to work. Many of these people will be staying with family in the United States while the Bahamas rebuilds, increasing demand for U.S. services while they are unable to contribute to local government revenue because they cannot earn an income.

Such a large influx of low and middle-income residents could wreak havoc on an unprepared regional plan. The people fleeing climate change need quick access to affordable housing, schools, and city resources, often at disproportionately high levels. At a city level, places with affordable housing already struggle to generate the revenue necessary to provide these services. In cities where property values are lower, the potential for a city to raise revenue from property taxes is lower. A massive influx of people fleeing climate change would further strain already deeply stressed city budgets.

Furthermore, a large influx of people of color often leads to “white flight”—an en masse departure of white people to nearby, more affluent cities—which deepens regional segregation and inequity.

The two combined lead to downward spirals in which the number of people of color in a community grows, leading to the departure of white people, causing property values to fall because there aren’t enough people of color who can afford to move into the neighborhood, which reduces a city’s ability to generate revenue while simultaneously leading to an influx of low-income people who are more likely to rely on city services. This phenomenon discourages building affordable housing, makes it hard for struggling cities to generate revenue, and maintains racial and economic segregation.

Strategic regional planning can combat these tendencies but needs to happen more aggressively than ever before as climate change amplifies existing inequality. First and foremost, the regions that will be most attractive to climate refugees need to encourage the development of affordable housing throughout the metropolitan area. Spreading the cost of supporting climate refugees across the region prevents any one city from being saddled with the expense of providing services and the inability to raise sufficient revenue.

Second, cities should desegregate school systems. In Louisville, Kentucky, a system to desegregate schools reduced white flight. The desegregation promoted stable housing prices and tax revenue, making it easier for cities to plan for the future.

Third, regions should build more public spaces than otherwise anticipated, in ways that avoid displacing existing poor and minority communities. Spaces like theaters, libraries, schools, and public transit will all face increased demand as new residents become acquainted with the region. These spaces increase property value, encourage wellbeing, and further reduce white flight, all of which help break the downward spiral of city revenue generation caused by white flight.

None of these solutions will prevent inequality, and refugees escaping climate change face extremely difficult challenges in relocating. But, by planning for climate refugees, local governments can help mitigate the effects of climate change on segregation.