How Can Cities Prepare for Climate Migration

Cities need to be part of a global conversation about climate migration. With the help of new technologies, they might be able to tackle serious issues such as the integration of newcomers.

08/17/2021
5 minutes
Zuzana Pison

According to the 2018 World Bank study, within 30 years, more than 140 million people will relocate due to the effects of climate change. These communities will move to seek food and water security, escape natural disasters such as floods, hurricanes, and droughts, and flee from outbreaks of infectious diseases.

As most migrants will relocate to cities, mayors need to brace up for this major challenge. They will have to deal with housing shortages, create new jobs, and expand healthcare and education services for the swelling population. They will also have to address an increased cultural diversity. As new settlers are often subject to hate and racism, a large inflow of migrants can lead to tensions between them and the local population.

Climate Havens

Thanks to a particular set of geographical pre-conditions, some cities can become ‘climate havens’ for climate refugees.  These cities have access to fresh water, are sufficiently far away from the seaside, and have an adequate height above sea level.  They also have a colder climate at the moment, which will eventually become only a little warmer.

“If you’re a Duluth (Minnesota), or a Buffalo (New York) or a Burlington (Vermont), there’s an opportunity,” said Professor Keenan from Harvard, an expert on climate change adaptation. These cities have all it takes to remain safe and livable places even after the effects of climate change hit less fortunate locations.

According to the 2018 World Bank study, within 30 years, more than 140 million people will relocate due to the effects of climate change.

An upsurge of new inhabitants could also serve as a boost for cities trying to revamp their economies. This is the case of Buffalo, the so-called rust-belt city.  In 2019, the mayor Byron Brown declared that the city would become a ‘climate change refuge.’ The city suffered due to the decline of its once-powerful manufacturing sector and is now looking for ways to get its economy back on track. There is hope that climate refugees could revive Buffalo, along with green energy programs prepared by the municipality.

“If people move there, there’s an opportunity to revitalize by accessing funding for development that maybe they wouldn’t have been able to before,”  said Vittoria Zanuso, Executive Director of the Mayors Migration Council.

Climate Change Casualties

Today, the Arctic region is experiencing some of the most visible effects of climate change. Over the past two decades, temperatures in the area have increased about twice as fast as in the rest of the world. Alaska’s native population living along the coast is particularly vulnerable to the effect of climate change, as the coastline is quickly eroding.

Most of the relocation from these rural regions is expected to be handled by the Municipality of Anchorage,  Alaska’s largest community. The local government is therefore trying to boost migrant inclusion as much as possible. They are doing so through language training, new transport paths to connect newcomers with their homes and work, and by helping them find suitable careers.

In 2020,  30 cyclones devastated entire regions in Central America, which fueled emigration.

As natural disasters driven by hotter and drier climates are likely to gain strength, migration from Central America is also likely to grow. In 2020,  30 cyclones devastated entire regions in Central America, which fueled emigration. Researchers at ProPublica projected that by 2050, 30 million migrants could come to the U.S. from Central America.

Federal & Local Action

As the costs of disaster relief rise, governments are slowly stepping up their game. In 2020, the U.S. Federal Emergency Management Agency launched a $500 million fund to finance projects mitigating climate risks in endangered areas. One of the methods includes relocating entire communities, which is already happening in Louisiana and Alaska.

While most of the action depends on the federal migration policies, there are some things U.S. cities can do to get ready. Physical infrastructure in the form of affordable housing and renewed transport routes will be a must. An even bigger challenge might be the psychological barriers. Just as locals will have to adjust to receiving newcomers, the incoming population might struggle with new cultures and languages. To help address this, cities can develop innovative ways to provide interpretation and translation services and help newcomers learn the local language.

Simplicity is a smart communication platform for municipalities and residents that can, among other things,  help overcome language barriers. The app allows residents to get information from their city in their preferred language. Today, the language options include English and Spanish and can therefore help the U.S. cities with the integration of Spanish-speaking newcomers.

Policy Manoeuvres

Climate migration is slowly but surely becoming a hot issue in the international political arena. In February 2021, President Biden issued an executive order to map out “climate change and its impact on migration, including forced migration, internal displacement, and planned relocation.”

In response, Mayor of Los Angeles Eric Garcetti, along with other mayors, issued a letter to the U.S. government, asking them to allow cities to shape the US agenda concerning climate migration. Cities are responding to the migrant crisis on the front lines yet are often left without the necessary means to adapt to this challenging situation, be it in terms of legal, financial, or policy support. Cities need to make sure that global responses to climate migration reflect realities on the ground while benefiting new arrivals and the communities that receive them.

Mayors need to be part of the global conversation about climate migration, as it inevitably shapes the communities they govern. They need to have a seat at the table when it comes to the decisions made by international organizations and national governments. However, such political processes can take a lot of time. Therefore, cities should also focus on things they can do locally and instantly. Harnessing the power of new technologies to deal with language barriers and boost migrant integration should be one of those.