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Climate-Change Migration

On a recent sunny Tuesday afternoon, I was at the Johnson City Rotary Club meeting, listening to an eye-opening presentation on the many national-security challenges presented by climate change.  The speaker was retired Vice Admiral Lee Gunn of the American Security Project.  Among the concerns he listed were the effects of large-scale migrations that will result from increasing temperatures, droughts, floods, storms, and sea-level rise.  People will be on the move, from areas that are more affected to areas that are less affected.  Such migrations often strain the resources of the destination and cause conflicts that can result in disruption, unrest, and even war.

Here in the United States, one of the regions that is expected to be least impacted by climate change is our home here in East Tennessee.  While we will experience some impacts, they are anticipated to be much less severe than in other parts of the country.  We all know that we are living in a wonderful place.  Many of our neighbors have chosen to relocate here after first leaving the Northeast for Florida and then moving halfway back after deciding that the summer weather in the Sunshine State was more than they bargained for.  This corner of the world will not look any less attractive when parts of the Southeast (and elsewhere) become unlivable due to oppressive heat, hostile weather, and encroaching seas.

While I was at the Rotary meeting, my wife was finishing some shopping on her way to a doctor’s appointment.  In the parking lot, she came across a very nice older couple that was trying to load an oversized dresser purchase into their too-small car.  Knowing that it would fit easily in the back of her beloved Honda Pilot, Julie offered to help and asked how far they needed to haul their item.  When they said they were heading to Elizabethton, Julie told them that she would not mind making the delivery for them, though she would have to go to her appointment first.

They agreed to load the dresser into Julie’s car, and they gave her their address.  She went to her appointment, and then made the drive to Carter County, delivering the item as promised and politely declining their offer to pay for her time, effort, and gas.  They expressed their gratitude and explained that they were new to the area (and love it), having recently moved here from Rockport, TX.  Why did they move to East Tennessee?  Their “forever” home in Texas was destroyed by Hurricane Harvey, which coincidentally, Vice Admiral Gunn had mentioned was likely larger, more powerful, and slower moving (and thus more destructive) due to increased water temperatures associated with climate change.

As the effects of climate change become more severe, we can expect that more people will choose to make the move here.  We can approach this in many different ways.  (Some ways are more Christian than others.)  My suggestion is to embrace it as an opportunity to help our fellow Americans.  While doing so, we can also grow our population, economy, and influence in the nation and throughout the world.  This will require careful planning, however, and leadership that looks beyond the horizon to anticipate less-than-obvious needs of the future.

We need to ask ourselves what we should be doing now, to accommodate significantly increased population in a way that will maintain (or even improve!) our standard of living.  What infrastructure improvements are needed?  What sort of businesses and jobs do we want to cultivate and attract?  How might we house, transport, feed, employ, and entertain people in a way that best maintains the heritage, quality of life, and natural beauty of this area.  The longer we wait to address these questions, the less control and fewer options we’ll have.

We should all be part of this discussion, but participation first requires that we stop listening to those who try to muddy the water by cynically dismissing the hazards (or even existence) of climate change.  The longer we agree to pretend that there is no problem, the more they will be able to profit, at our expense, from coming misfortunes.

Committee to Elect Murphey Johnson
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