One of the most important news articles about the fate of humankind in regard to climate change and global warming appeared in the OREGONIAN newspaper on October 5, 2008, but the story was not picked up by any of the wire serives or other news outlets. This is a story that must be read worldwide because it is not only about PORTLAND OREGON, it is also about all other major cities around the world. Read this and when you see the word PORTLAND, substitute the name of your city or town. Because this is the future. Reporter Eric Mortenson deserves a Pulitzer Prize for this important enterprise feature. -- DB
Look out, Oregon, for a global warming land rush
by Eric Mortenson,
October 05, 2008
The prediction caused a collective grimace among the mayors, city councilors, engineers and planners in the audience. By 2060, a PORTLAND Metro economist said, the seven-county Portland area could grow to 3.85 million people -- nearly double the number here now.
Then Lorna Stickel, a planner with the Portland Water Bureau, stood to ask a question: "Does the population projection, she asked, account for the possibility of climate change refugees? "
Brains have been spinning ever since. Because what if?
What if the American Southwest dries up, browns out, and those people now misting their patios in Arizona head to the still-green Pacific Northwest? What if Californians hit the road north in numbers far surpassing the 20,000 who now move to Oregon each year? What if the polar ice melts, oceans rise and millions living along coastal areas -- or ravaged by Katrina-like storms -- have to move? What happens, Stickel later asks, "as we become more attractive and other places become less attractive?"
Back in her office at the Water Bureau, Stickel digs out graphs showing U.S. migration patterns and a projection of areas that might be affected by climate change.
"If this and this combine to this," Stickel says, gesturing back and forth, "that's the nut."
Stickel is no alarmist. The "nut" she cites is a kind of gridlock -- that moment in greater Portland when people could arrive in such numbers they outstrip the infrastructure necessary to support them. Water. Electricity. Roads. Housing. Schools. Garbage and sewage disposal. Parks and clean air.
Things that aren't ready
If the Portland metro area explodes in population as expected, as much as $41 billion will be required to improve infrastructure in Multnomah, Clackamas and Washington counties alone.
The greatest needs:
• Water: Conservation has reduced per capita use, but the projected population surge would exceed current supplies. New river sources, storage methods and treatment options -- sometimes controversial and always costly -- are necessary.
• Energy: If current use levels hold, the region by 2035 will need two or three new 400-megawatt power plants. Each would be the equivalent of PGE's new natural gas-fired plant in Columbia County, which cost $285 million to build. Siting, design and financing are difficult.
• Sewer and stormwater: Sewer capacity closely correlates to growth, but no reliable funding is in place for new projects. Runoff/stormwater systems now operate at near capacity and would need expansion.
• Parks and open spaces: Though currently endowed with celebrated parks, the region's expanded population will need an additional 5,000 acres of parks and 8,000 acres of open space to maintain quality of life.
• Schools: A geographic mismatch exists. Older urban areas have underused schools, but growth of school-age population is highest in new suburbs that lack facilities.
• Transportation: The biggest unmet need, with a $7 billion shortfall for new roads. State and federal gas tax revenue goes almost entirely to maintenance of the system as it is today. Payroll taxes that pay for transit systems might not keep pace with rapidly growing ridership.
Source: Metro infrastructure analysis
Stickel knows all the players and is particularly intense about the region's drinking water supply. Like the others gathered to hear Metro's population conference last spring, it's her job to accommodate that projected growth.
"We think it's going to be X number of people," she said. "What if it's more?"
• • •
Welcome Rebecca Niday. She was in California for the Northridge earthquake and the Malibu fires. She's been through tornadoes in the Midwest and blizzards in New Mexico. But Florida's hurricanes were the worst.
Like a freight train, bearing down on you for 12 hours, sometimes. Old-timers -- neighbors born in Florida and seasoned by 70 or 80 years of rip-roaring winds and sheets of rain -- remarked that it seemed the hurricanes were arriving more frequently and hitting harder. Scientists consider that a symptom of a warmer climate -- more extreme weather events.
Worse, Niday said, there'd been so much building in Florida, so many swamps drained, that there was nowhere for the water to go except into streets or homes.
She put up with it for five years. Three years ago, she moved to Oregon and settled in Rhododendron, near Mount Hood.
"The main factor was wanting to get out of there," said Niday, a real estate broker. "I was there when four hit in one year; it was just devastating."
She loves it here: green forests, snowcapped mountains, moderate climate. She talks it up with her friends in Florida, and three of them plan to join her.
She's a climate refugee, akin to the estimated 200,000 people who fled a Katrina-ravaged New Orleans three years ago and never went back. The Portland offices of the Red Cross and Catholic Charities aided 800 Katrina families between them.
• • •
Climate change is the bogeyman of our time. There are doubters, but most scientists say the Earth is warming because of human activity, primarily the use of fossil fuels, with dire consequences. Flooding of coastal areas, extremes of rain and drought, smaller snowpacks and more frequent severe storms are among the predictions.
A United Nations group and other researchers estimate there are now 20 million to 25 million "environmental refugees" -- people displaced by drought, storms and floods. One study said 10 percent of the world's population lives in coastal areas less than 10 meters above sea level -- subject to flooding if the oceans rise.
In a 2003 report funded by the U.S. Department of Defense, researchers Peter Schwartz and Doug Randall said climate change could lead to wars. They said less-affected nations "may build virtual fortresses around their countries, preserving resources for themselves."
"Less fortunate" nations -- especially those with "ancient enmities" along their borders -- could fight to gain food, clean water and energy, Schwartz and Randall said.
What other regions face
• California and Southwest: More frequent and more intense wildfires, extended droughts, shortened snowpack season and hard competition for water, declining air quality with increased health challenges.
• Great Plains: More extreme weather events bring more droughts and floods.
• Northeast: Rising sea level menaces coastal urban infrastructure, especially transportation systems. Extreme rainstorms raise concern about hurricanes, in greater intensity and frequency.
• Mid-Atlantic and South Atlantic coasts: Rising sea level and increased storm surges stall coastal development and threaten estuaries and ecosystems.
• Gulf Coast: More frequent high-intensity hurricanes, inundation of coastal wetlands, saltwater intrusion from rising sea level creates "ghost forests."
Source: U.S. Global Change Research Program
Author James Howard Kunstler, whose book "The Long Emergency" predicts a worldwide societal doomsday caused by oil dependency collapse and climate change, says Asian paramilitary pirates might raid the Pacific Northwest coasts as their home nations disintegrate.
He notes other observers view the region optimistically, but doesn't join them.
"The Pacific Northwest's benefits of mild climate, abundant water and good farmland may be overwhelmed by populations fleeing the problems of Southern California," he writes.
• • •
Oregon's vision of the future isn't so apocalyptic. But scientists and planners warn the state is "exceptionally vulnerable" to climate change because its natural systems and economy are dependent on water.
The average snowpack that drapes the state's mountains each winter has declined 30 percent, and the spring runoff is coming earlier, leaving less water available in the summer months, according to the Climate Change Integration Group's report to Gov. Ted Kulongoski. Farming, municipal water systems, hydroelectric production, recreation and fish and wildlife are affected by lower stream flows.
But climate change also brings opportunities, the report to the governor said. The demand for solar and wind energy is expected to continue increasing, and Oregon is well-positioned to take advantage. Farmers may benefit from longer, warmer growing seasons and conditions that allow new crop varieties, according to the report.
Then there's the people factor: "Climate refugees from high-impact coastal or drought-stricken areas may enhance the work force and the economies that have the capacity to integrate them," the report concluded.
Everyone who talks seriously about climate change acknowledges there are no hard data to indicate how it might affect population projections. Still, the topic raises eyebrows.
"It's highly speculative," said Angus Duncan, chairman of the Oregon Global Warming Commission and president of the Bonneville Environmental Foundation.
"But on the other hand, if we're dealing with the potential for extremely dry areas -- Arizona and Southern California -- to get even drier, as well as hotter, then it's not inconceivable that some kind of climate-induced migration could take place."
Such migration wouldn't stop at Oregon, Duncan says. Washington, British Columbia and Alaska might attract incremental movements of people looking for more tolerable climates. "Everything north would be affected," he said.
The prospect ought to raise questions about the way we live, he said.
To reduce population pressure, the federal government might stop giving tax deductions for more than two children, Duncan suggested, or remove incentives for living in large homes that require more energy to heat and cool.
"At some point, clearly we're going to have to ratchet back both our appetite and our numbers," he said. We should examine the size of homes we live in, the efficiency at which they operate and our tastes for "beef imported from the Midwest" and "raspberries imported from Chile in the middle of winter," he said.
Wilsonville Mayor Charlotte Lehan said growth from climate-change migration is "an interesting notion to speculate about."
"Right now, we're a darned attractive place to live," she said. "I've often described Oregon as extremely temperate -- we're temperate in the extreme, never too hot, never too cold.
"That's been the case for a long time and will continue to be a big attraction for Oregon."
She isn't overly worried about the prospect, however. She says the metro area has plenty of room for newcomers, no matter what drives them here.
"We could become a lot bigger," she said. "We're not effectively using our land. The idea that the population is going to double, so we have to double the UGB (urban growth boundary) is just absurd. We can become more dense."
Sprawling suburbs such as Wilsonville, with a population of 17,000, could pack in more people by developing taller buildings -- even five or six stories would do, Lehan said.
"Wilsonville could be 30,000 easily, or 40,000 or 50,000, probably, and hardly notice itself," she said.
• • •
Under the most aggressive growth model, the area could have more than 6 million people by 2060, according to the Metro forecast. The more likely model, however, indicates a population of 3.85 million, plus or minus 300,000.
From a water supply standpoint, at least, the region should be OK.
"We are blessed with water resources," said Stickel, the Portland Water Bureau planner. "We don't even tap, or barely tap, the two largest water resources in the region -- the Columbia and the Willamette. Even with climate change, we're blessed."
But on most other counts, the years ahead are filled with challenges.
A Metro analysis estimated the Portland area alone will require $27 billion to $41 billion in infrastructure improvements to accommodate population growth. That means new or improved sewage treatment and water distribution systems, roads, schools, public buildings, energy plants and parks.
Climate change migration, said Metro Council President David Bragdon, is "the potential wild card in the projections." It could make a difficult and expensive infrastructure situation even more pressing.
Plainly, money is short.
"There's a lot of backlog," Bragdon said. "Even if the population doesn't grow by one person, there's a past-due bill.
"Maybe it's a call to action."
Stickel has another way of putting it: "Plan, plan, plan."
-- Eric Mortenson; email@example.com
For more environment news: oregonlive.com/environment