Thousands of Oregonians have already been displaced by climate change, which is reshaping landscapes and livelihoods around the globe, according to an Oregon State University associate professor who joined almost 300 researchers to create an assessment released this week by the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.
And that’s on top of voluntary relocations that may not even intentionally take climate change into account, despite being guided by it, OSU’s David Wrathall told OPB.
For example, somebody considering a move to California’s Sierra mountains might opt instead to relocate to a region with fewer forest fires, Wrathall said.
“They might not associate their movements with climate change. ... But on the other hand, we might have people who are forced to move. These are displaced people,” he said.
“We know that in every region on Earth, people are already moving, with a range of agency involved in their choices about migration. Even in Oregon, here, there’s estimated around 4,000 people displaced in moving as a result of recent forest fires.”
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And the displacement is just beginning, Wrathall said, with more to come in the decades ahead.
“There’s going to be a lot of migration. We’re going to meet each other in new ways, as we never have before, as a result of climate change,” he said. “Humanity is going to be introduced to itself.”
That’s likely to lead to conflict — “When people see outsiders, they don’t always react well,” Wrathall said.
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report also spells out a future of endangered health, food insecurity, economic upheaval — all likely to affect vulnerable populations the most.
And yet, Wrathall sees hope in the report alongside its dire forecasts, because today’s leaders have information they can start using now to prepare for the changing world — and because tomorrow’s leaders are already beginning to emerge.
“One way of framing this report is that it is bad news and it’s terrifying. That it’s scary. And this is at a time when we’re pretty sick of bad news — with the pandemic, with war. Climate change is already here and it’s going to get worse if we fail to act,” he said. “But on the other hand, this is good news. We know what’s wrong and we know what we can do. And it’s just a matter of seeing it, knowing it, accepting it and prioritizing.”
Many of the climate changes being forecast now will unfold within the lifetimes to today’s children and college students, Wrathall said.
“I have a child who is of an age that he could live to see the year 2100. So this isn’t such a remote problem. This is a problem for us and our children and our grandchildren. And I work with students at Oregon State who are in this age range that could live to see this day this is their world and they understand it, they accept it, they prioritized it.”
Related: Heat wave in Pacific Northwest offers a glimpse of climate change’s impact in North America
As climate change researchers assess a future of higher temperatures, drought and migration, they also see a future in need of leadership, Wrathall said. “And I see it in young people today. This gives me a lot of hope. ... I find [hope] in the people whose problem this will be. And I know that they’re going to rise to the occasion.”
Listen to Wrathall and OPB’s Dave Miller discuss the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change on OPB’s Think Out Loud: