Winds of Change

Portland is already seeing an influx of new residents. But how much of this is due to climate change–related concerns, how many more people should the city expect, and is Portland prepared? These were the questions at the heart of the Winds of Change? symposium held at Ecotrust and hosted by Portland State’s Population Research Center, the Institute of Portland Metropolitan Studies and the University of Washington Climate Impacts Group on June 24.

Lara Whitely Binder is a senior strategist at the Climate Impacts Group. She said that people have been increasingly starting to ask: Are we really going to get more climate refugees? It seemed to her and her colleagues that there was a lot of speculation and jumping to conclusions. They wanted to know if the research supported these claims, which is what led to the creation of this symposium.

“We want people to walk away with a good understanding of what we currently know about migration and migration patterns, and also where does climate change start to come into this?” Binder said. “We’re not trying to answer these questions, we just want people to have a better foundational understanding.”

PSU President Wim Wiewel introduced the event and referred to the many issues worldwide that lead to migration, like the refugee crisis, Britain exiting the European Union, and, of course, climate change.

“There are real issues in this world that make people want to live in different places than where they are now and we can’t just say, ‘We’ve got ours,’ and close the door. That, to me, is the worst,” Wiewel said. “That doesn’t mean you open the doors wide. You’ve got to think about and plan for it and that’s why this meeting is so important.”

Wiewel said the issue of a growing city is increasingly on the mind of PSU administrators as they plan for the future, especially regarding housing and whether or not to build more housing projects.

About one percent of the Portland population are students at PSU—a growing city translates into a growing school. Currently, the school has a plan to grow to 36,000 students from its current 29,000. But if it grows more than that they need to know so they can plan accordingly.

“It matters to us every day at PSU,” Wiewel said.

Nonetheless, reflecting on his experience in other cities like Chicago and Baltimore, Wiewel seemed to view growth as a good problem to have—as long as Portland can plan for it. “I tend to be quite a proponent of growth,” Wiewel said. “I feel it beats decline any day of the week.”

So how does Portland plan for this inevitable growth? Amy Snover, the assistant dean for the College of the Environment and director of the Climate Impacts Group at the University of Washington, said looking at the past for solutions is no longer sufficient in an era of climate change. She emphasized the need for new partnerships and new collaborations.

“What we don’t know is how it’s all going to play out,” Snover said. “We don’t know the answers and we’re not exactly sure how to answer them yet, which is why we’ve brought together such an interesting mix of people who know about climate science and projecting population trends and economics.”

The first speaker was Jose Miguel Guzman, a fellow with ICF International, and he highlighted the importance of adaptation. “People will have to adapt to climate change with the resources they have, with the options available to them,” Guzman said.

One way that people do this is through migration as a survival strategy. Portland is considered a major destination for those fleeing the impact of climate change because of its water. With fires and droughts plaguing places like California, the water of the Pacific Northwest is a draw for many. But migration is based on a range of other economic, social, political and demographic factors too.

One way to prepare for the influx of people coming to Portland is to know who they are and where they’re coming from. David Plane, a professor at the School of Geography and Development at the University of Arizona, said there is no single migrant identity. It’s complex.

He compared migration researchers to tornado chasers. “Migration is a mirror. When you study migration, you study everything,” Plane said.

Robert McLeman, an associate professor in the Department of Geography & Environmental Studies at Wilfrid Laurier University, echoed this sentiment. He said there is no average migrant and that most migrants move within their own countries, not between them.

Understanding where people are coming from and why will help Portland prepare. While this is a daunting task, McLeman said he resisted having an alarmist attitude, though it’s essential that we make plans.

“Let’s not ignore it. It’s not going to go away,” McLeman said of migration.

Guzman also offered optimism. While he admitted that the poorest people will suffer disproportionately, he was hopeful about the new data and technology that is now available, and glad that people are more educated.

“This topic is extremely important, extremely timely, it fits with what Portland is about, it certainly fits with our motto of ‘let knowledge serve the city,’” Wiewel said. “Let us figure out how we can continue to create great places for everyone.”