Climate migration: Could Pittsburgh be a haven for residents leaving other regions?

Some cities are specifically marketing themselves as a destination for those fleeing climate change. Pittsburgh has been more measured.

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Downtown Pittsburgh as seen from the West End Overlook. (Photo by Ryan Loew/PublicSource)

As part of the Covering Climate Now global reporting initiative, we asked you, our PublicSource readers, to tell us what you wanted to know about climate change in Pittsburgh. Several of you asked about migration due to climate change, and this story looks at the potential for Pittsburgh to become a destination and what that would mean.

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After Hurricane Maria, hundreds of thousands of displaced Puerto Ricans sought refuge in the continental United States.

Every year, more than 400,000 people in Bangladesh are forced to move permanently because of coastal flooding. 

In Louisiana, the Isle de Jean Charles Biloxi-Chitimacha-Choctaw Tribe is being resettled inland as the island they call home slowly sinks underwater. 

Across the globe, extreme weather conditions fueled by climate change are forcing people to leave their homes.

Climate migration is likely to intensify. By 2050, some scientists anticipate between 25 and 200 million climate migrants globally. 

Rust Belt cities, like Buffalo, Duluth and Cincinnati, are capitalizing on the moment to market themselves as a place for climate migrants to land. Pittsburgh, though, appears to be less aggressive to adopt it as a marketing strategy for the city.

Pittsburgh is not positioning itself as a climate haven, said Grant Ervin, the city’s chief resilience officer. 

"I would be reluctant to call [climate migration] an opportunity because you're dealing with extremely negative challenges that are uprooting people's livelihoods,” he said. “But I would say that it's something that we have to be thoughtful in preparing for, regardless of what the impetus is for that growth."

He said the biggest challenge the city faces with accepting new populations is addressing its aging infrastructure, including outdated sewers, roads and energy sources. The city’s climate action plan outlines steps to modernize the city’s infrastructure while also reducing its greenhouse gas emissions.

While the city is preparing for a growing population, it’s still up for debate whether climate migrants will even want — or be able — to come to Pittsburgh.

So, how many climate migrants can Pittsburgh expect? It’s nearly impossible to predict. There are some estimates of how specific climate change factors, like sea level rise, may affect regional migration. For example, nearly 1.5 million people are expected to move to Texas by 2100 due to sea level rise. But there are no estimates of how climate change overall might impact migration to the Pittsburgh region.

“Nobody has any idea” of where climate migrants are going to go or how many to expect, said Jesse Keenan, a social scientist at Harvard University specializing in urban development and climate adaptation. “That level of resolution empirically does not exist yet.”

In many cases, people in impacted areas simply move to the nearest city. 

Mathew Hauer, an assistant professor of sociology at Florida State University, researches migration and sea level rise. His research predicts that Pennsylvania’s population will increase by more than 200,000 people over the next century from rising sea levels. 

The majority of that group is expected to come from New York and New Jersey and will likely resettle in the Philadelphia region, his research shows. Based on current trends, Western Pennsylvania is unlikely to experience a major influx in population from rising sea level-induced migration alone. 

Still, Hauer warns that sea level rise is not just a coastal issue. “If people are displaced, they have to go somewhere,” he said. “So people are going to start moving to these landlocked places.”

Rust Belt cities that have started marketing themselves as “climate havens” are not just preparing for climate migrants — they’re welcoming them. 

Buffalo, New York, Duluth, Minnesota, and Cincinnati, Ohio through this marketing approach hope to attract population growth and commercial investment. 

Their cool climates, low risk of flash flooding or forest fires and access to fresh water all make them attractive destinations for climate migrants, Keenan said. Having the necessary infrastructure for diverse economic growth is another key factor in determining whether a city is climate-resilient. 

A section of Cincinnati's 2018 green plan titled “Climate Haven” details how the city will “leverage climate resilience to attract new business and residents.” It emphasizes the importance of offering affordable housing and creating new jobs to promote growth. 

In some ways, Pittsburgh fits the climate haven profile: It has relatively cool average temperatures, a relatively low risk of natural disasters and certain infrastructure like roads, bridges and rail lines were built to accommodate a much larger population.

It also has a long history of becoming home to immigrant populations, which Keenan cites as another positive factor. Cities with immigrant pockets are not only more culturally welcoming and positioned for diverse economic growth, they also tend to have more “turnover neighborhoods,” he said. These are neighborhoods with relatively lower rents that are accustomed to a high turnover of tenants. “That capacity accumulates over generations and really is critical,” Keenan added.

Pittsburgh has some factors working against it, according to Keenan. He listed water pollution, limited mass transit and a limited number of sunny days as potential deterrents for climate migrants.

He identified the city’s economic revitalization as a negative. His reasoning? Pittsburgh’s growing number of tech companies, increasing ability to attract highly skilled talent and increasing housing costs may rule it out as an affordable option. “Has Pittsburgh’s success priced out future ‘climigrants?’ I don’t know,” Keenan said.

Not all experts have ruled Pittsburgh out. In an article published by Business Insider last year on the best places in the United States to live to avoid natural disasters, Texas State climatologist John Nielsen-Gammon pegged Pittsburgh as a good choice because it’s not prone to hurricanes or drought. He also said the region will likely experience some of the “good effects” of climate change, like “less extreme cold and a longer growing season.”

Ervin said the same steps are necessary when preparing for “any type of migration, whether this be climate induced or had the city won the Amazon [HQ2] bid.”

To position itself for a rise in population while being mindful of sustainability, the city is identifying and developing areas poised for growth. Ervin said one example is Uptown, situated between Oakland and Downtown, the city’s two biggest economic centers. "In between is a place where new populations can fit, effectively, in terms of growth and development. It’s also a place that has the existing infrastructure in terms of the ability to kind of have population like it once did,” he said.

Steady, strategic planning for areas such as Uptown provides “an opportunity to model for more responsible growth patterns,” Ervin said. “Versus say, if 50,000 people were to just come to Pittsburgh tomorrow... that would put a lot of strain on existing infrastructure and systems.”

Keenan shared this mindset. “The best things that cities can do in preparation is to think about where do we want to grow, and what kind of growth is going to be a sustainable growth?” he said. Social service delivery, transportation and affordable housing are all things that should be considered. “That’s just good old-fashioned planning, one way or the other,” Keenan said.

Ervin stressed that the ongoing work by immigrant inclusion organizations to welcome people to the city shouldn’t be overlooked. "Those are just as important as thinking about the physical form of the city," he said. 

At the county level, steps are in place to help resettle people in the event of any threat or hazard. Allegheny County Chief of Emergency Services Matt Brown said the county coordinates with the state and federal emergency management agencies, along with nonprofit organizations like the Red Cross, to provide medical services, temporary housing and resettlement support.

The county is equipped to handle an emergency “whether it’s climate-driven or not,” Brown said.

It’s unclear if Pittsburgh will become a resettlement location for climate migrants. But that  doesn’t mean it shouldn’t prepare.

“Who knows if people will move to Pittsburgh? My instincts are, sure, somebody might,” Keenan said. “But if you go through the exercise of thinking about climate risks and development, even if no ‘climigrants’ show up, it’s going to yield some benefit to the community.”

Juliette Rihl is a reporter for PublicSource. She can be reached at juliette@publicsource.org.

This story was fact-checked by Sierra Smith.

This story is part of Covering Climate Now, a global collaboration of more than 250 news outlets to strengthen coverage of the climate story. Read PublicSource's stories here.

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