Sarah Holder is a staff writer at CityLab covering local policy, housing, labor, and technology.
With “The 2100 Project: An Atlas for A Green New Deal,” the McHarg Center tries to visualize how the warming world will reshape the United States.
In 100 years, what will a United States transformed by climate change look like? At this point, you don’t have to use much imagination to predict what’s coming: Temperatures will continue to climb; sea levels will continue to rise. And, by the 2060s, the U.S. Census Bureau estimates that global migration patterns will bring 100 million new people into the country, who will settle from coast to coast.
Almost everything else about the climate of tomorrow and the nation’s ability to survive it is less inevitable, however, says Billy Fleming, the director of the University of Pennsylvania’s McHarg Center for Urbanism and Ecology. “There are certain general things we’re certain about, but the shape and content of the future is not one of them,” he said. “We get the future we build for ourselves.”
With other researchers from the McHarg Center, he designed a series of maps of the U.S. for an online collection dubbed The 2100 Project: An Atlas for A Green New Deal. The website use a variety of projected and current data sources to sketch out the country’s possible fate, displaying its geography in economic, ecological, agricultural, and ideological terms. Climate models vary, as do timelines and confidence intervals for each map. But collectively, Fleming says the images provide visual evidence that it’s not too late for grand interventions to make a fundamental difference. Ambitious proposals like the Green New Deal—which involves a dramatic overhaul of the nation’s energy and building infrastructure—could be the key, he said.
The broad takeaways are dire, as usual. Heat-related deaths in the southern U.S. could grow—but so could cold-related deaths in northern areas. Workers exposed to outdoor temperatures in Texas and the Gulf Coast would be most at risk for heat-related deaths, but everyone’s risk could be heightened.
According to GDP projections through 2099, more than three quarters of U.S. counties will be suffering economically because of the damage climate change wreaks; about a quarter will benefit. “The losses are largest in the regions that are already poorer on average (Southern, Central, and Mid-Atlantic), increasing inequality as value transfers to the Pacific Northwest, Great Lakes Region, and New England,” the report finds. Rural, non-coastal regions like Arkansas, where Fleming grew up, are often left out of serious conversations about climate change despite their dependence on crops and livestock that can be damaged by drought, heat, and heavy rains, along with the accompanying risk of soil erosion.
No corner of the U.S. will be spared by the effects of climate change: Sea-level rise could displace up to 13.1 million people by the end of the 21st century. But adaptations will have to look different everywhere, Fleming said. High-poverty Mississippi will contend with coastal flooding, variations in agriculture viability, and huge energy expenditure demands as a result of extreme heat. As a result, many residents could become climate migrants. In Manhattan, the most urgent concern may be flooding; up by the Great Lakes and the Canadian border, the threats center around industry and farming. Northern cities like Duluth and Buffalo may indeed transform into some form of “climate refuge,” thanks to abundant fresh water and cooler temperatures. But they could also be vulnerable to other, less desirable impacts from mass migration.
“We both can and have to expand the definition of frontline community,” said Fleming.
An estimated 100 million people will migrate into and around the country over the coming century. And as they do, more energy resources, water, and density will be needed. “Most demographers expect an increasing share of these people to live in major American cities like New York, Chicago, and Phoenix,” the project reads. To accommodate them in high-density places like New York City, we’ll need 12 new NYC-sized cities; the same population will require 68 lower-density places like Phoenix.
Such findings resonate with proposals like Vermont Senator and Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders and New York Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’ Green New Deal for Public Housing, which calls for billions of investment in upgrading existing public housing stock and a nationwide emphasis on building more dense, transit-friendly communities.
The sweeping scale of such proposals may seem daunting, especially given the current political climate, but the project makes a point of acknowledging America’s legacy of infrastructural transformation. There’s a “History of Big Ideas” map that traces earlier planning initiatives and mass mobilization efforts that are “[v]ariously inspiring and cautionary,” like the Garden City and Greenbelt projects and Tennessee Valley Authority of the original New Deal. We’ve done it before, it implies. We can do it again.
“These are things that the country can take on together if and when it decides to make the climate crisis the sort of generational investment it deserves to be,” said Fleming.