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Where Will I Go to Escape Climate Disaster Next Time?

Johnny Townsend: I wonder how much longer I’ll be able to enjoy the refuge Seattle afforded me after I lost my hometown.

Fifteen years ago, I grabbed my passport, birth certificate, resumé, and my checkbook. I evacuated my apartment in New Orleans with one suitcase and headed north two days before Hurricane Katrina hit. I never saw that apartment again.

If being displaced just the one time because of the worsening climate crisis was all I had to face, this might have been no more than a blip on the timeline of my life.

The loss of most of my belongings, while difficult, didn’t compare to the loss of my job. I’d been with the New Orleans Public Library for four years when the hurricane struck. I figured that with a civil service job, I was relatively secure. But when your city is devastated…

So I relocated to Seattle and started over. That first winter, we endured a freak rainstorm. Living in a basement apartment on Capitol Hill, I was shocked to find water gushing through the walls, pouring down through the light fixtures. A woman in a nearby neighborhood drowned in her basement, the rising water forcing the door shut so she couldn’t escape.

The last few years, though, we’ve faced Unhealthy and Very Unhealthy and Hazardous air quality from an increasing number of wildfires, smoke so thick I might think I was witnessing a foggy French Quarter morning. Except that I’m inhaling toxic air that stings my eyes and leaves me feeling constant heartburn, even when I’m wearing my COVID mask.

I wonder how much longer I’ll be able to enjoy the refuge Seattle afforded me after I lost my hometown.

I wonder how much longer I’ll be able to enjoy the refuge Seattle afforded me after I lost my hometown. Will I need to relocate again in another year? In two years?

Where will I go?

And how long will I be able to stay there?

How many thousands, or tens of thousands, or millions of other people—Americans and refugees from climate disaster in other countries—will be competing for housing and jobs in that next city or country I flee to?

Transitioning away from fossil fuels is difficult and expensive. Carbon capture is, too. So is finding new jobs for folks who must stop earning livelihoods from oil and gas. Transforming our consumer culture to something more sustainable will cause a sense of withdrawal far more severe than anything the pandemic has inflicted on us.

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But pretending a hurricane isn’t coming won’t physically stop the hurricane. Ignoring warnings about the firestorm heading over the ridge doesn’t actually put out the flames.

Governor Inslee ran for president as the climate candidate but couldn’t muster enough votes to stay in the race through the first primary.

Neither Senators Murray nor Cantwell support a ban on fracking. Both accept campaign donations from fossil fuel corporations.

Some of our U.S. representatives and state legislators, fortunately, do refuse such campaign donations, but many more do not.

We can invest in Amazon and Boeing and Costco, but we can’t seem to invest adequately in wave and thermal energy. We aren’t able to retrofit our buildings with solar panels and cisterns. We’re unable even to insist that these minimal improvements be required of new construction.

Sooner or later, I’ll be forced to relocate. And so will a good many others in the Pacific Northwest.

But where will we go? The West Coast is burning. Siberia is burning. The Amazon is burning. Australia is burning.

The hurricane season seems to grow longer every year and, with steering currents weakening, even Category 1 storms are causing widespread destruction.

I had to travel 2600 miles to relocate the last time. How far will I need to go to find safety the next?

And what happens when there are so many of us that other countries are forced to put U.S. refugees in detention camps at their border?

Johnny Townsend

It’s hard to wake up and smell the Starbucks when we smell ash and soot instead.

Let’s do something about it while we still can.

Johnny Townsend