Forget politics, Illinois should brace for an influx of Southern climate refugees – Chicago Tribune


Many people miss some key points in the debate over census numbers for Illinois.

The US Census Bureau said last week that it underestimated Illinois’ population by about 2%. Instead of losing about 18,000 people, as the bureau reported last year, the state actually gained about 250,000 people between 2010 and 2020.

The news prompted Gov. JB Pritzker and other Democrats to hit out at Republicans for saying for many years that people were fleeing Illinois because of taxes and crime.

Right-wing think tanks have pushed back, saying the revised census figures don’t tell the whole story. The state is still in decline, they say. Data from moving companies and other sources indicate outward migration.

One point that many overlook is that it was a mistake to politicize the population numbers in the first place. That’s because no one can say with absolute certainty why people are leaving Illinois.

Of course, blaming politicians for population loss makes for good narratives in negative campaign ads. But if elected officials were responsible for the population count, that would mean Republican Bruce Rauner would have to account for 40% of the population change over the past decade, as he was governor for four of the 10 years.

Are failed Republican policies to blame for dramatic population losses in Mississippi, West Virginia and other red states?

It’s hard to let go of even the most flawed logic when you’ve spent the better part of a decade blaming politicians for people leaving the state. What do you do when your critical base suddenly disappears overnight?

Opponents reluctantly admit that Illinois may be growing after all, but it’s not growing as fast as other states. That’s why we lost one of our seats in Congress.

This leads to another key point that many miss about population changes in the United States. In other words, how will climate change influence where people live in the near future?

All the fuss about Illinois’ population loss may not matter in a few years. The more pressing question should be how long can states like Florida, Texas, Arizona and Nevada continue to add residents?

Consider how a mega-drought in the American West created the driest conditions in 1,200 years, scientific researchers reported in February.

If you’re looking to buy a home near Las Vegas, you might want to check out Lake Mead Levels. Water levels in the reservoir formed by the Hoover Dam have dropped to historic lows, revealing wreckage, exposing abandoned bodies and threatening water supplies for 25 million people.

Coastal cities in Florida brace for increased flooding as sea levels rise should rise 18 inches by 2050.

In Texas, huge electric bills floored consumers last year after a winter storm caused a surge in demand for electricity. Texas embraces deregulation, which makes it popular among those looking to maximize profitability.

These are important factors that are likely to influence demographic trends over the coming decades. How can people continue to move to the desert southwest when there is not enough water to support population growth? The drought crisis may force state and local governments to deny requests to build additional housing.

You can rule out the possibility of building a pipeline and pumping water from the Great Lakes. The largest source of fresh water in the world is connected to Canada, which will probably never agree to allow California or other states to tap into the water supply.

In Florida, it would be impossible to build levees to contain the floods. Flood water seeps into the ground. Depopulation may be the only solution.

Texas could fix its power grid problems, but it would cost money. Investment in infrastructure would lead to increased utility costs that would likely be passed on to consumers.

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Florida and the Southwest were fairly sparsely populated until the 1960s, when the availability of air conditioning made it possible to survive the scorching heat. The United States has experienced great migrations throughout its history, and more dramatic population shifts are almost certain.

Illinois would be wise to start planning now for a significant population increase in the coming years, as climate change forces people to leave hot, dry southern regions and seek refuge in northern states.

Illinois conservatives conveniently ignore context about how weather, family considerations and economic opportunity are more likely than politics to determine where to live.

The news that Illinois is gaining residents should cause conservatives to reconsider their failed strategy of attacking Democrats on population. Republicans, after all, have lost seats in the state legislature and in every state office since embracing negative ads.

The grievance policy has certainly proven effective in some parts of the country. But in Illinois, voters clearly do not buy into the narrative that political parties are responsible for population fluctuations.

Ted Slowik is a columnist for the Daily Southtown.

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