Column: Forget politics, Illinois should brace for an influx of climate refugees from the South – Chicago Tribune

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

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

The news prompted Gov. J.B. Pritzker and other Democrats to take digs 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 numbers fail to tell the whole story. The state is still in decline, they say. Data from moving companies and other sources indicate an outward migration.

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

Sure, blaming politicians for population loss makes for good narratives in negative campaign ads. But if elected officials were responsible for population counts, that would mean Republican Bruce Rauner should account for 40% of the population change over the past decade because 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 the basis for your criticism suddenly disappears overnight?

The naysayers are reluctantly admitting 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.

That leads to another key point many are missing about population shifts in the United States. That is, how is climate change going to influence where people live in the near future?

This whole kerfuffle about Illinois losing population may not matter in a few years. The more urgent question should be for how long can states like Florida, Texas, Arizona and Nevada continue to add residents?

Consider how a megadrought in the American West’s has created the driest conditions in the past 1,200 years, scientific researchers reported in February.

A formerly sunken boat sits May 10, 2022, on cracked earth hundreds of feet from the shoreline of Lake Mead at the Lake Mead National Recreation Area near Boulder City, Nevada. (AP Photo/John Locher/AP)

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

In Florida, coastal cities are bracing for increased flooding as sea levels are expected to rise 18 inches by 2050.

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

These are serious factors likely to affect population trends in coming decades. How can people continue to move to the desert Southwest when there is insufficient water to sustain population growth? The drought crisis may force state and local governments to deny requests to build more housing.

You can rule out the possibility of building a pipeline and pumping water from the Great Lakes. The world’s largest source of fresh water is connected to Canada, which is unlikely to ever agree to allow California or other states to tap in the water supply.

In Florida, it would be impossible to build seawalls to hold back the flooding. Flood waters seep up through the ground. Depopulation may be the only solution.

Texas could solve its power grid problems, but it would cost money. Infrastructure investment would lead to higher utility costs that would likely be passed along 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 tolerable 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 significant increases in population in coming years as climate changes forces people to leave hot, dry areas of the south and seek refuge in northern states.

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

News that Illinois is gaining residents ought to prompt conservatives to reconsider their failed strategy of attacking Democrats over population. Republicans, after all, have lost seats in the state legislature and every statewide office since they embraced negative attack ads.

Grievance politics have certainly proven to be effective in some areas of the country. But in Illinois, voters clearly are not buying the narrative that political parties are responsible for population swings.

Ted Slowik is a columnist for the Daily Southtown.

tslowik@tribpub.com

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May 24, 2022 at 04:22PM

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