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Anecdotal evidence is stacking up to suggest that people are migrating to places they think will offer some refuge from climate change, such as Hobart. And it may no longer be only disgruntled climate change scientists, frustrated that their doomsday forecasts are being ignored.

Hobart is in the midst of a housing affordability crisis, with the latest CoreLogic Australian Affordable Housing Report 2018-19 showing that Hobart house prices had increased by 34 per cent over the past five years, and that the city had highest rents increases Australia (10.7 per cent).

A booming tourism trade has been a key contributor to the state’s housing issues, with the expansion of holiday rental provider Airbnb in the city contributing to a decline in the number of affordable rental properties available.

But another factor could be flying under the radar – the need to escape the heat and other undesirable conditions caused by climate change in other parts of Australia.

Speaking to The Fifth Estate, the University of Tasmania’s professor of human geography and planning Jason Byrne said that it’s possible we’re observing a reversal of traditional climate migration patterns.

Instead of people escaping the cold for warmer weather, such as south east Queensland in Australia or Florida in the US, people might now be heading south to cooler places.

“What is interesting is the idea that people may now be moving in the opposite direction to escape the impacts of climate change,” Professor Byrne said.

Professor Byrne says climate change impacts are beginning to drive human migration globally, including from mainland Australia to Tasmania.

He says people living in Western Sydney are among those likely to consider moving south.

“Western Sydney is already experiencing temperatures nearing 50 degrees in the summer. This is set to become the ‘new normal’. People cannot live in such extreme conditions long term and will either have to find ways to adapt in place, or move.”

“If people can no longer sleep, then people will make their way down [south], like tradies who have to work outside in the heat, and older people. They will vote with their feet.”

Professor Byrne said there are two main groups making the move south for climate-related reasons: climate scientists, who believe we’re all a bunch of idiots and not listening and so we’re going south, and the “snowbirds” – older Australians escaping the heat.

There are also young families making the move, who don’t want their children “living where roads are melting and blackouts could mean they die.” They want to move somewhere where that “isn’t going to be an issue,” he said.

The first to make the move will be the “creative classes” – such as web designer and marketing types – who can easily work remotely.

Is mainlander climate migration putting pressure on Tasmanian housing stock?

Whether or not this southbound migration is contributing to increased demand on housing is unclear. Professor Byrne said the problem is that “we certainly don’t have the data to prove that this is happening”. Any evidence of this southward migration is very much anecdotal.

“These studies need to be done… This is because it affects the places people are moving to, and the people in Hobart,” Professor Byrne said.

He says climate change impacts might be the “elephant in the room” when it comes to the interpretation of human migration patterns, and that we need to fully understand the reasons people are moving so that we can plan accordingly.

Hobart might be just like Melbourne before long

For example, what people don’t realise about Hobart is that the city will have the future climate of Melbourne today, and that it’s already the second driest city in Australia. This will put the city at greater risk of bushfires in the future, said Professor Byrne – which is something the city should already be preparing for.

University of Tasmania demographer Lisa Denny, research fellow at the Institute for the Study of Social Change, agrees that climate change is definitely one of the reasons people are choosing to move to Tasmania.

Her interpretation of the numbers suggest that people move to Tasmania for two main reasons: to move away from large cities (Melbourne predominantly and then Sydney); and to move from warm coastal, populated areas subject to more extreme weather patterns – predominantly the Gold Coast, Sunshine Coast, Cairns and Perth.

She said more people have been moving to the state from the southeast Queensland strip, northern NSW, and Perth than previously.

Dr Denny also says this shift in moving patterns may be “economically related” and that there hasn’t been any research on why people choose to move to Hobart or Tasmania, so any causation is speculative.

She believes there are several factors that prompt people to move to Tasmania, and puts climate change impacts well down the list as a cause for Hobart’s current affordable housing shortages.

“One of the biggest issues contributing to the housing issue in Tasmania is that less people are leaving, fewer people are vacating homes and there is less turnover or churn. Less people are leaving but there are more people arriving,” Dr Denny said.

“Housing affordability (relative to interstate) and lifestyle (lack of congestion etc) are also large contributors. Many are also former Tasmanians returning ‘home’ after seeking warmer climates and/or greater employment opportunities,” she said.

“Then there is Airbnb, the repurposing of the short-term accommodation market. This is quite significant. Increased tourism is having an impact.”

Rapid urbanisation is also driving migration to the island state

Professor Byrne also believes increasing urbanisation is prompting the move out of big cities such as Sydney, and contributing to the popularity of places such as Hobart.

He says there is a growing recognition of the “precarity of cities”.

“Sydney is growing at an amazing pace and this is putting pressure on roads… people considering two- or three-hour commutes and therefore not getting exercise, and this takes a toll on their mental health because they spend no time socialising or visiting green spaces.

“Then there’s housing affordability, prices – people can’t afford to buy a house with median housing prices of a million dollars. This shackles people to jobs [sometimes multiple jobs] and leads to mortgage stress… they are in [a] dire predicament.

“And if fuel prices increase if there is a war in the South China Sea  and we are  highly reliant on petroleum and have only a 40 day supply – if these shipping lanes get disrupted and these prices go through the roof, or mortgage rates climb – this is an issue.

“People are living very precariously because so many circumstances are aligning at the same time.

I Am Legend can suddenly look like a picnic,” he said.

New Zealand is designing a climate refugee visa

Professor Byrne also said climate change impacts are driving human migration globally.

“We’ve got a huge issue in the Asia Pacific. This is going to go underwater in future years.” he said.

New Zealand received the first application for a climate refugee last year but was unable to be accept the refugee because there was no official mechanism in place for the process New Zealand is now designing the world’s first climate change visa program.

“There will be many more that will come,” Professor Byrne said.

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  1. I am an embittered sustainability educator and energy efficiency professional, and among other things taught climate science to lay people.

    I recently moved from Canberra to the Huon for a number of the reasons cited above: heat (and lately far more humidity) in summer; the drying out of south-eastern Australia that is already occurring (and further predicted by climate models); affordable real estate; slower paced country lifestyle.

    It’s not perfect down here – nowhere is – but I love it and there’s no way I’m going back. The only future move for me might be further South to NZ.