Press Box

Bogus Trend Story of the Week

Washington Post: “Climate Fears Are Driving ‘Ecomigration’ Across Globe.’

How, exactly, is ecomigration different from a move to better climes?

When hunting bogus trend stories, the experienced tracker rarely needs to look beyond Page One to bag his prey. Early this week, the Washington Post lofted onto its front page a doozy of a bogus trend story titled “Climate Fears Are Driving ‘Ecomigration’ Across Globe.”

The opening anecdote is about the relocation of Adam Fier and his family from their suburban Washington, D.C., home to New Zealand. “Among the top reasons” behind the Fiers’ big move, reporter Shankar Vedantam writes, is “global warming.”

Having hitchhiked from the top of that splendid South Pacific nation to the bottom, I question nobody’s decision to move there. But if the Fiers truly fear being burned to a crisp or drowned in a global-warming-induced flood in the next couple of decades—or if they worry that their grandchildren will suffer a similar fate in the next century—how rational was it for them to move 8,600 miles?

New Zealand stretches from approximately 33 degrees south latitude to 47 degrees south latitude. The average temperatures range from about 75 degrees in the summer to 57 degrees in the winter in the country’s northernmost cities to between 57 degrees and 42 degrees in its southernmost towns.

The article doesn’t say where in New Zealand the Fiers settled, but surely there exists a U.S. city or town that would have suited their ambition to find a cool, green place with a high quality of life that’s “isolated from global conflicts.” Scores of livable communities with New Zealand-esque climates exist in the North America: Bellingham, Wash., and Bend, Ore., on the West Coast; Shepherdstown, W.Va., Bangor, Maine, on the East Coast; and any number of places in Ontario and Quebec.  According to the Post story, Fier, a former NASA computer-security worker, picked New Zealand even though he has no professional or family contacts there and never visited the country before.

Very weird for a guy who is out to protect his family. Something is motivating Adam Fier, but I don’t think it’s climate fear.

What exactly is an ecomigrant, anyway? The article offers the wobbly definition of anybody “on the move in search of more habitable living space.” By this measure, I qualify as a lapsed ecomigrant because I once moved from Michigan to Los Angeles for the sun and surf. My Uncle Chuck and Aunt Barb would fill the bill, too, having retired to Florida from Chicago because they hated Midwestern winters. And don’t forget the Chiricahua Apaches, who left the desert plains for the mountains in the summer.

According to the academic authority quoted in the piece, there were 25 million ecomigrants a decade ago—but there are many more now. Still, very few of the ecomigrants mentioned in the story are motivated by climate change. In the Philippines, the story states, about 4 million moved to the highlands because of deforestation. Droughts and famine in the Sahel—not necessarily related to climate change, either—caused 10 million to move.

The people of the Pacific nation of Kiribati are the second biggest peg for the story, but their fears haven’t driven them anywhere yet. Kiribati’s president only hopes to find a new home for the country’s 100,000 citizens (who fret that they’ll be swamped by rising sea levels). Also figuring highly in the piece are the people of Bangladesh, of whom the Post writes “about 12 million to 17 million … have fled their homes in recent decades because of environmental disasters.” We’re told Bangladeshis also fear rising sea levels, but the piece is mum on whether climate fears have caused any to move permanently.

In addition to Fier, two other American ecomigrants are mentioned: Lynn Lightfoot, who moved from New Orleans to Shreveport, La., and Thomas Hoff, who left Michigan for Florida about 25 years ago and may move again because he worries that climate change may have increased the frequency of violent hurricanes.

This is thin porridge. Colin Grabow beat me to ridiculing this story in his blog. New Zealand can’t be considered a mecca for immigrants, he writes. It showed an average net migration of only 3.3 per 1,000 population from 1990 to 2003, compared with 3.5 for the United States and 3.8 for Greece. Meanwhile, Luxembourg’s average net migration per 1,000 population was 8.8. (This New Zealand page is home to an Excel spreadsheet that compares average migration by country.)

What was it that the wise man said? The plural of anecdote is not data.


Thanks to reader John Corso for flagging the story. Seen a bogus trend story lately? Send it to (E-mail may be quoted by name in “The Fray,” Slate’s readers’ forum; in a future article; or elsewhere unless the writer stipulates otherwise. Permanent disclosure: Slateis owned by the Washington Post Co.)

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