Let’s say I wanted to escape climate change. Where should I go?
Our readers submit questions to Umbra here, and then vote for the one they most want her to answer. This was the winning question last week.
Q.I am not giving up … but if I were to move, where in the United States could I go to minimize climate disruption?
— Uneasy in a U-Haul
So you want to escape climate change. That’s a reasonable impulse — climate change rivals nuclear war for the greatest threat to human life in the history of our species’ existence. Every survival instinct we’ve cultivated to date should, understandably, make us want to get away from it.
Let’s start by evaluating regions of the U.S. based on the basics of what we expect climate change to bring. We know that the seas will swell and temperatures will go up. So that particularly endangers a host of coastal cities with relatively warm climates, especially in the summer — so Miami, New Orleans, Norfolk, Washington D.C., New York, Los Angeles. A 2017 paper in Nature Climate Change estimated that the 13.1 million people displaced from those cities by sea level rise could head for more inland locales like Atlanta, Houston, and Phoenix.
So there you have it, Uneasy! Let’s all head to Atlanta, Houston, and Phoenix.
But wait a second: Hurricane Harvey gave an alarming preview of how Houston will fare in a climate-changed future. Phoenix is in the middle of a desert with no reliable water source, where temperatures can surge to 120 degrees F in the summer. And Atlanta is the third fastest-warming metropolitan region in the country.
Forget about those cities. What’s a nice, temperate place? Never gets too hot or too cold, has lots of water? Aha — the Pacific Northwest. Umbra’s home! It’s part-rainforest, after all.
But it’s a rainforest that’s seen bigger, hotter, deadlier, and more unpredictable wildfires in recent memory. Even a small increase in temperature has detrimental effects on plant and soil moisture, which will dry out forests and make them into true tinderboxes. And we’ve had warmer winters, which means less snowpack on the mountains and thus a less reliable water source for the region. (Oh, and we’re overdue for a truly devastating earthquake, but that’s separate from climate change.)
Hmmm … how about Alaska? Tons of snow. Really cold. Well, except an increase in average temperatures has already begun to displace thousands of the state’s Native inhabitants along the coast. On top of that, millions of ancient viruses and bacteria to which humans have lost immunity will be unearthed as the permafrost becomes, well, less permanent.
This is hard math. Or maybe hard geography? I called Jesse Keenan, climate-adaptation specialist and a faculty member at Harvard’s Graduate School of Design, to get a more informed perspective on where one could limit their exposure to climate change.
His suggestion: places that aren’t dependent on snowpack, ground-level aquifers, or reservoirs for their water. More specifically, that tends to be rural, wooded, northern areas with lots of clean water wells — so the Upper Midwest (Minnesota, Wisconsin, the Upper Peninsula of Michigan), and maybe parts of Montana. Justin Timberlake was on to something!
But if everyone moves to rural areas, altering the wooded landscape and taxing all those pristine wells, they won’t last long as climate strongholds.
“Well, exactly,” Keenan said. “There’s nowhere you can hide. I think you need to come to terms with what you think you’re running from. Are you trying to beat people to something? Are you trying to run because there’s a hazard and you’re at risk? Are you running because of your health or welfare? Then you need to come to terms with the fact that you’re trying to make an economic investment decision of where you’re trying to put your limited resources.”
Resources, limited or vast, are the crucial factor here. I imagine if you’re posing this question, you have some means to pick up and move. That’s not the case for many people — one might say most people, considering that nearly two-thirds of Americans have less than $1,000 in savings and the average long-distance move costs about $5,000.
But even putting the money aside, moving isn’t a small change. You have to start an entirely new life, build a new social circle. “You can try to move to one of these places,” Keenan said, “but you need to learn the position you’re putting yourself in, and you’ll have to become a part of these new communities.”
Keenan said he gets versions of your question almost daily — usually from “people at big institutional real estate funds, rich people who want to buy land or already own land, or survivalist types.” And acquiring the ability to answer the question “what land will survive climate change?” is already a lucrative endeavor.
Not to wealth-shame you, but the fact that the unholy trifecta of insurance companies, real estate investors, and Silicon Valley is mobilizing on these concerns should give you a bit of pause.
If you recognize that climate change is a huge, terrifying problem, and you have the means to at least try to escape it — why wouldn’t you devote those means to trying to fix it instead, especially if you know it’s impossible to escape? By “fix it,” I mean try to make the place you live, where you’ve made your home, where you have some sense of ownership and responsibility — and oh, let’s call it investment — more resilient to climate change. Maybe agitate for more storm-resistant infrastructure, mass transit, green spaces.
Because the future isn’t for sure, but running away from the problem ensures that it will be.
P.S. If you want a preview of how climate change will affect every region of the United States, check out the map my colleagues put together here.
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