Dear Umbra,

Given that there is a possibility/probability that sea levels will rise significantly [due to climate change], and that some parts of the world may become too hot while others could become too cold, where in the world will things be relatively “safe”? If I start thinking about moving my family to another country, in which direction should we be looking?

Michael Laird
Belgium (below sea level!)

Dearest Michael,

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With the entire planet to choose from, specificity may be impossible, but we can look at general guidelines.

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Oh, honey, remember when we lived
below sea level?

Photo: iStockphoto.

In terms of geographic location, it’s true that climate refugees will not flee to Belgium. Low-lying coastal areas in general are at higher risk from rising sea levels, flooding, and tropical cyclones. Sea levels will rise anywhere from a conservative couple of feet — sorry, a conservative 60 centimetres to a disastrous six metres. Your dream home, unless it floats, won’t be near the sea, below sea level, on a small island, or in the cyclone pathway.

We may see — may already be seeing — other “extreme weather events,” a coinage that sounds to me like a television show, but in daily life means things like loads of rain or searing heat. The upshot of this, as you plan for the perfect relocation, is to stay away from areas prone to flooding or landslides. Nothing steep, no river banks. On the other hand, you do want to have a secure water supply. To avoid searing heat, the best I can tell you is find a house built to cope with hot weather. Not through air conditioning, because that will use increasingly expensive (and climate-warming) energy, but through design.

Over on the cold bits of the planet, warming means the end of permafrost in tundra areas, as well as the disappearance of seasonal ice. Apparently when permafrost warms, the ground it held up can collapse, and this is causing serious physical disturbance in Arctic settlements. So we can remove the Arctic from our home-hunting list, along with all those warm coastal areas.

What else? A few predicted outcomes aren’t terribly specific as to where and when. It’s hard to predict how disease will spread as animals and humans relocate, for instance. If you move to a rural area and choose to go survivalist, grow your own food, and so on, you may be OK as weather patterns shift — or you may not. Here is where there is actual scientific debate. Will Europe become colder and wetter, along with hotter in the summer, or just one or the other? Will the entire United States experience severe summer droughts, or just some regions? Don’t know yet.

Given the primary importance of a well-established and funded public infrastructure, both in terms of preparation for change and response to crisis, I would stay in Europe. Also, this may sound crass, but recent experience has shown that the No. 1 rule is to avoid poverty. If you must be poor, be poor in a wealthy area. Better to be poor in Antwerp than in Angola, for instance. Area wealth will insure that infrastructure is maintained in the face of disaster or shortages.

I think your ideal choice is a well-run, progressive urban area in Western Europe, located inland and near a well-managed river, where you live in an eco-groovy house with water catchment and a large food garden. Oh, and don’t come to the United States. Our wealth is a mirage at this point, we’re deeply in debt, and the whole world has witnessed the pathetic response to our latest natural disaster.