Outside/In: With Climate Change, Where is the Safest Place to Live?
In the coming decades, the scale of migration linked to climate change could be dizzying. In ProPublica’s projection, four million people in the United States could find themselves “living at the fringe,” outside ideal conditions for human life.
In collaboration with By Degrees, NHPR’s climate change reporting initiative, Outside/In answers a listener question: if you’re worried about climate, where should you live? And how should places prepare for the wave of climate migrants just around the corner?
Episodes of Outside/In are made as pieces of audio, and some context and nuance may be lost on the page. We highly recommend listening to the episode. This story first aired in December, 2020.
Justine Paradis, Annie Ropeik, Sam Evans-Brown, and Taylor Quimby
Bess Samuel lives in Huntsville, Alabama, with her husband and two young kids. While there’s a lot she loves about the South, she’s considering a move with her family, partly because of climate change.
“I feel like I have to be realistic,” said Samuel. “This is as good as it’s gonna get for a while. We keep hearing these things… it’s the hottest summer, it’s the hottest summer, and it’s the hottest summer, and that trend doesn’t seem to be reversing.”
'Where is the safest place to move based on the data we have right now?' asked Bess Samuel.
To a certain extent, there is a straightforward answer.
In 2017, the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) released a Climate Resilience Screening Index (CRSI) aggregating different climate risks and societal measures into a single point-based score. According to the CRSI, the most resilient county in the United States is Kodiak Island, Alaska.
ProPublica also published an aggregate risk analysis showing that some of the safest areas in 20 to 40 years will theoretically include parts of the Midwest, parts of the Northwest, and parts of Northern New England, like Maine and Vermont.
But “most resilient” may not be the same thing as “safest,” and it can feel unsatisfying to just go by the data for a question like this. For instance, even though Kodiak Island was rated the highest in the country, Samuel thought a move from Alabama to Alaska might be a hard sell for her family.
So we put out a survey asking the audience how they’re thinking about climate change in their own lives.
“Anywhere you are, climate change is happening. It’s getting worse. Why not pick where you want to live the most? For us it was Hawaii. It was a dream,” said Suzi Patterson in Kailua-Kona, Hawaii.
“It’s a constant balancing act between what things to do to the air in any given room in order to create a habitable environment,” said Alex Whittemore, an engineer dealing with wildfire smoke in Redondo Beach in Los Angeles, California.
Mike Hass, a vegetable farmer in Kentucky, is shifting his growing schedule and methods.
“It gets super hot in June and July,” he said. “I don't really grow potatoes anymore those times of year because it’s just too hot.”
Jesse Jaime, a biology student living in San Antonio, Texas, loves the desert and the American Southwest, but has to consider his health when he’s weighing his future.
“My asthma condition is mild to severe, so I had an internship in Utah, and so I lived there for the summer. It was in Glen Canyon. The whole time I was there, for those two and a half months, I only used my inhaler once, and it was during a wildfire,” said Jaime.
“If you were ever.... buried in the sand and there’s a lot of sand on your chest, so it’s harder to breathe, that's what it feels like in the city or in an area with bad air quality. And other people might not notice it. They just might notice, ‘oh, there’s a haze in the sky, isn’t there?’ And I’m like, ‘yeah, dude! I need to go inside. I can’t do this.’"
As things get hotter, air quality both in terms of city smog and wildfire smoke will likely get worse.
But moving can be driven by a combination of many factors, including emotional elements and family ties. For instance, Jaime’s mother, Aurelia Jaime Ramirez, grew up in a village in the high desert in Mexico, where she returns a couple times a year. She has observed changes, but isn’t considering a move due to climate change.
How climate 'havens' like northern New England could prepare for climate migrants
Many counties of Vermont earn high resilience scores on the EPA’s CRSI. It's a state where, like New Hampshire, lots of people have already moved semi-permanently due to the Covid-19 pandemic - up to nearly 11,000 people, according to one research firm. For context, Vermont’s population is about 624,000 -- so if that turns out to be true, that could increase the state’s population by around 1.5%.
“Fourteen months ago, we wouldn’t have anticipated a population bump due to a pandemic. So how can we sit here now and say we won’t see climate migration in a year or five years or ten years?” said Kate McCarthy, sustainable communities program manager at the Vermont Natural Resources Council, and one of the first people in Vermont who started thinking about climate migration in the past few years.
“We were met with some skepticism for sure, like ‘oh, that’s not going to happen, there are no jobs here, people don’t have any motivation to come here.’ And now I think with COVID I think people have seen two things. One, you don’t need to be coming to a job, you can be bringing a job with you. And two, we don’t know what the next year is going to bring,” said McCarthy.
“I don’t think Vermont has really faced the kind of development pressure that it may once other parts of our country become uninhabitable,” said Elena Mihaly, a Vermont-based attorney with the Conservation Law Foundation.
Without good planning, Mihaly worries that rampant development will only serve to heighten inequality and undermine Vermont’s other goals, including those around climate change, perhaps by fragmenting forest lands or by increasing transportation emissions, the region’s biggest contributor to climate-related emissions.
Despite high CRSI resiliency scores in some counties, northern New England is not immune to climate change.
Preparing for change could mean focus on infrastructure, including affordable housing, rural water and sewer systems, and expanded healthcare and education capacity, plus good zoning.
But one of the biggest issues could be cultural, especially in a state like Vermont that's shrinking, aging and overwhelmingly white.
“I can’t emphasize enough… how much energy should be devoted toward the social issues that come with welcoming new people to Vermont, and the deep-seated nativism and sort of ‘you’re not a Vermonter unless you were born and raised here three generations ago’ notion. It’s really time for us to see the opportunities that come from welcoming people into the state,” said Mihaly.
This is also a factor that Bess Samuel, the original question-asker, is weighing. New Hampshire is on her list of possibilities.
“I like the scenery a lot. But being an interracial family… it just gives me pause,” said Samuel.
Climate migration vs. managed retreat
Dr. Idowu (Jola) Ajibade is an assistant professor at Portland State University who researches climate adaptation in cities including Lagos, Nigeria, and Manila in the Philippines.
“I love cities, I’m a city girl,” said Ajibade.
In the course of her work, Ajibade noticed people and policymakers conflating what she says are very different types of movement: climate migration versus “managed retreat.”
“And I was just infuriated, I was saying no! The people who are retreating are not the same people who are migrating. Of course you can retreat and migrate, but these are not the same things, and it’s not helping move us forward,” said Ajibade.
As Ajibade defines it, even if it’s at a massive scale or if people feel like they have no choice but to leave, climate migration really tends to focus on individual people or families. Managed retreat is about planning.
“With managed retreat, people are thinking: we can move lighthouses. We can move the capital of a city. We can move businesses… so it’s very different in terms of how it plays out on ground.”
Managed retreat can be more collective, more or less government or institutionally supported, and more or less strategic. For instance, buying people out in New Jersey after Hurricane Sandy or well-known (and sometimes controversial) examples of movement plans for coastal native communities in Shishmaref, Alaska, or Isle de Jean Charles in southern Louisiana.
“What does it mean for retreat to be successful? I haven’t seen a situation where all of the aspects of human life to date can be said to be a win-win,” said Ajibade.
Some managed retreats can be really top-down and not participatory. In Lagos, for instance, Ajibade pointed to examples of “kick-outs” which didn’t provide any compensation for moving.
Another example is the construction of New Clark City outside of Manila. The idea behind New Clark City is that when disasters hit Manila, disaster responders are also affected and therefore can’t help.
“They all live there, so they all get impacted. So the idea is, if you move them to New Clark City, if there is a major issue, they can fly in with a helicopter or whatever else, and they can help people in Manila to deal with it. That's part of the logic for this New Clark City. But I don't know if the people in low-income classes will also be a part of the people relocated to New Clark City,” said Ajibade.
Gentrification, displacement, and cultural loss
“I was born and raised in Miami. 305 till I die! This is home for me,” said Nadege Greene, Director of Community Research and Storytelling at the Community Justice Project.
Green also reported on climate gentrification for WLRN, the local public radio station, and collaborated with WNYC on a season of There Goes the Neighborhood.
In Miami, a limestone ridge runs north-south through the city. And on top of this ridge is where the railroad tracks were built. The waterfront is east of the railroad, but it’s at a lower elevation.
Historically Black neighborhoods like Little Haiti and Liberty City lie west of the ridge and sit on a higher elevation.
With projected sea level rise, elevation is one of the factors that could accelerate investment, development and rising property prices in places like Liberty City and Little Haiti.
As Green reported, Liberty City was founded by a Black community that was displaced earlier in the 20th century by urban renewal and, specifically, the construction of I-95, the highway.
Displacement had come disguised under the idea of “urban renewal,” and now words that Green hears a lot are “smart planning” and “resilience.”
“They see what's happening, right? Like, ‘I'm being displaced. I have to move. My rent is going up,’” said Green.
Researchers like Jesse Keenan at the Tulane School of Architecture have termed this not just gentrification, but climate gentrification.
Green herself was born in Little Haiti and is of Haitian descent. She grew up in and around the neighborhood, and has seen old residents move out while new development and residents move in.
“We don’t really delve into how displacement impacts folks. Like the emotional impact, the psychological impact of leaving your community or not being able to call home the community you’ve always called home,” said Green.
Green pointed out that the shift of the neighborhood is especially acute for older folks, including people on fixed income or Social Security, in a city with high rents.
“What does it mean to have a neighbor that knows that Madame Pierre lives upstairs? And when she doesn’t feel well, I can make the tea, the Haitian tea from this bush that we drink when we have a stomachache. Who will check on Madame Pierre when the neighborhood shifts?” said Green.
Impermanence as the new normal
“Impermanence might be the new normal for many of us,” said Ajibade.
“The idea that you have to live in one place forever, I think people have to forget that. It's not happening. That's the truth. I think people who have been able to do that historically, I think it's a privilege that they should celebrate.”
Again, Ajibade is Nigerian. She moved abroad and lived in Canada before settling in Portland, Oregon.
“There are a lot of issues in my country that led me to decide to move abroad but I would have preferred to stay back, if things were fine. And so I sort of have in my head that nothing is permanent. I guess that's how I live my life,” said Ajibade.
Oregon is, of course, not immune to disaster. The region is projected to experience a major earthquake (“the big one”) but Ajibade says, “I’m not afraid.”
“Because I’ve had to leave my family... I’m living in a foreign country. This is not new to me.”
In an essay published in Letters of Transit, Charles Simic, New Hampshire-based poet and Yugoslav exile, wrote about the impact of uprooting.
“Being rattled around in freight trains, open trucks, and ratty ocean-liners, we ended up being a puzzle even to ourselves. At first, that was hard to take; then we got used to the idea. We began to savor it, to enjoy it. Being nobody struck me personally as being far more interesting than being somebody. The streets were full of these ‘somebodys’ putting on confident airs. Half the time I envied them; half the time I looked down on them with pity. I knew something they didn't, something hard to come by unless history gives you a good kick in the ass: how superfluous and insignificant in any grand scheme mere individuals are. And how pitiless are those who have no understanding that this could be their fate too.”
Ajibade also says that displacement and movement affects people in all kinds of ways.
“You get some opportunities because you move, you lose some things,” said Ajibade.
“But it gives you that sense of individual resilience… But for other people, this is going to affect them psychologically because they’ve never had to do this.”
Wolves and Trophic Cascades
In November, in what critics have called “ballot box biology,” Colorado voters narrowly passed an initiative calling on the state to reintroduce wolves.
There were plenty of arguments in favor, including biodiversity and the idea that reintroducing wolves in Colorado would create a continuous wolf population from Canada to Mexico.
“Some of them are more along the lines of moral arguments. For instance, humans deliberately wiped out wolves in Colorado, as they did in most of the lower 48 states, and so we have a moral responsibility to restore this species,” said Sharon Levy, freelance journalist and author of a recent article on wolves for Undark.
Levy dug into the idea of trophic cascades, which posits that introducing top predators can have beneficial effects that cascade all the way down the food chain, impacting even the landscape itself. “Back in, say, the 1960s, this was a really radical idea in ecology,” said Levy.
Other examples of trophic cascades include Robert Paine’s research on starfish in the Pacific Northwest, and James Estes’ research on sea otters and sea urchins in Alaska.
The idea is often employed in support of the idea of wolf reintroduction.
“The wolves changed the behavior of the rivers,” British journalist George Monbiot said in a video exploring the trophic cascade idea. “The rivers changed in response to the wolves.”
But, as Levy wrote, the evidence tying wolves to wholescale healing of landscapes, is much murkier than scientists (and pop science) might have once believed.
In Yellowstone, for example, before wolves were reintroduced, they had been missing from the landscape since the 1940s, and in their absence, the elk herd had grown overpopulated.
“A pattern that people were observing all over Yellowstone, especially in the northern range, is that trees like aspens and willows had stopped growing,” said Levy.
Elk graze on trees like aspen and willow, and people drew a connection between the overpopulation of elk and the absence of wolves.
“As the wolves began to return, scientists saw some regrowth of aspen and willow,” said Levy. “But it turns out after years studying the situation and picking it apart, that it’s much more complicated than that.”
Yellowstone is not a controlled experiment: wolves are not the only element in the park’s dynamic ecosystems. While the elk population fell after the reintroduction of the wolf, there were other factors, including harsh winters, human hunters and the rebound of the grizzly population.
There are possible dangers in over relying on the idea of the trophic cascade, including ecologist David Mech’s idea that society risks “sanctifying” the wolf, or imbuing wolves with the power to repair damage to ecosystems.”
“There was another ecologist, Tom Hobbes, from Colorado State University, who said to me: it’s really pretty simple. The effects of bringing wolves back are not symmetric with having removed them in the first place. There’s so much change on the landscape that wolves can't put it all back in place.”
For instance, when wolves and other top predators disappeared from Yellowstone, beavers were also lost.
“Beaver dams hold water back and keep the water table high. That means the water underground is close to the surface. Those are the kinds of conditions that willows need to grow. So, once you’ve lost the willows and lost the beavers... the dams disappear and the streams start to run fast and just cut deep into the earth,” Levy explained.
“So where you had shallow spread-out water, you now have streams that are incised really deep into the landscape. And willows can’t grow there because the water table is too far down for their roots to reach.”
While Levy says that wolves are charismatic, “totally awesome” creatures, they’re also just one part of a complicated ecosystem.
“They are parts of systems… if you take the whole system apart, I think it’s a complicated business to try to bring it back together again.”
Sharon Levy is a freelance journalist based in Humboldt County, California.
Correction: This article originally misstated Jesse Keenan's affiliation. He works at the Tulane School of Architecture. The article has been updated.