It is easy to be pessimistic about the future. It is also easy to scientifically verify that pessimism through persuasive papers and charts. It is easier still to lose yourself in bleak visions of fires and floods, food and water shortages, widespread human suffering, violent apocalyptic cults, bad wi-fi, and from there, to numb or (depending on your mood/proclivities) stoke these visions with potent drugs and thumping, atonal noise music.
Just last month, the United Nations put the world on “red alert” because leaders aren’t doing enough to stave off the climate crisis nor prepare for inevitable impacts, in case you needed one more reminder of how bad things could get. That’s not to say the world couldn’t arrest the climate tailspin it’s in. But say it doesn’t. If you’re motivated (or rich) enough, you can maybe escape the dangerous hellscape large swaths of the planet could become if humanity doesn’t get its act together. The question is, though, where to escape to? Twenty years from now, or 50, will there be any place to go? What’s the most climate-safe place in the world? For this week’s Giz Asks, we reached out to a number of experts to find out.
Deputy Division Leader & Research Physical Scientist, NOAA/Geophysical Fluid Dynamics Laboratory
To answer the question, I define places that are “climate-safe” to also include those that have plentiful resources and are resilient to potential changes in climate extremes. This means they need to have the following characteristics:
1) Access to clean freshwater
2) Not too hot or humid in a warming world
3) Low risk for catastrophic extreme events: wildfire, hurricanes
4) Weatherized to handle: blizzards, extreme rainfall events, wind storms
5) Well above sea level (due to rising seas)
6) Food security
In the U.S., these conditions are best met in the Great Lakes Region, especially on the colder lakes less prone to algae blooms, and the inland portion of the Northeast. (Although there have been some extreme flooding events from weakened hurricanes in inland New England in recent years.)
For a global perspective, I first look for places that are not too hot or humid in a warming world. Here, I draw from a paper my postdoc, Karin van der Wiel, led on changes in global mild weather. This narrows the places with pleasant weather in a changing climate to higher latitude regions as the tropics become hotter and more humid. Additionally, these need to be locations where there is regular precipitation (rainfall or snowfall) now and in the future to ensure access to freshwater, which removes many subtropical locations. So higher latitude locations away from the coasts will be well positioned like portions of Canada and Europe.
This assessment of a location being “climate-safe” is based on the access to resources and risk to society from known physical climate risks (i.e. damages that can happen due to weather and climate extremes). Beyond access to freshwater and food security, with some basic habitable conditions when a person or animals are outside (a manageable number of days that are extreme heat or extreme cold), the built environment determines if a place is “climate-safe” for society. For hot days, people need to have access to air conditioning and water. For cold days, they need access to heat. For extreme rainfall days, water management and building codes avoid flooding or extreme damages to structures. Planning for extreme weather and climate events in addition to average climate is critical to making a place “climate-safe.” This requires combining known physical climate risks with infrastructure and technology to build a resilient world.
Associate Professor, Geography and Environment, University of Hawaii Mãnoa
There’s not going to be anywhere. Look at what’s happening now—look at Texas. You have pretty much the entire state freezing their asses off. Think about the wildfires. Think about last year’s heatwave—entire sections of the country told to stay indoors, because otherwise the weather might kill them. You’d need to be blind to think this is going to turn out okay.
We’ve been ruining the planet for a long, long time. And it’s only going to get worse. What we’re seeing right now is nothing. We’ve increased fuel emissions by 100 parts per million—from 300 to 400. We could be headed towards 800. Take anything you’ve seen and multiply it by three—that’s how bad things are going to be. Pretty much the entire planet is going to be on fire, metaphorically and literally, as wildfires are also triggered by carbon dioxide.
We’ve seen a lot of billionaires buying up islands, thinking they’re going to be secure. Because who’s going to go there, right? But the reality is that not even those islands are safe. How are they going to get clean water? How are they going to keep away all of the people living without water or electricity, in houses that stink because they can’t flush their toilets?
So, as for your question of where could be the safest place to live? Maybe Mars.
Assistant Professor, Geography and the Environment, University of Richmond
This question hits home because I actually ask all of my Intro Earth Systems students a version of it on their final exam. I caveat the question by also noting that there’s no right answer, but there are probably a lot of wrong ones. In their answer, which is often US-centric, I’m looking for them to consider a few things: Generally, let’s avoid the coasts due to projections in sea-level rise; somewhere that won’t be too hot, which will rule out a lot of the South; somewhere hopefully free of natural disasters and extreme weather like hurricanes, so there goes the Southeast and East Coast; then we need to consider wildfires, so much of California is out; and access to fresh water, so that then eliminates a lot of the West, too. So, my students who get it “right” generally come up with an answer like upstate New York, Minnesota, Michigan, and Vermont. And I think they’re generally right. I mean, if I could just pick up and move, I’d happily head to Burlington, Vermont: It’s not going to get that much warmer, no wildfires, there’s an abundance of freshwater, and they’re prepped for cold weather.
Infrastructure is a big consideration. I joked earlier that I’d love to live in Vermont, but the rainfall and flooding that came with Hurricane Irene wrecked much of the state in 2011 because so much of Vermont’s infrastructure wasn’t designed to withstand major flooding events. They’ve made changes since then, monetarily incentivizing towns’ improvement for flood readiness. But, that is something to note—New England is trending toward more and more frequent extreme precipitation events too.
Another thing I’m acutely aware of having recently moved to Richmond, Virginia and being the person in the group of people that always gets bit, are mosquitoes. Richmond’s 2019-20 winter was extremely mild, and mosquito season is getting longer and longer. I think I got my first mosquito bite in February last year. Mosquitoes are also great carriers of disease.
I know all of my answers are U.S.-centric, but another thing to potentially consider is that it would be wise to live in a place that fully acknowledges that climate change is a threat multiplier and is taking action to both mitigate and adapt. So to my point earlier about not living on the coast, I’ve actually seen that my hometown of Boston, notable for being built on piles of dirt filled in off the original coastline, is sometimes regarded highly in terms of this question because they’re intentionally considering the effects of climate change in their urban planning and design.
Everywhere around the globe is already feeling the effects of climate change. The countries and people most affected by changes in climate are going to be those that have contributed the least to this problem. And, a lot of us need to acknowledge 1) the privilege we have in a wealthy country where we’ll be buffered from many of the worst effects of climate change (although we need to recognize that poor people and minorities living in this country are burdened with the adverse physical and mental health the effects of environmental racism time and time again); and 2) the immense privilege we have if we have agency to actually decide and choose where we want to live based on the answer to this question.
Doctoral Student, Law, University of Oxford, whose research focuses on the intersections of climate change adaptation, migration, and public international law
No one place will be the most “climate-safe.” Whether a place is able to weather the adverse impacts of climate change will depend on resources, foresight, and capacity. Climate impacts interact with the conditions of a given context. These impacts are foreseeable, and the safest places will be those where countries and communities are willing and able to act on this knowledge. Governments must invest in measures that boost resilience and adapt to changing ecosystems and environments. Likewise, plans must be put in place to both offer safe alternatives or opportunities when it is no longer feasible to live a safe, dignified life somewhere and—in places where prospects appear more promising—to account for an increase in productivity and migration. This will necessitate changes to infrastructure and to laws and policies that affect a wide-range of sectors and issues including land use, housing, immigration, food, water, and health care.
All of this requires time, resources, and technical expertise. However, in some contexts these may be lacking or inaccessible. International cooperation and assistance will be crucial to fill gaps and to ensure that we are adequately prepared for the local, national, and global challenges posed by climate change. Indeed, there are legal and moral obligations to support countries that are most susceptible to climate impacts but that have contributed least to—and benefited least from—its causes. This means that while some places will be better off, climate impacts are not ethically neutral nor equally felt.
Associate Professor, Architecture, Tulane University, whose research focuses on the intersection of climate change adaptation and the built environment
There are better and worse places to live, but no place on earth is immune from the impacts of climate change. Before we dive in, let’s acknowledge that the idea that a city or its infrastructure can be “climate-safe” is flawed for two reasons. First, the comparatively better places to live in the long run risk being overpopulated beyond their capacity to sustainably support more people. In this regard, being “safe” implies a form of stationarity and insularity that runs in the face of how people have historically adapted to climate change.
At the time scales of anthropology, we understand that human and societal fitness to any given environment is contingent upon adaptation. Migration, as a form of adaptation, over the course of prehistory and history tells us that crowding-out is a challenge. You name a civilization—from the Khmers to the ancient Maya—and climate change and migration are usually written into their final chapters. It is not unreasonable to think that the Sumerians knew a lot more about sea level rise and cities than we currently understand about our own predicament today.
Second, the idea of a place being “climate-safe” reinforces a bias that often leads to us overly relying on technology to solve wicked problems that are both material and moral. Technology not only makes us safe, it also defines the fragile nature of our vulnerabilities—just ask folks in Texas.
Therefore, the first step in answering the question of where we should live is acknowledging the limitations of how we currently live. The goal should not be to build resilience to an unsustainable way of life. The goal should be to conceptualize our geographic migration as a form of adaptation that gives consideration to the sustainability of our future footprint. This raises all kinds of questions about who goes and who gets left behind, as well as what happens to the people that we might crowd out when we arrive. So, where can we sustainably live in the future?
In the northern hemisphere, the ranges of flora and fauna are shifting to the north and people will follow suit. From a broader ecological perspective, we need clean water and energy. In North America over the near-term, reinvesting in the Rust Belt begins to make a lot of sense. Beyond the infrastructural capacity, there is a cultural capacity for onboarding new populations that often goes unappreciated. While the Great Lakes are a natural draw, it remains to be understood whether food systems and ecosystem services could keep up with the sustainability demands of a new resident population.
In the long-term, Canada’s vast northern frontier is a long-term strategic resource that could very well challenge its own border control and national identity. In this context, particularly in light of Indigenous people’s rights, where we draw the line between climate colonies and climate colonization is a question mediated by history and the integrity that we bring to advancing the social and environmental well-being of future climigrants. So maybe asking this question about where we will live is not so crazy after all. For now, I am going to invest in Toledo, Ohio.
Director of the Climate Change Initiative and Professor of Environmental Science at the University of Massachusetts Lowell
The first reaction most people would have to that question would be to consider climate impacts—like sea level rise, floods, wildfires, heatwaves, and droughts—and where they are least likely to occur. But the real answer depends at least as much, if not more, on what people in a given place—and society as a whole—do to address climate change. This winter’s disaster in Texas is a clear example. While heatwaves, droughts, and hurricanes are commonly considered climate risks in Texas, few would have warned that Texas is not “climate safe” because of severe winter weather. But because human systems—i.e., the electric grid, energy supply systems, and energy-inefficient, poorly insulated homes—were not prepared for that event, Texas was not climate safe. Worse, as the Pentagon is well aware, a climate disaster in one location can spur social and political unrest and destabilization that has far-removed consequences.
So, my response is that the most climate safe place in the world is a place that builds resilience in its built environment and social systems and, while doing so, addresses the cause of the problem: emissions of climate-damaging gases. Energy efficient, well insulated homes would have kept more Texans safe and warm by reducing strain on the energy supply, making blackouts less likely, and maintaining their homes’ temperatures if blackouts occur. Modern heat pumps, water heaters, and appliances that turn on when electricity is abundant and cheap and delay use when it is scarce and expensive increase resilience while reducing emissions and cost. Distributed, renewable power generation with transmission across large geographic areas enables us to rely more on carbon-free energy while making our energy supply more resilient to local disruptions. And neighbors checking on neighbors can enable the vulnerable among us to weather climate disasters, while building social fabric, building capacity for effective climate-friendly policy, and making our lives more fulfilling.
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