Debate rages on best places for refuge from climate change — Transition Voice.
Once Manhattan is under water, the northern Canadian city of Yellowknife could become North America’s city of the future. Photo: Hyougushi.
As scientists continue to revise their climate predictions for the worse, it’s clear that the time has passed for the world to avoid serious consequences from global warming.
With superstorms and floods competing with droughts and wildfires to break records somewhere around the world year-round, the weather is already getting pretty weird. So now, the real question is how best to prepare for even weirder weather in the future.
Should you move to someplace safer or should you stay where you already have family, friends and connections to the community?
Everybody seems to agree that, if you live in Miami, you should move just about anyplace else except New Orleans, Bangladesh or Kiribati as soon as you can.
In a Rolling Stone piece provocatively titled “Goodbye Miami,” Jeff Goodell writes that “by century’s end, rising sea levels will turn the nation’s urban fantasyland into an American Atlantis. But long before the city is completely underwater, chaos will begin.”
But if you live elsewhere, you’ve got a harder decision to make.
Choose hipsters or get hip-waders
Environmental blog Grist offers ten cities that it predicts will be spared the worst impacts of climate change.
Topping the list is Seattle, whose eco-awareness could cancel out the vulnerability to sea-level rise and storms of its coastal location. “Higher tides and a redrawn coastline will requirecoastal cities to adapt, but unlike a lot of U.S. burgs, Seattle is taking it seriously, developing a comprehensive climate action plan [PDF] and working to bolster food security and general resilience for changing times,” writes author Jim Meyer. With tongue-in-cheek, Meyers adds that “Plus, while models foresee flooding [for Seattle], they don’t project the hipster inundation to reach Portlandic levels. And in a worst-case scenario, the Space Needle serves as an escape pod.”
Meyer thinks that climate action plans will also help make coastal cities Homer, Alaska and San Francisco safer than New York, San Diego and of course Miami that are on Grist’s companion list of “screwed” cities that remain unprepared for superstorm hell and high water.
Inland cities including Detroit, Cleveland and Nashville as well as mountain town Leadville, Colorado also score well as climate-safe cities. Not only are they far from rising seas and coastal storms but they also have ample water supplies, a big bonus in a climate where many dry areas will get even drier.
By contrast, desert boomtowns like Phoenix or Las Vegas or even the whole state of Texas are already starting to become uninhabitable as rain disappears, wells dry up, topsoil blows away and wildfires consume brittle forests. And talk about screwed — gas fracking in dry areas is just going to make already stressed water supplies collapse more quickly.
Doomed to wander
A real climate doomer may tell you that we’re all screwed. Since climate change effects on local weather are unpredictable, you can’t predict which places will be winners and losers in a chaotic future either.
Global climate is a system too complex for us to say for sure what will happen in any one place. For example, before it disappears under rising seas, New York City could develop the hot, humid climate of Charleston. Or, if warming seas turn off the Gulf Stream, Manhattan could instead be buried under a glacier, as in the 2004 climate disaster flick The Day After Tomorrow. In climate chaos, all bets are off.
The only certainty for the climate doomer is that most places will become more dangerous. So, the best chance of survival lies in becoming a permanent nomad, ready to move as climate conditions change.
North to survival
But a slightly less doomerish eye seems to have settled on the frozen North as humanity’s last redoubt.
Six years ago, James Lovelock, of Gaia-hypothesis fame, grimly predicted that “before this century is over billions of us will die and the few breeding pairs of people that survive will be in the Arctic where the climate remains tolerable.”
Since then, Lovelock has backed off, calling his previous view “alarmist” while explaining that “the climate is doing its usual tricks. There’s nothing much really happening yet. We were supposed to be halfway toward a frying world…[The temperature] has stayed almost constant, whereas it should have been rising – carbon dioxide is rising, no question about that.”
American Exodus: Climate Change and the Coming Flight for Survival by Giles Slade, New Society, 270pp, $19.95.
Writer Giles Slade is not reassured. In American Exodus: Climate Change and the Coming Flight for Survival, he contends that, unless you already live in northern Canada, you should be afraid-very-afraid of what climate change will do to the place where you live.
“Because we regularly deny or underestimate the reality of climate change’s existence, ” Slade warns, “climate change will, by definition, come sooner than we expect.”
Slade reminds us that history is filled with migrations of peoples across vast stretches of territory. And he contends that many of the most famous migrants, from the Asians who crossed the Bering Straight land-bridge into North America during the last ice age to the Okies of the 1930s Dust Bowl, were actually refugees from climate change crises of the past.
Today, Slade already sees desertification driven by climate change creeping north from Mexico into Texas, California and the Great Plains, destroying farms, stressing local economies and sending waves of environmental refugees to wetter areas.
Coincidentally, California’s governor recently declared a drought emergency in the state.
With rising sea levels and storms set to pummel both East and West Coasts in coming years, Slade worries that his own hometown — painfully eco-friendly Vancouver — may only have a decade or two of glory days left.
Certainly, climate change and economic collapse will drive outmigration from the continental United States into Canada. People will flee for their lives, just as 100,000 Africa-Americans fled the south when the boll weevil changed Dixieland’s cotton-economy. Just as with Mexican migration to the United States, the number of people in motion will be so large it will be impossible to stem the tide.
So, rather than trying to fortify its 5,525 miles of unprotected border with the U.S., Canada should just get used to the idea that it may soon be overrun by millions of Yankees. Indeed, Slade thinks that both nations should start preparing to transfer North American civilization to the one place where it will be safe from the ravages of climate change — inland northwestern Canada.
“The safest places,” Slade writes, “will be significant communities in the north that are not isolated, that have abundant water, that have the possibility of agricultural self-sufficiency, that have little immediate risk of forest fires, that are well elevated, and that are built on solid rock.”
The top candidates?
The obvious choices are the larger towns of Dawson, Whitehorse and Yellowknife because they are accessible, and because western portions of northern Canada will experience less severe temperature rise during the coming century. Most importantly, however, precipitation in the Mackenzie and Yukon River basins will increase by 30 or 40% in the coming years, and winter will remain sufficiently cold to kill off the mountain pine beetles (MPBs) annually (for a few decades, at least).
Eager to get started but not quite ready to go straight to Yellowknife, the capital of Canada’s Northwest Territories?
Slade advises would-be migrants to acclimatize themselves to the culture and weather of the Great White North via Vancouver and Edmonton before settling for good in the place that the Canadian government has dubbed its “coldest, sunniest city,” where winter days regularly dip below -40º F with windchill.
Stay put and take root
Madeline Ostrander thinks you’ll have a better chance to survive climate chaos if you stay home.
She writes in YES! Magazine that “sense of place, community, and rootedness aren’t just poetic ideas. They are survival mechanisms.”
Being rooted in a place can make it easier to survive the kinds of weather disasters that will be more common nearly everywhere due to climate change. “Place attachment is one of several factors that can help a community recover from, and individuals cope with, the kinds of social and environmental crises that are becoming ever more common — like climate change-related disasters, large-scale job layoffs, or political turmoil.”
In two separate studies, for instance, individuals who reported higher levels of concern about place were more likely to take steps to prepare for wildfires (in the United States) or floods (in a monsoon-prone region of India). The damage caused by a disaster can be more stressful for individuals who were attached to that place, but those feelings can also motivate people to put the broken place back together, according to a recent book by social workers Michael John Zakour and David F. Gillespie.
While Ostrander concedes that not everybody will be able to stay put — “disasters like drought and flooding that devastate some places and force people to move” — places with strong community will fare better than those with transients in a future of climate chaos.
“As we face this kind of world,” Ostrander writes, “some communities might endure precisely because people have dug in, rooted themselves, and developed the kinds of generosity, adaptiveness, and foresight that come from knowing where they are.”
– Erik Curren, Transition Voice