Risk and Readiness

Impacts from climate change vary by place. Slow-moving stresses include surging seas and drought, while warming will intensify weather shocks, extreme storms, flooding, wildfire, infrastructure failure, and public health woes. Yet families and communities can take steps to prepare. Begin by assessing risk, then act to protect water, secure food and energy, strengthen infrastructure, diversify jobs, and reduce dependence on fossil fuels.

Where is a Climate Smart Place to Live?

Where are the climate smart places to live? Popular media abound with lists. But much is speculation, relying on off-the-cuff musings of a few climate scientists, each reaching a different conclusion. Yet the popularity of such lists shows that Americans are thinking this through. Let's review some of the public musings about where to live in a future of climate disruptions. Then we’ll share Climate Realty’s more rigorous methodology to help you sort through the noise and determine your own climate smart place.

For two days in September 2014, the most emailed article in the New York Times: On a Warming Planet, Which Cities Will be Safest?Under any model of climate change, scientists say, most of the country will look and feel drastically different within decades, said writer Jennifer Kingson. According to the experts she consulted, Alaska will probably be the next best place. Never mind that Alaska is warming twice as fast as the rest of the nation and is beset with raging wildfire, melting permafrost and coastal storms.  

Two years later, in October 2016, the New York Times revisited the question and reached a completely different set of conclusions. Anchorage, Seattle and Portland no longer are among the Nine Cities to Live in if You're Worried about Climate Change. The only commonality between the two lists in the same newspaper: Detroit.

climate smart places

Detroit? Grist writer Jim Meyer agrees, putting it on his Top 10 List because gritty residents are turning urban decay into a mecca of urban gardens and forest.

But another Grist writer, Ben Adler, concludes otherwise. Global warming will turn Detroit from bad to worse. “Climate change will mean more extreme weather for Detroit: more powerful storms, more heat waves, more extreme cold and heavy snow. In fact, it has already begun, with unusually severe winter weather the past two years and flooding last summer caused by massive downpours.”

While most prognosticators live in big cities and focus their favor on urban areas, Justin Worland at Time Magazine zeroed in on a region with a rural twist.  Stay away from stormy low-lying coastal areas and avoid the Southwest where mega-drought looms. “Here’s where to buy a house in the U.S. that will be resilient to climate change,” he writes: The northern Great Plains, including North Dakota, Wyoming and Montana east of the Rocky Mountains.

While few experts seem to recommend coastal areas that will be swamped by rising sea levels and brutal storms, wags at Bloomberg and the New Yorker have noted the head-scratching surge in high-end, ocean-front developments in Miami and New York. Such developments may actually be making those cities more resilient by generating property taxes that can be used to bolster climate defense systems.

Several commentators, such as Seattle meteorologist Cliff Mass and Ben Strauss of Climate Central, point to the Pacific Northwest, particularly west of the Cascades in Washington, Oregon and northern California, as a climate refuge. The Pacific states rise more sharply above the ocean and thus are less susceptible to rapid sea level rise, which is projected to surge up to six feet by 2100.  But don’t ignore the one natural hazard whose impact may dwarf climate change, at least this century.  The coastal Northwest is overdue for a massive earthquake and tsunami along the off-shore Cascadian subduction zone.  

Choose your poison. 

Some observers weigh community preparedness against risks posed by heat, storms, drought and floods. A recent report by Grosvenor, a real estate company based in London, gives extra credit to well-run cities that are trying to adapt to the climate challenge.  The five most resilient U.S. cities, according to Grosvenor, are Chicago, Pittsburg, Boston, Washington, DC, and Atlanta. 

Economist Matthew Kahn even puts a positive spin on the future of communities in a future disrupted by climate change. Our cities will thrive in the hotter future due to human ingenuity and magic of the market. His book, Climatopolis, lists five climate-smart cities:  Salt Lake City, Milwaukee, Buffalo, Minneapolis and Detroit.

But perhaps the safest place is home, right where you are now.  Madeline Ostrander writes for YES! Magazine that people with deep roots in the place where they live are best equipped to handle upheavals of the type that come with climate change. 

Of course, the most important thing we all must do together is to dramatically reduce emissions. Preparing for change will more likely succeed if we stop digging this climate hole. Climate smart communities do both.  

Our team of experts at Climate Realty finds at least a grain of truth in each of these ponderings. We recognize that individuals have different levels of risk tolerance and various preferences for urban or rural lifestyles. You may prefer sweltering heat humidity in the Midwest, for example, to the choking wildfire smoke that increasingly envelopes the northern Rockies. 

In general, however, a climate smart community is located in a region with relatively low risk from long-term climate stresses (e.g. sea level rise and megadrought) and from more immediate shocks such as inland flooding, wildfire, heat waves, and severe convective storms. The community has evaluated its vulnerability and exposure to stresses and shocks and is addressing risk through preparedness planning, prudent investments in infrastructure, and public engagement. Its local economy is well posed to prosper in an era of new climate challenges, and the community is actively working to reduce dependence upon fossil fuels. Food, water and energy security are local priorities. The community is characterized more by social cohesion and cooperation than by polarization and conflict.

Our assessments consider your needs and preferences while providing a rigorous review of 10 risk and readiness factors for any community or household in the United States.  

5 Risk Factors      

  • Regional climate projections    
  • Extreme weather trends and forecasts    
  • Localized exposure to natural hazards    
  • Infrastructure vulnerability    
  • Public health and safety

5 Readiness Factors      

  • Community preparedness and adaptive capacity    
  • Water, food and energy security    
  • Ecological integrity and ecosystem services    
  • Economic resilience at the community and regional level    
  • Household and community design, including transportation systems, mobility options, energy efficiency and climate-smart infrastructure

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