Location. Now more than ever.
Climate change is not a Chinese-created hoax to kill American manufacturing. It’s real, it’s happening now, and all of us need to adapt. Regardless of which climate scenario you think is likely, be it 1° or 2°C in the next 50 years, sea levels will rise, it will be hotter, there will be more droughts, more flooding, more wildfires, more stress, and after a list like that, likely much more drinking. I’m not suggesting you invest in Seagram’s to compensate, though buying a houseboat might make some sense. If you’re going to buy a house, and you know location is the most important purchase factor, what do you do when one of the key elements of location, climate, is changing rapidly? Can you anticipate and plan around climate change?
The real estate cliché about “location, location, location” usually refers to issues like being close to good schools, close enough to work, near family. Clearly these are still important but looming climate change is a disaster on a scale that will make them seem quaint. For many of us, real estate is the biggest piece of our net worth so getting it right is crucial.
Americans have been relocating for decades to change the climate of their primary residences, flocking to Florida and Arizona where the “climate suits [their] clothes.” Or perhaps like I did, to Northern California where the weather is mild and the “water tastes like wine.” My mother, born in Wisconsin and who lived in the Midwest too long, says that if she never walks in snow again that’ll be fine with her. Should we be moving back to the regions of snow and cold if they’re soon going to be rainy and mild?
The first step of disaster preparedness is to avoid the disaster as best you can. Don’t buy a house in a flood zone. Don’t buy a house on the beach. Long-term drought will make life in the Southwest even more challenging. Pretty much everyone agrees that Florida and Arizona won’t be the retirement locales they are now. Alaska is at the top of several lists of where climate refugees might head. Make sure you don’t forget other issues like epic earthquakes in the Pacific Northwest’s Cascadian Subduction Zone. Interestingly, wealthy coastal cities are also top of list for many, as they’re already on the leading edges of resilience planning and they’ll have the resources to keep the oceans at bay and adapt to changes. Find a region where climate effects will be minimized, as nowhere will be free from disruptions.
Once you’re narrowing in on a region, look at what might happen with sea level rise in your preferred location. There are several maps online that identify risk areas at different sea level rise levels. Even at just 5 feet the Bay Area in California is vastly different, New Orleans and Miami are gone, and many parts of the Eastern Seaboard move west several miles. This is serious stuff!
FEMA’s inland river-flood maps are a little harder to track down but some states have county maps that are detailed, to a point. Looking at my house in Sonoma County we are well clear of any flood zone but last winter during a huge downpour our small seasonal creek backed up and came up our driveway. I thought the comments about sand bags were over the top, but stepping out my front door into ankle deep water at 6am I could see no one was joking. FEMA highlights its flood maps by zones that indicate a likelihood of annual chance of inundation. The primary classification is the “1% annual chance of flooding” zone, the so-called 100-year flood. Some maps also have a zone for “0.2% annual chance of flooding,” a 500-year flood event. But if you talk with folks familiar with these things they point out how frequent 100- and 500-year flooding events are becoming. Position yourself properly and be aware that you’ll probably need additional planning to protect yourself.
You might also check a map like the AHS Plant Heat-Zone Map. Similar to the Plant Hardiness Zone Map that gardeners are familiar with that tells you how cold winters can get in an area (and possibly kill your plants), the Heat-Zone Map tells you how many uncomfortably hot days there are in a year. You might protest that it was designed for plants, but guess what, people don’t like it when it’s over 86°F either! Actually people die every year from heat stress, so stay out of the path of this risk factor.
Now that I’ve thoroughly depressed you, are there any regions that will be spared? Will we re-inhabit the Northeast? Will Maine become a WINTER-time second home location for climate migrants enjoying the temperate seasons in Manitoba? Will Alaska really be like Florida by the end of the century, flooded with retirees and golf courses? No one can predict for certain, but remember that Alaska might be warm(er) in the winter but it’ll still be dark. In December you’ll still only get about six hours a day of light in Anchorage, four in Fairbanks. The Great Lakes region is also likely to be comfortably warmer, well above sea level rises, and already well connected and well resourced.
If I had to guess I’d say that people will continue to congregate in large cities, and that this will be a smart move for the years ahead. The ongoing trend towards mega-city-states described in the new book Connectography by Parag Khanna makes a solid case for new political alliances focused around massive regional centers of connectivity, each anchored by several linked cities. Riding out climate disruptions with many hands on a really big boat, literal or metaphorical, makes sense. Organizing ourselves in ways that are not limited by historical political boundaries will be a crucial societal evolution in a climate challenged world. As I think I’ve described here, thriving through climate change will require all of our smarts, well deployed. Don’t go it alone: partner, collaborate, and find a supportive community that has its head up about the honest turbulence we’re in.
This article first appeared in the Autumn 2016 edition of the Natural Investment News