A safe haven sounds like a good idea right about now.
Somewhere that’s warm but not too warm, free from hurricanes and
flood-causing downpours, and close to a body of water
yet far enough to avoid the threat of sea-level rise.
Which places does that leave? According to climate scientists and
urban planners, not a lot.
“The bottom line is it’s going to be bad everywhere,” Bruce Riordan,
the director of the Climate Readiness Institute at the University
of California, Berkeley, told Business Insider. “It’s a matter of
who gets organized around this.”
Still, some areas have a better chance of surviving the
onslaught of a warmer planet than others, Vivek Shandas, an
urban-planning professor at Portland State University, told
“There are places that might at least temper the effects of
climate change,” he said.
All of them are cities, which tend to be less isolated than rural
areas, and most are in the Pacific Northwest.
“Much of the Pacific Northwest is really well-positioned for
being one of the better places for climate change,” Shandas said.
Urban parts of that region tend to be newer, meaning that their
infrastructure — which includes water systems, the power
grid, and public transportation — is more modern and “more
resilient to major shocks,” Shandas said. That’s key when it
comes to coping with heat and rising water. It also gives
the Pacific Northwest an advantage over cities whose
infrastructure is badly in need of updates.
“Generally speaking, the US gets about a D+ for things like
this,” Shandas said. “Much of our infrastructure was built in the
late 1800s, and it’s beginning to fall apart.”
Riordan agreed. “A lot of places are running into real
maintenance issues which lead to delays and overcrowding and
operational issues because of aging systems,” he said.
Geographically speaking, cities in the Pacific Northwest are also
conveniently situated near natural resources like water — an
integral buffer against drought — and hills, which provide access
to higher elevations with cooler temperatures. The region’s
temperature is naturally fairly mild, making it a good
candidate for those hoping to avoid the heat waves that
are already becoming more common.
“What we’re seeing is longer durations of heat waves every year
since 2012,” Shandas said. “So one of the key questions is ‘How
is this area going to cope for the next one?'”
Episodes of intense heat can be exacerbated by a phenomenon
called the urban heat island effect, wherein cities essentially
act as furnaces, generating so much heat that they become
significantly warmer than the areas surrounding them.
One of the
largest studies on the effects of heat waves took place in
Chicago in the 1990s. That study revealed another important
measure of a city’s ability to cope with climate change: how
involved, enfranchised, and well-organized its populations
are. The Chicago residents who fared worst during the heat
wave were those who were isolated — typically, people with lower
incomes and less access to resources. Those who did better, on
the other hand, had historically benefited more from social
policies that had incorporated them into society.
“Neighborhoods that are connected do better when these things
happen,” Riordan said.
That’s why Shandas and his team assess social inequity
when evaluating how prepared a city is for the future.
“What climate change does is it amplifies these inequities,”
Shandas said. “It’s usually people with resources that have
things like air-conditioning units, or cars to escape a
hurricane. If a city has a lot of inequity, we can begin to
speculate that any event — be it a flood, a heat wave, whatever —
will really have a lot of impact and make things worse.”
Cities like Seattle and Portland score well on measures of
social equality or have plans in place to help distribute
resources more fairly. Portland, for example, is one of the only
cities with a working group tasked
with reducing racial and economic inequality as it relates to
potential climate-action policies.
San Francisco also scores well on these measures (though it’s not
in the Pacific Northwest), since 98% of its population
lives within a half-mile of regularly operating
transportation. That makes wealth or income less
of a factor when it comes to accessing transit during an
However, it’s important to remember that climate change is not
going to act selectively, and a stark impact felt in one part of
the planet will have far-reaching implications elsewhere.
“We’re headed into a world that’s going to look very different
for everybody,” Riordan said. “That’s not at the end of the
century. That’s pretty damn soon.”
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