There's no such thing as a 'climate haven'

Julie Noble knows a thing or two about what happens when a city gets a reputation as a safe haven.

Last year, droves of New York City residents rushed north to Kingston, a town in New York’s Hudson Valley about 100 miles from Manhattan, as they sought refuge from the Covid-19 pandemic. The result has been homes selling sight unseen to cash buyers and new businesses so niche — like one focused entirely on grilled cheese — that they leave “Old Kingston” residents scratching their heads.

“It feels like a different town,” said Noble, who works for the city as an environmental education and sustainability coordinator and has lived in this city of 20,000 her entire life. 

The population shift has also forced Kingston to contend with a different set of demands and expectations from newcomers: New Kingston is loudly advocating for bike lanes, and Old Kingston just wants its sewers fixed. “It is creating a bit of dichotomy,” Noble said. 

While the influx of city dwellers to the Hudson Valley arose from the pandemic, it could serve as a preview of a much-bigger migration fueled by a different disaster: climate change. About half of American house hunters cite the threat posed by ever-hotter summers and rising sea levels as one reason for their move, a new survey by real estate firm Redfin shows. Some cities are banking on it: Further upstate, Buffalo has explored actively marketing itself to new residents as a “climate haven,” joining places like Duluth, Minnesota, that could see their historically harsh winters become a coveted future asset. 

But some climate activists see the very idea of these campaigns as a dangerous diversion — a kind of “disaster profiteering” that could distract people from engaging in climate solutions right now.

“Migration in and of itself does not solve a chronic problem or chronic risk,” said Aaron Mair, former president of the Sierra Club, and now board member of Hudson River Sloop Clearwater.

For one, it’s “absurd” for certain municipalities to insist they are immune to the effects of climate change, Mair said. More dangerously, it could encourage people with means to simply pick up their unsustainable lifestyles and plant them somewhere else, without committing to real change. “The most important thing that a municipality should be advocating is, how do we as a nation build and become more resilient, in the sense of reducing our carbon footprint?” he said.

Others argue that the idea that we can focus entirely on climate solutions, rather than migration, to some extent ignores a reality that is already playing out on the ground. From Alaska to the Chesapeake Bay to Louisiana, some vulnerable communities have already become unlivable, thanks to shoreline erosion, melting permafrost, and rising water levels. Globally, the vast climate-driven remapping of population is fully underway. 

Kristin Marcell is the director of the Climigration Network, an organization working to close the policy gap around climate migration. The group is also trying to address the problem by connecting communities in retreat to the resources they need to relocate. “There’s a lot of need out there, and if we continue to ignore it, not only does it make life miserable and create harm in those communities, but it also destabilizes us,” she said.

Mair recognizes this, and agrees that vulnerable populations should be moved to safer areas. What he objects to is the idea of cities appealing to affluent Americans who might want to preemptively hop around the country, bringing their SUVs and McMansions with them. 

“It’s just an absurd pipe dream,” Mair said. “It’s a very cynical ploy.”

That type of migration also has the potential to lull residents into a false sense of security. That’s why Tim Guinee, an actor and Hudson Valley resident-turned-climate activist, is also resisting the “climate haven” frame. “I’m not actually convinced that there are going to be many places that are safer. It seems to be affecting everyone,” Guinee said.

He was also quick to defend migration in places where extreme weather risks have already taken hold. “There’s no part of me that is blaming climate migrants,” he said. But the very idea of havens, Guinee thinks, might encourage us to miss our window to avoid some of the worst outcomes. “The notion of safe havens, to me, may be one more reason for people not to engage in the crisis right now, when we know we have the solutions at hand to solve much of the climate crisis, and the real problem is lack of engagement in implementation of those solutions,” he said.

Kingston was not prepared for its Covid migrants, and Noble said it is also not preparing for a climate migration. The Hudson Valley, while it may seem like a woodsy refuge for those displaced by rising sea levels or stifling summer heat waves in New York City, has its hands full working to address many of its own climate challenges: more extreme rain, hotter summers, and rising water levels in the lower Hudson that could inundate riverside cities and cause erosion and flooding. The region is also vulnerable to more frequent and severe storms. During Hurricane Irene in 2011, intense rainfall wiped out bridges, houses and power across the Hudson Valley. 

Leaving it up to individual cities to appoint themselves as safe havens, Marcell said, shouldn’t be the path forward anyway. Instead, she’s advocating for high-level state or federal models that help determine where to invest, and where to retreat.

In upstate New York, where cities and communities outside of New York City’s orbit have long struggled with post-industrial population declines, welcoming migration could be an opportunity to re-invest and bring struggling towns back to life. But it needs to be done carefully, Marcell said, with community buy-in and policies to protect against displacement of existing residents. Planning ahead could prevent climate gentrifiers from disrupting local housing markets and sowing more poverty. “How can we do this in a better way than the migrations of the past?” she said.

The pandemic-induced migration of 2020 could hold some lessons, and help local leaders avoid pitfalls, Mair said. As people left cities last year and relocated to more remote rural areas, they brought the virus with them, bringing infections to areas that lacked health care infrastructure — rendering those safe havens not so safe after all.

Mair fears the same could happen with climate migrants. If people move to new places without fundamentally changing the unsustainable systems that are causing climate change, the outcomes will only become worse, everywhere.

“While people can migrate, they bring the consequences of what they’re migrating from,” Mair said, “because their habits and behaviors have not changed.” 

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