What Is a Climate Haven?
Historically, most people who talk of climate havens are thinking of a handful of cities in the upper Midwest or the Great Lakes region. That, or they are thinking nearly of entire countries: Canada, or Russia, say. But both these conceptions miss nearly everything that's really important as you start to think about where the best place is to invest for a climate change future.
So, let’s get into it. What is a climate haven, exactly?
Definition of a climate haven
A climate haven combines three elements:
- A region insulated from climate change
- A resilient community
- A sustaining property
Without all three of these, you don’t have a climate haven. You could have just bought your dream off-grid cabin in the middle of the woods, with a well, solar panels, and enough timber to produce firewood for a century. But if that cabin is in the Sierra Nevada in California, well then you don’t have a climate haven. You’ve got an off-grid cabin liable to be destroyed by a forest fire in the very near future.
I’ll go deep into each of these criteria in greater depth in future articles, but for now, this article is going to cover the big picture basics. You need to understand that a climate haven requires all three elements: a sustaining property, in a resilient community, and in a region insulated from climate change. So how do you find a place like that?
How to find a climate haven
Instead of thinking only of regions, cities, or properties in isolation, you need to start thinking of these elements as a hierarchy.
Regions insulated from climate change
First, start with a region that is broadly insulated from the worst effects of climate change. In the United States, a lot of reporting has rightly focused on the Great Lakes region, the Upper Midwest, and New England.
Why so few places? The problem is just how many effects you need to consider. It’s not just forest fires and rising sea levels. It’s heat waves, stronger and more frequent hurricanes, droughts, increased prevalence of tropical diseases (soon to be formerly tropical), such as malaria and zika, and the impact of additional pests and weather changes on plant life and crops.
The Upper Midwest, the areas around the Great Lakes, and New England all fit the bill for avoiding heat waves, hurricanes, forest fires, drought, and tropical disease. They all have ample access to fresh water, and if anything growing conditions will be slightly improved by climate change, rather than hurt. You may be able to find some areas in other parts of the country which are seemingly insulated from all of those factors. Some might argue that certain parts of Colorado, perhaps, or the Pacific Northwest, are possibilities.
But there’s a problem with finding a smaller, seemingly insulated area inside a region that is otherwise quite exposed to climate change. The problem is the second order effects. In the U.S., this will often come down to economic depression.
Take Florida, for example. It’s not that every square foot of The Sunshine State is going to be under water. But enough of Florida will be impacted by flooding, hurricanes, and rising sea levels that the state’s shrinking tax base and deteriorating infrastructure are likely to lead to widespread economic depression even in the in-between areas.
The rich in Miami may think they can get away with living in a tall, well-built building away from the ocean — but how will they feel about their city when the property tax base all around them has been laid to waste by rising flood waters? (Jeff Goodell has a good book on the second-order effects of rising flood waters.)
If you broaden the search beyond the U.S., you will find some clear “winner” countries in a climate change future, countries like Russia, Canada, and New Zealand. Countries where growing seasons will actually increase, land formerly covered by, say, tundra, will become more livable, and where extreme climates generally will become more temperate.
A climate change future is also likely to be more unstable politically, as governments around the world cope with wars, droughts, hurricanes, and the climate migrants those upheavals will cause. The U.S. alone is predicted to average more than 230,000 people displaced by climate disasters every year. So, you can't just look at a changing climate — you have to consider what impact that changing climate will have on jobs, economies, and governments.
Thus, a climate haven should also take into account the stability of its government and the capacity of its institutions. Canada is probably the ideal country to look at from that perspective: historically good governance, stable government, good institutions, and a gigantic landmass, with relatively low population, insulated from nearly all the worst effects of climate change.
If you can invest in property in Canada, do it. But investing is different than finding a place to call home, and the reality is that it’s nearly impossible to immigrate to Canada (I’ll do a future post on moving to Canada, and on other world destinations generally).
So, for most readers, that leaves the U.S. Specifically, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan, Upstate New York, Vermont, New Hampshire, and parts of Maine. In a stretch, you might include parts of the Dakotas, Montana, Idaho, and the Pacific Northwest (though forest fires, drought, and sea level rise are all issues there). I like this map for its illustration of which areas of the U.S. face which threats:
The red waves all along the coast are rising sea levels. Orange boxes for hurricanes cover much of the area up and down the east coast. Increased pests and wildfires are problems for most of the Mountain West, and tornados, heat waves, and drought are a problem for much of the MedWest. See those white hearts up by the Great Lakes and in parts of New England? They're not perfect representations of where to look, but you get the idea.
After you’ve chosen a region, the next thing is to start looking for a resilient community.
A resilient community is the most overlooked, under-appreciated element of a climate haven.
Wherever you are, you need people around you to rely upon. If you want to live in a city, you need to start evaluating that city’s infrastructure, resources, and city services.
Cities are highly complex systems, which is why they’re often the first to stop working right when major disaster strikes. If the power in New York City goes off due to a hurricane making its way up the coast, there’s only so much time before things start to go really wrong. We’ve seen that story before, and we’ll see it again, time after time. There’s a reason why the first thing every character in a disaster movie does is try to get out of the city.
This isn’t to say a city can’t also contain resilient communities. Great Lakes cities like Buffalo, Cincinnati, and Deluth are trying to bill themselves as climate havens because of their region, meaning the cities are highly unlikely to experience the kinds of disasters which will routinely disable cities elsewhere in the country.
But just naming Buffalo doesn’t get you to where you really want: which is a place where you can rely on your neighbors, and where you neighbors are actually useful, not just because they can lend you sugar in a pinch, but because they actually grow food, or repair plumbing, or install solar panels, or insulate buildings.
Sadly, these days you’re not as likely to find neighborhoods like that in big cities.
Community resilience means the community could, theoretically, provide for most of its essential needs for at least a few months, if not years or decades. There are hundreds, if not thousands of small towns and cities across the Great Lakes, Upper Midwest and New England where this is the case — and they’re not getting the press they deserve.
It’s not just the ability to produce and make things people actually need to sustain themselves, though, which makes a community resilient. There’s also the fabric of a community. This is hard to measure, if not impossible. Yet you know it when you experience it. There are indicators: neighbors who know each other; community meetings just to inform and collaborate; unifying industries or activities; centers of social life; grandmas sitting on front porches (no joke — they know everything); and involvement in or awareness of local politics, to name a few.
This is the kind of community you are looking for. And after you’ve found one? You finally get to the exciting part.
A sustaining property
Once you’ve found a resilient community (or a few options for one) in a region insulated from climate change, you’re ready to start property hunting.
But what kind of property will complete the trifecta? Ideally, one that can begin to provide some of its own resources. A well for water is good, but you should also be looking at what can be done for food and energy.
Food is straight-forward. You want a property with at least a little bit of land. What you don’t need are 25 acres of farm pasture. Depending on what size family you have and just how much gardening you plan to do, anywhere from ¼ acre to 1 acre will actually do fine. There are whole books on how to be self-sufficient on ¼ acre, and quite a few more about how to make the most out of a slightly bigger property.
Energy is a bit more complicated. Most people know that you’d want good south-facing exposure for solar power — and that’s true. You can usually get a good, free evaluation for rooftop solar potential before you make an offer on a property (I'll also write about the different companies that do solar in these regions), or otherwise you will need to devote some open space to panels. Actually, you’d be crazy not to: the IEA confirmed in late 2020 that solar power was now the “cheapest electricity in history."
Yet few properties, especially those in the North, can heat themselves entirely off of solar power, at least not yet. Most of the homes in the regions mentioned above rely on propane, gas, or wood for heat. I’ll devote more writing to how to heat your home in a climate change future (short answer: heat pumps and mini-splits everywhere). But for now, you’re likely going to need to plan on some gas or propane, or otherwise be prepared for a lot of delivery, chopping, and stacking of wood.
Of course, there are few activities in life as satisfying as chopping and stacking wood to heat your home, and none who heat their homes with a wood stove will deny that sitting around the fire in your living room is the very best possible way to spend a cold winter evening.
Where to start
Perhaps by now you’re feeling a bit overwhelmed. Well, I feel you.
I was overwhelmed when I started searching for a climate haven myself. There were few useful resources online beyond some climate maps. I can fit the list of recommended places, even now, on one hand. The imagination of the journalists covering this issue has yet to progress beyond naming big cities like Buffalo, or as I saw recently on a typically shallow TV segment, Madison, Wisconsin.
That’s why I’m here. That’s why I started Climate Haven Real Estate. To fill in those gaps.
In 2019, I purchase a home I love in the mountains of Central New Hampshire, in a community I love, in a region that will be insulated from climate change for my lifetime, and my kid’s lifetime, and his kids after that.
If you’re ready to buy a property now, I can help. Reach out to me on my contact page.
I am also planning to send out a bi-weekly newsletter with my favorite climate resilient properties on the market now, as well as new profiles of resilient communities and advice on searching for a climate haven. Stay tuned.