Will Climate Refugees Be Heading to Vermont in the Future?

by Phil Dodd

If the global climate continues to warm, as many scientists expect, Vermont will face several challenges of its own during this century, including longer-lasting storms and consequent flooding. But some parts of the country, and many places on the globe, may become uninhabitable due to hotter temperatures, higher sea levels, and desertification. People will need to move.

Because Vermont is not on the ocean and should remain cooler than locations to our south, and because we have farmland for growing food plus ample water supplies, some Vermonters who have been thinking about the topic say we could see an influx of environmental migrants heading to Vermont and other far northern states in the next 10, 25, or 50 years.

“We might be a sweet spot for climate refugees for some kind of interim period,” said Roger Hill, a local meteorologist. “We could be a lot better off than people near the coasts, who will experience rising sea levels, stronger ocean storms, and flooding near rivers. People are going to move uphill.”

He noted that climate change is already causing migration around the globe. “Micronesians are moving to Hawaii in droves,” to escape rising sea levels, said Hill, and many North Africans are on the move as deserts spread there. “The geopolitical ramifications of climate change are in play big-time.”

Brian Shupe, executive director of the Vermont Natural Resources Council (VNRC), said he and his staff have been talking internally about the issue “quite a bit.” He used the same term as Hill, saying Vermont could be in a “sweet spot” because it is not on the coast and has ample groundwater and will have a longer growing season.

The first wave of climate refugees could be “affluent refugees from the coast or the south,” people who have the means to move and buy property in Vermont or who already have a second home here,” Shupe said. “I’ve heard anecdotally about people buying second homes here with future climate change in mind,” he said. “It makes sense.”

Shupe thinks that any new wave of property buyers could create tension around land management issues, which are important to the VNRC. “Historically, when we have had an influx of new residents and development pressure, Vermont has responded with things like Act 250 in the 1960s, Act 200 and the Housing and Conservation Board in the 1980s, and then promotion of smart growth and downtown development in the late 1990s,” he said.

The possibility of another influx of people is one reason Shupe is glad the state has formed a commission to re-examine Act 250, the state’s land use law. The commission is holding hearings around the state and is expected to issue a report on possible changes to Act 250 by the end of the year. Shupe, who is on an advisory board for the commission, said he expects the VNRC will offer suggested changes to Act 250 related to forest fragmentation and the expected impacts from climate change, among other things.

Sen. Chris Pearson (P/D, Chittenden) is vice-chair of the Act 250 commission. He, too, has been speculating about possible changes to Vermont’s demographics that could result “if other populated areas become much less hospitable.” He also thinks that Vermont must be prepared if a natural disaster, such as a strong hurricane hitting New York City, sends thousands of people to Vermont overnight. He said he and other legislators pushed the state Department of Public Safety to develop an emergency plan for that eventuality, and it is now in place.

“We also need to prepare for longer term changes,” Pearson said. “I don’t know the scale or timeline, but scientists suggest the state needs to recognize this will all be happening in the next 50 years.” Pearson thinks that protecting agricultural land to provide more local food, protecting forest blocks and wildlife corridors, and improving decision-making around locating housing are important goals for the state.

Steve Crowley of South Burlington, Energy Chair of the Sierra Club’s Vermont chapter, has been thinking about the subject of climate-driven migration as a member of the national Sierra Club’s Climate Adaptation Task Force. The task force plans to submit an internal report this winter.

Crowley said climate-related change such as higher sea levels, changes to agriculture and fisheries, and changes to food security pose serious challenges. He also said that people with material resources will be able to adapt most easily to climate-caused changes and is concerned that poorer people will be more at risk.

One example of the risk to those without means can be found in Philadelphia, according to an August 14 article in The Guardian, which said that older, lower-income housing in that city tends to have poor air circulation and no air conditioning. In recent years, Philadelphia, along with Baltimore, has led the nation in summer heat-related deaths. In 2000, Philadelphia had 50 days a year over 90 degrees, but if trends continue, in 30 years Philadelphia will experience 100 days a year above 90 degrees, according to the article.

Crowley said some farmland in the Midwest is becoming too dry to grow crops, and the Southwest has been experiencing a drought. “California grows a huge amount of our food, and it is drying out there too,” he added. “They get water from their snowpack, and the snowpack has been dwindling.”

Will all these changes cause some people to choose to move to Vermont, where we may experience droughts at some times but should still have more water resources than most? “It is a pretty good guess that people will move north for cooler weather,” Crowley said. “If we have more people, we will need places for them to live but also need to grow more food. How will we balance that and where will people live?” Crowley advocates building more densely packed housing in the future and “preserving all the agricultural land that we can.”

Governor Phil Scott said a year ago that he thought an influx of new people due to climate change could be good for the Vermont economy, but not everyone is excited about the prospect of a higher population. Bob Fireovid is executive director of the advocacy group Better (not bigger) Vermont, which believes that the human population in a region should not exceed the limits of the renewable resources in that area. Vermont is already exceeding those limits, the group believes.

“I understand the issue, and we want to be compassionate, but if we import 95 percent of our food now, the idea of being able to feed more people will be difficult without wholesale changes,” Fireovid said. “Another consideration is that people moving here would have to make a living. What kind of jobs would be available? We could have a boom in real estate construction, but that is a temporary thing and not a long-term fix.”

Many of those interviewed for this article agreed that the exact nature of climate change and its effects on Vermont and the rest of the world are still not entirely certain. For example, perhaps Vermont’s ability to grow crops, while helped by a longer growing season, will be hurt by more summer droughts.

The Vermont State Climatologist, Lesley-Ann L. Dupigny-Giroux, a professor of geography at UVM, said droughts are a risk: “As climates continue to change, climate variability continues to be important. No region escapes natural hazards of one sort or another. This means that even in places like Vermont, which traditionally receive an abundance of precipitation throughout the year, droughts of all kinds will continue to occur, as we have seen most recently in 2016 and again this year.”

“Even in traditionally wet climates such as ours, particularly lengthy and intense droughts are also characterized by associated hazards, such as very high daytime temperatures and wildfires. Thus, the exact nature of the migration of climate refugees is likely to change as the regional attractiveness changes over time,” she said.

While climate change is expected to bring Vermont warmer and wetter winters, along with hotter and drier summers, there are possible variations that could make the state less inviting to newcomers.

According to Roger Hill, the melting of the ice sheets in Greenland could dump enough fresh water into the Atlantic to disrupt ocean currents, including the Gulf Stream that brings warmer temperatures up the coast. One possibility, he said, is that climate change could at some point lead to colder water in the North Atlantic, and thus colder winter temperatures in eastern Canada and northern New England.

In other words, don’t give away your sweaters and parkas just yet.

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