No Place Offers an “Escape” from Climate Change
“The man who is often thinking that it is better to be somewhere else than where he is,” Henry David Thoreau wrote, “excommunicates himself.” The same might be said for those who ask, as Jonah Engel Bromwich did in a recent New York Times article featuring Portland, “Where should you live to escape climate change?”
Searching for a dream town where one can “escape the brunt” of climate impacts feeds the complacency and denial that got us to this dangerous threshold. It’s easy to fantasize about cities portrayed as climate pageant winners, particularly when–like Portland–they offer great restaurants, scenery and schools.
Far harder is the real work that awaits us. How can we mobilize our own communities, changing habits, energy systems and municipal infrastructure?
To answer that, we’ll need to forfeit illusions of finding safe havens in a warming world. Those are mere mirages that recede rapidly upon closer inspection.
Bromwich names Portland a “solid option” for climate resilience due to some high topography and its projected resistance to “systemic drought.” While Portland’s charisma and beauty have earned it a place on many “best city” rankings, this recent designation as a “better bet” for climate change disturbed some residents.
“I don’t want to be distracted discussing whether we’re better off than others,” notes William Needelman, waterfront coordinator for the city of Portland. “I’m worried about our neighborhoods.”
The city’s bustling Old Port, much of it built on fill, is highly vulnerable to sea-level rise and storm surge. Parts of the gateway Bayside neighborhood are even lower in elevation than the Maine State Pier along Portland’s waterfront. King tides periodically fill Bayside intersections with briny water. Scientists, engineers, city officials and local residents are meeting to decide what can be done in this vulnerable neighborhood that was once tidal wetland.
Portland has not been at the forefront of adaptation planning, Needelman acknowledges, but it’s now trying to learn from other cities like Boston and New York that are national leaders in climate change planning.
Sea-level rise is just one of many climate-related challenges facing Portland. Lyme disease from blacklegged (deer) ticks has become a serious threat, and the region’s rich fisheries face an uncertain future. Warmer waters are driving Maine’s iconic lobsters toward Canada, and ocean acidification is disrupting marine ecosystems.
The confident assertion in Bromwich’s article that Maine won’t face “systemic drought” already rings hollow. The entire southern coast of Maine experienced an “extreme drought” earlier this fall, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor, and remains in a severe drought.
When rain does come, it’s often in a deluge. A single rainstorm last fall delivered 5.63 inches, leaving both the Bayside and Old Port neighborhoods awash.
The climate challenges that Portland faces are shared by countless other communities – including the other pageant contestants Bromwich promoted. Relocation is a harsh reality that some people will face as sea levels rise, but encouraging the privileged to undertake elective moves could undermine communities–leaving fewer committed residents to devise local strategies for climate adaptation.
Smaller municipalities face particular challenges, notes Cameron Wake, professor of climate and sustainability at the University of New Hampshire. “They are unlikely to get much federal or state support as the lion’s share of those resources will be focused on big urban centers,” Wake says, and they may lose significant tax revenue as valuable waterfront properties succumb to repeated flooding.
Stepping into a leadership void, some municipalities are making plans and paying for adaptation measures, recognizing that those investments can forestall more costly outcomes.
Along the low-lying coast of New Hampshire, for example, the Coastal Risks and Hazards Commission recently reached what Wake describes as a “bipartisan consensus that it’s time to start getting prepared for this,” releasing a set of recommendations to help towns and cities minimize risks and increase their resilience.
When it comes to climate change, there are no winning cities. “No one is fortunate in this situation,” Needelman says. “We all have work to do.”
© Marina Schauffler, 2016. All Rights Reserved. Column reprints available upon request.