Is Anywhere on Earth Safe From Climate Change?

Relocating to a landlocked city isn’t enough.

A wildfire burned thousands of acres of land and prompted evacuations in Clayton, California, in September 2013. (Noah Berger / Reuters)

Put simply: Climate change poses the threat of global catastrophe. The planet isn’t just getting hotter, it’s destabilizing. Entire ecosystems are at risk. The future of humanity is at stake.

Scientists warn that extreme weather will get worse and huge swaths of coastal cities will be submerged by ever-more-acidic oceans. All of which raises a question: If climate change continues at this pace, is anywhere going to be safe?

“Switzerland would be a good guess,” said James Hansen, the director of climate science at Columbia University’s Earth Institute. Hansen’s latest climate study warns that climate change is actually happening faster than computer models previously predicted. He and more than a dozen co-authors found that sea levels could rise at least 10 feet in the next 50 years. Slate points out that although the study isn’t yet peer-reviewed, Hansen is “known for being alarmist and also right.”

Okay, so. Switzerland might be a desirable place to live—certainly in general, but also as a way to avoid the effects of climate change—for a few reasons: It’s landlocked, which means it’s buffered from rising sea levels. And officials in Switzerland appear to be taking climate-related threats seriously—which is not the case in much of the rest of the world. The country was the first to submit a contribution to the international climate agreement, promising to reduce its greenhouse-gas emissions by 50 percent by 2030 compared with 1990 levels. (In the United States, for comparison, President Barack Obama’s new energy plan would require a 32-percent cut in carbon emissions by 2030 compared with 2005 levels.) But that doesn’t mean Switzerland is impervious to the effects of climate change. Warmer temperatures mean more melting snow—Switzerland has lots of it—which means higher risks of flooding and rockslides.

Similarly, in Denver, Colorado, a landlocked city that might seem appealing because of its mile-high protection from rising seawaters, scientists warn that climate change could exacerbate droughts and harm water quality. “Water quality is sensitive both to increased water temperatures and changes in patterns of precipitation,” according to a Colorado Water Conservation Board report. “For example, changes in the timing and hydrograph may affect sediment load and pollution, impacting human health.” Scientists believe heat waves and wildfires in the state will also become more severe and more frequent, according to a Climate Change Vulnerability Study published earlier this year.

Staying away from scorching heat, hurricanes, floods, and wildfire will be difficult in a country that feels dramatically different in coming decades. “The best place really is Alaska,” said Camilo Mora, a geologist at the University of Hawaii, in an interview with The New York Times last year. Mora is the author of a 2013 paper published in Nature that predicts startlingly high temperatures by today’s standards—the hottest on record for any given place—will be normal by 2047. Monthly temperature averages will be hotter than anything on the books, according to Mora’s research. “Alaska is going to be the next Florida by the end of the century,” he said.

When considering climate-related vulnerabilities, economic stability may be as important as environmental factors.

“So, it may be too glib an answer, but the safest place to be for climate change just may be a place where a strong, diversified economy and responsive institutions give the ability and the will to deal with challenges as they arise,” said Richard Alley, a climate science professor at Pennsylvania State University. For example, California has remained fairly resilient despite experiencing brutal drought and devastating wildfires. “California’s economy continues to roll ahead,” he said.

“The scholarship is very strong that the optimal path for dealing with climate change involves both slowing human causes of climate change and adapting to the changes that will occur on the way, while avoiding both panic and stasis,” Alley told me.

The key to safety, then, isn’t to escape—relocation to another world isn’t exactly an option—but to deal with and prepare for the reality of what’s happening.  It isn’t pretty. In fact, it’s arguably “apocalyptic,” Hansen wrote in The New York Times in 2012, imploring political leadership for urgent action on climate change.

“Global warming isn’t a prediction,” he said. “It is happening.”