Reviews | The DC zone, with development, can be a climatic refuge


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Gabriel Popkin is a science and environmental journalist in the DC area.

Like, I suspect, most of the nearly one million people who have called the DC area home over the past decade, I moved here not for the climate but in spite of it.

In the 15 years I’ve lived in the Mid-Atlantic – a time when much of the rest of the country was beset by fires, storms, heat and semi-apocalyptic droughts – I changed my way of thinking. I have come to see this region not as a place cursed by the weather gods, but rather as a potential climatic refuge for people fleeing places that are rapidly becoming unlivable.

I realize this may sound absurd. The term “climate refuge” probably conjures up for most people a place high on a mountainside or a place in the north that is frozen for much of the year – Duluth, Minnesota, perhaps. In other words, places that are too cold for most people today but should be pleasant, or at least bearable, in a hot future.

Here in the mid-Atlantic, half of us already complain that the summers are too hot, and almost everyone complains about the humidity. But we have crucial things for us that I think we don’t always appreciate. Perhaps most importantly, we have abundant fresh water resources that are not going to dry up. We have fertile soil and varied landscapes of forests and farms – two ecosystems essential for human survival. And we are protected by geography from the most severe extremes that short-term climate change will inflict. Most of our major cities are far from the coasts, relatively safe from hurricanes, storm surges and rising sea levels.

According to scientists, the greatest climate challenges facing the mid-Atlantic in the coming decades are intense rains and summer heat waves. These will not always be pleasant. I, for one, am not keen on more 90 degree days. They will require planning and preparation, but they are manageable. They are not like the megastorms, megafires, megadroughts and rising oceans that put much of the country in existential jeopardy.

Some regional climate changes could even be beneficial. Longer growing seasons, for example, could allow farmers to grow new crops, although summer droughts may pose a challenge; beautiful southern trees such as live oaks could thrive here.

I sometimes think of what Captain John Smith wrote of the Chesapeake region over 400 years ago: “Heaven and earth never did fit better to frame a dwelling place for man . … Here are mountains, hills, plains, valleys, rivers and streams, all flowing into a beautiful bay, surrounded but for the mouth, with fruitful and delicious land.

While Smith’s antiquated language should probably be construed to some degree as real estate marketing, I think he was onto something – like, of course, the native people who lived here for thousands of years before the arrival of Smith. The Mid-Atlantic was, and still is, a beneficent place for humans. America’s history since then has largely been one of challenging natural limits and allowing people to live in harsh and unsupportive environments – the ever-thriving desert Southwest, for example. despite the worst drought in a millennium. But climate change will eventually overtake human pride. And when people start looking for hospitable places, some will have the same awareness as Smith.

Unfortunately, not everyone will have this option. Unless immigration policies change, many potential climate migrants from other countries will not be able to get here.

Climate-induced population growth would boost the regional economy, but it would also present challenges. Our environment is already strained under the pressures of today’s population. Our roads are clogged with cars and our streams and rivers are polluted with water flowing from sidewalks and roofs.

But if we start preparing now, we can welcome climate migrants rather than see them as a burden. More importantly, we can break our reliance on single-family housing and build more densely and more affordably across the region. We can preserve the protective forests and wetlands we still have. We can commit to finally developing world-class mass transit systems and cycling networks that will get more people off the road. We can deploy energy efficient heat pumps and solar panels to make the air conditioning we will unfortunately need as climate friendly as possible. We can support our local farms so they’ll be there when the unsustainable desert agriculture that supplies our grocery stores dries up. We can plant and maintain climate-resistant trees that will provide shade, cooling and flood control for future residents.

Since moving here, I’ve had countless friends and acquaintances who have decamped west, drawn to the wide open spaces, the big mountains, the Pacific Ocean, and that cool western mystique. I sometimes envied them and wondered if I was missing something. But when I see news of fires turning the air orange and people fleeing their homes while I gaze at the green ecosystem of my backyard and listen to the songs of birds that also call this home, I wonder. realize that I have it pretty well. I do not rejoice; I want to share the good with as many people as possible – including former East Coasters who I suspect may return. I hope my compatriots in the Mid-Atlantic will also want to share our generosity.

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