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Shelter From The Climate Storm? Experts Say Vermont Needs To Prepare For 'Climigration'

Waves crash on a beach with houses along the ocean, under a gray wintery sky.
Michael Dwyer
/
Associated Press File
A winter storm lashes the coast in Scituate, Mass. in 2015. Climate models say rising levels could make some areas along the East Coast uninhabitable.

As the planet warms, many areas around the world may become uninhabitable. On the east coast of the United States, especially in population centers like Boston and New York, rising sea levels and increased coastal flooding are likely to force people to move inland to places that are higher, drier and relatively affordable – places like Vermont.This story is part of Covering Climate Now, a global journalism collaboration strengthening coverage of the climate story, in collaboration with the New England News Collaborative and VPR.

While there are no solid predictions for how many people will move to the Green Mountain State as a result of the climate emergency, or even when that migration could occur, some Vermonters are already thinking about climate migration and what the state needs to do to prepare.

Several experts say Vermont could learn from a current catastrophe-caused population influx.

More from Brave Little State: If You're Worried About Climate Change, Where Should You Live?

The COVID pandemic fueled a real estate boom in Vermont, as those with the money to move and the ability to work remotely searched for safer places to live. The average price of housing rose 33% across the state from November 2019 to November 2020, according to a report from the Vermont Association of Realtors.

“When it comes to climate migration, the 'How is it going to happen?' is an interesting question, but also, 'Where is it going to happen?' is a very, very important question,” said Kate McCarthy, the sustainable communities program director with the Vermont Natural Resources Council, a statewide environmental group.

"When it comes to climate migration, the 'How is it going to happen?' is an interesting question, but also 'Where is it going to happen?' is a very, very important question." - Kate McCarthy, Vermont Natural Resources Council

McCarthy’s been drawing lessons from the recent pandemic property boom in Vermont. In particular, she’s concerned about a trend she saw in a recent report on real estate sales in central Vermont.

The report showed a 68% increase in the sales of raw land. McCarthy says that could lead to more rural sprawl, as farm and forest land is broken up and sold for development.

“How land is used will affect our ability to feed ourselves, will affect our ability to have resilience from intact forests, to have carbon sinks, to have firewood,” she said. “So all those things are really very important when thinking about climate migration and how we as a state might prepare for it.”

More from VPR: Lost Cold War Ice Core Reveals Greenland's Ice Free Past, Could Provide Key Data As Planet Warms

That planning and preparation work is just beginning.  Chris Koliba, a professor of community development and applied economics at the University of Vermont, said the pandemic was a stress test for the state that revealed ongoing challenges, including infrastructure needs to accommodate additional growth. 

“And how we evolve and learn from the pandemic will help set a footing for what will likely be coming for climate change as we’re looking at sea level rise and population displacements or the equatorial regions becoming uninhabitable,” he said. “And as we all know, Vermont is one of the few places in the world that is likely to get more habitable.”

"How we evolve and learn from the pandemic will help set a footing for what will likely be coming for climate change as we're looking at sea level rise and population displacements or the equatorial regions becoming uninhabitable." - Chris Koliba, University of Vermont

Some state leaders also look at the positive impacts of climate change. Vermont’s population is also one of the oldest in the country, with an aging workforce that’s made it hard for some employers to find skilled workers.

Gov. Phil Scott has said that a solution to this demographic challenge is to open the door to more refugees and immigrants. He’s noted for that reason, climate change could actually could be good for Vermont.

The governor has long seen a silver lining, as climate induced disasters hit other parts of the country.

More from VPR: 'Weatherization Is About Warming Vermonters': How Gov. Scott's $25M Proposal Would Be Spent

“Climate change could be, in some ways, beneficial to Vermont,” Scott said in late 2017. “When we’re seeing some of the activity in California today with wildfires and the lack of water in some regions of the country, if we protect our resources we could use this as an economic boom in some respects.”

And that’s the flipside of climate migration. People will move to Vermont not just because they’re fleeing catastrophes at home, but because they’ve consciously chosen a better place to live

Couple in front of trees
Credit Courtesy Rabin and Cymone Haiju
Rabin and Cymone Haiju moved to Vermont after carefully studying which places would fare better as a result of climate change.

Meet Rabin and Cymone Haiju.

“So, we were looking long-, long-term at the resiliency of the area, as well as what the climate would do to the area,” Cymone Haiju said.

The couple is in their early 30s and was living in Atlanta, Ga. when they started to research what places would come out better in a warmer world.

Vermont rose to the top of the list because growing seasons are predicted to get longer – important for the Haijus, who want to raise much of their own food. The state also has adequate water resources, and a strong renewable energy sector – another priority for the environmentally minded couple.

“When we looked at the possible impact of climate change on various states, Vermont came at the very top,” Rabin Haiju said. “In fact, some of the counties in Vermont were going to see the most net positive impact of climate change.”

"When we looked at the possible impact of climate change on various states, Vermont came at the very top." - Rabin Haiju

The Haijus plan to build a environmentally friendly home called an Earthship in Johnson, Vt. The town is located in Lamoille County, which the Haijus said was at the very top of the list of counties around the country likely to see a positive climate impact.

The Haijus have a hopeful vision for the future. But Koliba, at UVM, said if Vermont is a potential climate refuge, the state needs to work on its social as well as its physical infrastructure. 

Vermont is one of the whitest states in the country, and this past summer a Black man in Hartford, Vt. was flagged down by locals and told he wasn’t wanted here. The man was driving a pickup with New York plates but owns a second home in Vermont. Koliba said that incident and others came up frequently during roundtable discussions about a more resilient economy.

More from VPR: Governor Condemns Xenophobia, Racism Following Hartford Incident

“This is [about] equity, diversity and inclusion and belonging and how we create a more welcoming and belonging climate culture for newcomers who come to the state,” he said. “So that’s been a clear piece of our conversations as well.”

And on the question of physical infrastructure, so far, towns and regional planning commissions have not looked much at the possibility that their communities could be a mecca for climate migrants.

Chris Campany is executive director of the Windham Regional Commission, the regional planning organization for southern Vermont. He is also a member of the state Climate Council, the panel charged with developing a plan to cut greenhouse gas emissions and with finding ways to make the state more resilient to climate change.

Campany said the time to plan is now, so the growth fits with the state’s priority to focus new development in downtowns and village centers as opposed to suburban or rural sprawl. But Campany points out that many communities currently lack the basic wastewater treatment infrastructure to handle additional growth.

"For a lot of our villages, you probably cannot add a single dwelling unit because you don't have the wastewater capacity to support it to the extent that you've got on site water and waste water." - Chris Campany, Windham Regional Commission and member of state Climate Council

“For a lot of our villages, you probably cannot add a single dwelling unit because you don’t have the wastewater capacity to support it to the extent that you’ve got on site water and waste water,” he said.

Campany worked as a planner in New York State and has seen the impacts of an earlier migration-driven real estate boom – after 9/11. As people decided to leave the city for more rural areas, that increased development pressure and housing costs.

He said that’s exactly what’s happening in Vermont now, with the pandemic real estate boom. He questioned whether communities have the ability to plan for both the current housing shortage and the expected influx of new Vermonters due to climate change.

More from Brave Little State: How Is Climate Change Affecting Vermont Right Now?

“One of the conversations Vermont needs to have is, in the current planning system, does this make the most sense, or at some point are we outstripping the capacity that towns have to do this work,” he said.

The state Climate Council, on which Campany serves, is just beginning its work. He said one priority is to strengthen local and regional planning so the state can better prepare for all aspects of climate change, including migration.

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