In the summer of 2017, Zack Porter and his wife, Kassia Randzio, were enveloped in wildfire smoke in Missoula, Montana for two months. That fall, they decided to move.
Porter and Randzio had lived in Missoula for a decade, working for wilderness organizations and recreating in the mountains surrounding the city.
While wildfires out west are a fact of life, the situation has worsened in recent years because of climate change impacts.
“People can’t remember fire seasons like the ones we had in 2016, 2017,” Porter said.
The 2017 fire season was the worst on record in Montana, with one fire burning over a million acres. Public health officials are particularly concerned about the impact of smoke inhalation on young children and the elderly who are particularly vulnerable to fine particle pollution, a hallmark of wildfires.
Porter and his wife were concerned about the impact of wildfire-induced poor air quality on their 1-year-old daughter, Celeste.
“It was unwise to walk to your bike in the backyard much less ride your bike into town or go on a walk,” Porter said.
Some of the same features that make mountain-ringed valley of Missoula an outdoor enthusiasts’ paradise also lead it to trap wildfire smoke. The mountain city received an “F” for particle pollution in this year’s State of the Air report by the American Lung Association.
“Most people will never have to face down a fire, relatively few people live in places where that’s a real risk to their life or to their home,” said Porter. “But the smoke is getting to be absolutely inescapable.”
The poor air quality during the summer of 2017 was the “tipping point” for the move. They moved to Montpelier last year because it was close to family, had plentiful outdoor access and a strong nonprofit community.
And there were no wildfires nearby.
Gov. Phil Scott took some heat at a press conference in 2017 for suggesting that climate change could provide an “economic boon” for Vermont. But some planners in Vermont think the state should start prepping for possible “climigration,” the term that has emerged to refer to migration related to sea level rise and other climate change impacts.
In 2018, 17.2 million people were displaced globally due to natural disasters, according to a report from the Internal Monitoring Displacement Centre.
While one cannot directly link specific weather events to climate change, there is broad scientific consensus that climate change leads to more extreme weather, from hurricanes to droughts.
The Deadliest Fire Season Ever
Last summer, California experienced both its worst fire season and single deadliest fire on the record. The Camp Fire burned 31 square miles in less than 24 hours, killing 85 people in the Sierra Nevadas foothill town Paradise.
Many more people in the U.S. are impacted by wildfire smoke — and those impacts are expected to worsen in the years to come. For several weeks last summer, smoke from wildfires granted Vancouver, Seattle and Portland the distinction of having the world’s poorest air quality -- worse than notoriously polluted cities Beijing in China or Mumbai in India. Researchers estimate that premature deaths from wildfire smoke in the United States could jump from 17,000 to 42,000 annually by 2050.
Closer to home, residents of the densely populated Northeast coast are already dealing with sea level rises higher than the global average. Sea level rise has eroded coastal home values in the region by more than $400 million from 2005-2017. And some parts of the Northeast have seen a 100-200% increase in high tide floods.
Vermont is not immune to the effects of climate change, as anyone who witnessed Tropical Storm Irene can attest -- even if the movement is within state borders. Irene, which temporarily displaced 1,405 households and prompted an effort to buy-out almost 150 homes and businesses in flood-prone areas, prompted some people to move from flooded areas to other locations in Vermont.
The EPA has ranked Vermont fourth in a nationwide assessment of resilience to extreme weather events brought on by climate change. And authors of the 2014 state climate assessment wrote that Vermont might be a “receiving state” for residents of Northeast cities dealing with sea level rise.
“We’re kind of fortunate to be in the middle latitudes where we’re typically not critically short of water,” said atmospheric researcher Alan Betts.
Chris Campany, executive director of the Windham Regional Planning Commission, has seen regions deal with rapid, unexpected migration. Orange County, NY, where Campany worked as a planner in the early aughts, saw a surge of growth after 9/11.
Campany penned a newsletter this summer saying that the 21 southern Vermont towns in the WRPC would do well to beef up their town plans for possible in-migration from Massachusettsans creeping further up the I-91 corridor or coastal New Englanders fleeing the rising oceans.
“You can’t always assume it’s just going to be incremental growth,” he said. “What if something happens in the Boston metro area related to climate change? What if we get that 1938 hurricane again? Or continue with the sea level rise?”
He added that he wasn’t “trying to be provocative, just…proactive.”
Vermont’s main planning goal is to have “compact development surrounded by countryside,” said Campany, who feels that won’t happen unless village wastewater infrastructure is improved. More than 200 communities in the state lack community sewer systems.
“If you don’t have the infrastructure in place to have compact settlement, you’re not going to have compact settlement,” said Campany. “And the path of least resistance are the existing lots, even on Class Three town roads.
Suburban and rural sprawl have slowly been fragmenting Vermont’s forests in recent years.
Kate McCarthy, sustainable communities program director for Vermont Natural Resources Council, thinks Vermont, with its fairly inexpensive land, plentiful groundwater and proximity to East Coast cities, could be an “attractive destination” for people looking to move away from the coast.
McCarthy feels further research about climate related migration patterns on the East Coast that could help inform planning efforts.
“I don’t think it’s something to be feared,” she said of possible climate migration to Vermont. “I think it’s simply a factor in our future that we would be smart as a state to take into account.”
The state’s 2018 hazard mitigation plan mentions in-state migration as a possible future climate change concern, but it does not get more than a passing mention.
“As portions of the U.S. become more arid and as sea levels continue to rise, Vermont may begin to see significant increases in population,” states the report.
Ben Rose, recovery and mitigation section chief for the state’s Emergency Management division, said he has not seen any data yet indicating that Vermont has seen migration linked to people escaping climate change impacts.
Climate migration falls into the category of potential climate change impacts the state needs to be thinking about, like increased vector-borne diseases, but does not warrant the level of resources devoted to current hazards like flooding, Rose said. He doesn’t think it’s likely that Vermont would see a surge of climate-induced migration.
“There are ... what I would call Black Swan events scenarios from an emergency planning standpoint, which is to say they’re high impact, low probability events,” he said. “But you can imagine a terrible, catastrophic event, which would cause hundreds of thousands of people all try to get to Vermont over a relatively short period of time.”
“We don't really have good plans for those types of apocalyptic scenarios," he added, "and it's probably not the best use of our limited planning resources to plan for...truly worst case catastrophic scenarios.”
Moving Away from 'Unbreathable Air'
Perhaps unsurprisingly, some of the first people who have cited impacts of climate change as a reason for moving to Vermont work in the environmental field.
Camila Thorndike and her husband, Wesley Look, who both work climate policy, moved to Vermont last winter from Washington, D.C. They wanted to put down roots and considered moving back out west, but worsening wildfire smoke dissuaded them.
The past few years, Thorndike’s family in southern Oregon has dealt with more than eight weeks of “unbreathable air” a year.
“My mom is an organic farmer and my sister works designing flowers and they had to wear … hazmat level kind of gas mask to be outside,” she said.
While noting that Vermont has seen, and will continue to see, climate change impacts, Thorndike and her husband were drawn to the Green Mountain State because of its abundant water and resilient communities.
“It’s been sort of remarkable hearing about how the state has responded to that hurricane,” said Thorndike, referring to the post-Irene mobilization.
Betsy Hands, program officer at Burlington-based High Meadows Fund, left Missoula in 2012 to move closer to family back east and proactively avoid climate change impacts. Hands was likely thinking more about climate change than the average Montanan was a decade ago as she introduced a bill in 2007 to lower the state’s greenhouse gas emissions.
After a stint in Chicago, she and her husband moved to Vermont when he was offered a job. Like Porter and Thorndike, they felt that the state was a “good match” because of its quality of life, abundant water and lack of wildfires.
“It’s only gotten worse since we left, and every time we hear about the fires (by Missoula), I wonder — why aren’t people leaving?” she said.
Hands added that she knew community ties or limited opportunities often prevent people from packing up.
“When you think about climate migration, it’s either going to be people with some kind of means that makes it easier or a job that they can transfer to a new place, or people who have nothing left,” she said.
She reflected on a conference she had attended where a woman from the Greater Houston Community Foundation talked about climate migrants who moved to Houston after Hurricane Katrina struck the Gulf Coast, devastating New Orleans.
“It’s already kind of happening but nobody is really calling it out in the media,” Hands said of climate migration.
Vermont certainly has not yet seen an influx of people yet because of climate change — or other reasons. From 2010 to 2018, 10,000 more people moved out-of-state than moved to Vermont.
In recent years, the state’s Department of Tourism and Marketing has launched multiple efforts to convince workers to move to Vermont. The “remote worker grant program,” which would payout $10,000 over two years to remote workers who relocate to Vermont, received national publicity.
Nate Formalarie, communications director for the tourism department, said the state “is not currently, or in the near term, planning to market Vermont in relation to climate change or natural disasters.”
Chris Cochran, director of community planning and revitalization for the state Department of Housing and Community Development, said Vermont’s lack of housing has made it challenging for employers in the state to fill jobs. He expressed skepticism that Vermont could become a hub for climate migrants unless the housing crunch is dealt with.
“I suspect climate migrants would face a similar challenge unless we can find a way to create more housing,” he said.
McCarthy, of VNRC, agreed that having a “variety of housing stock” would help Vermont better prepare for its future regardless of the pace of climate migration.
Vermont has seen a “marked increase” in its foreign-born population since 1990, with most of that growth coming from refugees settling in the Burlington area, according to a book chapter written by Pablo Bose, a geography professor at the University of Vermont.
In the course of his migration research, he has yet to see anyone from coastal regions moving to Vermont to shield themselves from impacts of sea level rise. And Vermont is unlikely to see officially designated climate refugees from other countries anytime soon, according to Bose.
“We are already in a situation where it’s hard enough to get nations to accept the idea of refugees who are displaced by conflict,” he said, adding that there was “zero political will” to designate a separate class of climate refugees.
Bose said environmental and climate migrants are much more likely to move within countries rather than cross borders. He pointed to South Asia and Africa, and to a lesser extent the Central and South America, which are dealing with other environmental challenges, as parts of the world already seeing climate-related migration.
“In the general public, honestly…we start to see that climate change isn’t something that’s way off in the future, or like theoretical, no matter how much some people might want to bury their heads in the sand.”
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