Where To Live Around The World To Escape Climate Change
Expanding my analysis beyond America, with a sobering conclusion.
Recently, I analyzed where exactly I could escape climate change within the United States. I picked three northerly regions and ultimately settled on the Upper Midwest as the best place to ride out the climate apocalypse we may face if the status quo persists.
ProPublica and The New York Times Magazine recently analyzed data from the Rhodium Group on how climate change will transform the United States.
You can find that handy analysis here. Its conclusions dovetail with mine.
But many of you wanted a more global perspective. So this time, instead of restricting myself to the United States, I’m zooming out to examine where around the world you can escape climate change.
Within America, there’s not a particularly strong correlation between economic prosperity and climate change preparedness. As I noted, most of America’s biggest cities will be hard-hit by climate change. Parts of New York might go underwater. Los Angeles might become an apocalyptic desert with intense wildfires and a lack of drinking water. Philadelphia and Washington D.C. will have unbearably hot summers and an increased risk of tropical storm activity — like New York. Dallas and Houston will have worse tornadoes, extreme heat, and tropical storms.
You get the point.
But there’s a big world beyond the land of the free and the home of the brave.
UK-based energy comparison service Eco Experts created a color-coded map (perhaps something a certain attention-deprived world leader who loves color-coded maps would appreciate and interpret as a sign to finally believe in climate change and act accordingly!) in 2018 using data from the Notre Dame Global Adaptation Index.
That index analyzes 181 countries based on factors like healthcare, food supply, and government stability and ranks them on their ability to cope with the challenges posed by a warming planet. Below is a world map depicting climate change risk across countries corresponding with their index.
At first, I intended to pick a few regions and ultimately settle on a ‘winner.’ When I read articles like that, I like to see some semblance of a ranking instead of a nebulous clickbaity ending.
But this time, that didn’t feel right. I don’t have a ranking. My conclusion, however, isn’t nebulous at all.
When you examine which corners of the planet will be best-equipped for warmer conditions, you can’t help but notice a sobering reality:
Higher income countries will fare far better than lower income countries.
Extinction Rebellion put this neatly, as Greta Thunberg reminded us recently.
“Stop saying that we are all in the same boat. We’re all in the same storm. But we’re not all in the same boat.”
In essence, the best places to escape climate change are also the world’s most economically prosperous places. The correlation is uncomfortably tight.
Of the 30 countries with the lowest climate change risk (according to the Global Adaptation Index), about three-quarters of them are also among the 30 countries with the highest GDP per capita (IMF and World Bank data).
And of the handful of countries with low climate risk but slightly lower GDP per capita, they’re all knocking on the door of the world’s richest countries.
Whether or not this is a causal trend is beyond the scope of this piece and also not particularly relevant, since we can’t exactly look to historical or socioeconomic trends as a panacea for the climate crisis.
But it’s grim. An ecologically destabilized world in which living in a wealthy country is your ticket to safety is dystopian.
We’re all in the same storm. We need to be in the same boat.
This all speaks to one of many inconvenient truths pertaining to this ecological crisis: advanced economies have caused it by-and-large, but the worst impacts will be felt by those least responsible for destroying our planet.
The Global South has had the short end of the stick economically for centuries. It will also have the short end of the stick ecologically, which will also hamper its economic trajectory.
In fact, it already has. A 2019 Stanford study concluded “the gap between the economic output of the world’s richest and poorest countries is 25 percent larger today than it would have been without global warming.”
Yes, you can thank climate change for exacerbating the already disgraceful levels of global wealth inequality.
One reason? Warming has had an economically neutral or positive impact in many of the world’s richest countries. If you’re in Sweden or the United Kingdom, a few degrees of warming might help you out.
Some of the climate scientists who first analyzed the greenhouse effect weren’t too worried about the specter of climate change because they anticipated benefits. They welcomed a warmer world.
Swedish scientist Svante Arrhenius was one of them. He was the first person to quantify how much the planet might warm given anticipated trends in fossil fuel consumption.
Arrhenius wrote the following in 1908, 12 years after he demonstrated the quantitative link between carbon dioxide emissions and global heating:
“By the influence of the increasing percentage of carbonic acid in the atmosphere, we may hope to enjoy ages with more equable and better climates, especially as regards the colder regions of the earth, ages when the earth will bring forth much more abundant crops than at present, for the benefit of rapidly propagating mankind.”
He may have ignored his Swedish heritage as a reason to welcome a bit of warming, but when you’re used to cold, snowy winters, it’s hard to get that out of your scientific analysis, as objective as you might try to be.
Global heating has boosted Sweden’s GDP per capita by 25% according to the Stanford study. Arrhenius was right.
If, on the other hand, you live in a climate that’s already quite warm, more warmth might not be so appealing.
Whereas the biggest greenhouse gas emitters “enjoy on average about 10 percent higher per capita GDP today than they would have in a world without warming, the lowest emitters have been dragged down by about 25 percent.”
This is equivalent to a decades-long Great Depression caused by climate change impacting much of the Global South.
For instance, India’s GDP per capita has lagged by 31% thanks to global heating. Nigeria’s has lagged by 29%, Indonesia’s by 27%, and Brazil’s by 25%.
Those four countries collectively comprise about a quarter of the world’s population.
As a result of these trends (and many others), we’re teetering on the brink of a climate migration crisis. Millions of people will look for greener, wetter, cooler, and more resilient pastures.
What can we look forward to in regards to climate migration? Here’s a convenient summary of a Brookings Institution report published last year:
- Large-scale human migration due to resource scarcity, increased frequency of extreme weather events, and other factors, particularly in the developing countries in the earth’s low latitudinal band
- Intensifying intra- and inter-state competition for food, water, and other resources, particularly in the Middle East and North Africa
- Increased frequency and severity of disease outbreaks
- Increased U.S. border stress due to the severe effects of climate change in parts of Central America
In 2018, the World Bank “estimated that three regions (Latin America, sub-Saharan Africa, and Southeast Asia) will generate 143 million more climate migrants by 2050.”
143 million migrants might be an underestimate. We might see many hundreds of millions of people seeking to escape climate change. Sea level rise alone could displace that many people.
Particularly if nationalist and isolationist trends continue to pervade within powerful governments, that could create a potent recipe for disaster along many ugly lines. Suffice it to say, in the words of the Brookings Institution:
“All of these challenges are serious, but the scope and scale of human migration due to climate change will test the limits of national and global governance as well as international cooperation.”
They wrote that before COVID-19 arrived. Who knows how the world could handle a climate migrant crisis combined with a pandemic.
These are inconvenient truths. They reflect a world defined by inequality in many dimensions.
The world’s highest income economies have been relatively unscathed by the climate crisis, while lower income economies have been decimated. These disparities are shameful and sad on many levels.
You can run from climate change. Within the United States, you can run to the Upper Midwest, as I suggested. Zooming out, you can run to Scandinavia or New Zealand.
But if current climate trends continue, no one will be able to hide.
Climate change is a physical reality. Physics does not respect borders, bank accounts, or ideologies.
You cannot escape physics. Part of the beauty of science lies in its universality.
Except a planet devastated universally by instability of a scientific nature is not one you want to live in.
Trust me. Or trust the experts.
If you think things couldn’t possibly get any worse than five simultaneous storms in the North Atlantic combined with paralyzing fires along the West Coast and numerous other natural disasters around the world caused by anthropogenic climate change, in the words of Judas Priest, you’ve got another thing coming.
If there’s any reason to avert the worst-case scenarios of the climate crisis, I can’t think of a better one.