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Climate Change Concerns Prompt Americans To Consider Relocating


Climate change could prompt millions of Americans to relocate in decades to come. Rising temperatures and rising seas will alter conditions in some places, and some people have already moved. Here's New Hampshire Public Radio's Annie Ropeik.


ANNIE ROPEIK: The Mountain West always felt like home for Judith and Doug Saum. Until recently, they lived outside of Reno, Nev.

JUDITH SAUM: It was with a view of the Sierra that was just to die for, you know? Had a lot of friends, musician friends - we'd get together and play music with them. It wasn't easy to leave all that.

ROPEIK: The Saums had long thought about retiring to Colorado or Montana to be near family. But as they started making those plans several years ago, they were also noticing a new problem. Wildfire season was getting worse and longer in their part of the country due to climate change.

J SAUM: For me, it was unbearable because I was so sensitive to the smoke that I start to swell up. I get sinus infections. And going outside was intolerable.

ROPEIK: The Saums did end up moving but not in the west. They settled on northern New England and a house in a rural town at the foot of New Hampshire's White Mountains. Doug says they call themselves climate migrants.

DOUG SAUM: We had the idea that - not necessarily that we were going to a place that would be forever untouched by climate change but that we were getting out of a bad climate situation that was only likely to get worse.

ROPEIK: Research suggests that climate-related hazards could soon play a role in prompting millions of Americans and people worldwide to relocate. Jola Ajibade studies this at Portland State University in Oregon.

JOLA AJIBADE: Impermanence might be the new normal for many of us. And so the idea that, you know, you have to live in one place forever, I think people have to forget that.

ROPEIK: But she says all this moving around can make people more resilient. And if the places that will receive them can be resilient and flexible, too, they might just benefit from it.

SARAH MARCHANT: When we've talked about climate migration, it usually comes up within the context of the jobs that we just can't fill.

ROPEIK: Sarah Marchant is community development director in Nashua, N.H. It's already seen its Puerto Rican population grow after Hurricane Maria, and it expects more climate migrants from Boston and other nearby coastal areas.

MARCHANT: I think the city is well positioned with the infrastructure we already have and our location that is very desirable.

ROPEIK: By some measures, Nashua's region could be an ideal climate haven. It's getting warmer but doesn't face the existential threats of, say, Florida or California. Northern New England is also one of the oldest and whitest parts of the country and has struggled with population loss. But it's hard to predict the scale and timing of climate migration. And an influx of newcomers during the current pandemic is showing just how disruptive unplanned growth can be. So Marchant says Nashua is keeping migration and other climate impacts in mind while tackling existing problems with affordable housing and overstretched infrastructure.

MARCHANT: To ensure that what we are building is sustainable. We also have to be smarter about what we do have.

ROPEIK: Whether or not the climate migrants come, she says, Nashua is making improvements that will benefit everyone. For NPR News, I'm Annie Ropeik.


INSKEEP: A version of this story first aired on New Hampshire Public Radio's podcast Outside/In.

(SOUNDBITE OF EPIC45'S "THE LANES DON'T CHANGE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Annie Ropeik reports on state economy and business issues for all Indiana Public Broadcasting stations, from a home base of WBAA. She has lived and worked on either side of the country, but never in the middle of it. At NPR affiliate KUCB in Alaska's Aleutian Islands, she covered fish, oil and shipping and earned an Alaska Press Club Award for business reporting. She then moved 4,100 miles to report on chickens, chemicals and more for Delaware Public Media. She is originally from the D.C. suburb of Silver Spring, Maryland, but her mom is a Hoosier. Annie graduated from Boston University with a degree in classics and philosophy. She performs a mean car concert, boasts a worryingly encyclopedic knowledge of One Direction lyrics and enjoys the rule of threes. She is also a Hufflepuff.