Climate change is, self-evidently, a global phenomenon. From the most populous cities to the loneliest, isolated islets, everyone, everywhere will be affected in some way by climate change.
Not everyone’s circumstances are equal, though, and climate change resilience varies widely from place to place. So are there places on this pale, blue, warming dot of ours that will be threatened and affected by climate change the least? Is anywhere on Earth, within reason, relatively protected from the ravages of climate change?
Potentially, yes – and the chances are, if you’re reading this article, you’re already there. If you’re thinking it might be the United States, though, you might be in for an unpleasant surprise.
The crux of the matter is that climate change isn’t just a ubiquitous problem, it’s also deeply complex.
“It depends how exposed and sensitive each place is, and how well it can both prepare for the climate event and deal with it afterwards,” Professor Lindsay Stringer, an expert in the environment and development and member of the Sustainability Research Institute at the University of Leeds, told IFLScience.
“For this reason it’s hard to say country X will do ok under climate change and country Y won’t.”
Looking for respite from climate change is a somewhat difficult task. It’s easier to rule out countries that will be the most threatened by the phenomenon, but as Stringer emphasized: “Ultimately, everyone is affected.” You can’t escape climate change if your feet are on the ground.
It depends, of course, on how badly somewhere is already being affected by climate change. Hurricanes are almost certainly becoming stronger; droughts are becoming more frequent and intense; heatwaves, particularly in already warm regions, are going to get precipitously more potent; cities on shorelines all over the world will continue to face an increasing risk of suffering from major flooding. Small islands, low-lying areas, and skinny nations with coasts are all in trouble.
In short, any nation already experiencing such extremes will be at an increased risk in the future. From the US to Tuvalu, no country on Earth will be completely safe.
However, as Stringer pointed out, “those places where climate change is superimposed over other hazard risks often fare worst.” So let’s rule these places out.
Countries that are heavily reliant on their agricultural industries could suffer as precipitation patterns change. The world’s oceans, for which billions rely on to provide them with food and wages, are also suffering from unprecedented warming, acidification, and oxygen deprivation; as a consequence, people in countries bound primarily to the oceans will suffer too.
The WHO explain that, between 2030 and 2050, heat stress and climate-linked disease are going to cause an extra 250,000 deaths per year. They note, rather importantly, that areas with weak health infrastructure will suffer the most.
Are politically unstable or conflict-prone nations less likely to perform well as climate change worsens? Although there is evidence that suggests that climate change drives conflict and social unrest, directly linking both in a cause-and-effect relationship is controversial at present.
“It happens in particular regions of the world where there sometimes are resource-based skirmishes between pastoralists that get exasperated during times of drought, but it’s a far cry from any global generalization,” Dr Abdulhakim Abdi, a postdoctoral researcher and sustainability scientist at Lund University, told IFLScience.
Syria and Jordan can both experience severe climate change-enhanced droughts, but only the former is likely to experience any uptick in chaos or experience an exodus. Not coincidentally, Jordan is a socio-economically stable country, whereas Syria is precisely the opposite of that.
As such, hazard risks suggest that surviving climate change has a lot more to do with resources than perhaps anything else. Stringer highlighted that countries “that are wealthier – financially, but also in terms of other things like access to information, education, healthcare, access to credit, insurance, social networks, and so on – are often best able to cope with and manage climate change impacts.”
This can be uncomfortably juxtaposed with a grim fact of modern life: Despite having contributed the least to anthropogenic climate change of anyone, low-income, resource-poor nations will be affected the most. In general, then, climate resilience of countries is driven by wealth.
Wealthier nations are more likely to be able to militate against climatic phenomena, support their citizens’ wellbeing during times of strife, and recover from any weather extreme-related damages. This holds up as true across the planet, so if you want a safe haven, follow the money.
Infrastructural damage due to climate change-amplified natural disasters is reaching record highs, and research indicates that higher-than-optimum temperatures reduce workforce output and efficiency – something that’ll directly impact countries’ GDP values. On top of that, according to the World Health Organization (WHO), climate-linked health impacts will cost the world economy up to $4 billion a year by 2030.
The world’s economy will be damaged by worsening climate change. Clearly though, wealthier and resource-rich nations will be able to better withstand such shocks, major though they may be, compared to poorer nations.
So, even with the inherent uncertainty in the pace and potency of these overwhelmingly negative effects of climate change, safety from it all is only likely in a handful of countries – those that currently have mild climates, that are wealthy and resource-rich, that have good healthcare systems, that aren’t politically unstable, and aren’t likely to experience dangerous weather extremes on a regular basis.
That leaves us with a pretty short list, then: Canada, Northern Europe, New Zealand, and perhaps Japan, for example. Wait, what about the Land of the Free – the wealthiest, perhaps most resourceful nation on Earth? Isn’t this a safe haven? Actually, no, not quite.
You can’t simply say that the US is the safest place to live in this sense; any Americans fighting through hurricanes or wildfires can tell you that. Oregon may be somewhat free of climatic extremes, but Florida is constantly threatened by them.
The resource/wealth factor doesn’t just play out on a national level, but a local one too. Poorer parts of wealthy nations suffer more from climate change impacts. As emphasized by a landmark 2017 study, pre-existing inequality will widen as the world continues to warm – even in the US, the world’s sole superpower.
Under a fairly realistic warming scenario, parts of Texas, Florida, and the Deep South will suffer huge economic losses, up to 28 percent of total GDP in some counties, by the end of the century. The region's poorest counties will have their funds bled dry by the rising mercury as agricultural yields shrink, energy costs spike, and mortality rates shoot up.
That same study also predicts that the entire US economy will take a hit overall, but the northwest, where the climate is already far milder, might benefit a little from the changes. Agricultural yields will increase to varying degrees, and, thanks to a lack of weather extremes in general, states like Washington and Montana will be relatively safe, increasingly wealthy places to reside.
This is referencing the near-future, but if you’d prefer a startling, current example of how weather extremes and inequality in the US are inextricably tied together, just look at what transpired when Hurricane Maria, a Category Five storm, came to stay in 2017.
No matter where such a powerful cyclone may make landfall on the continental United States, there’s no chance it’ll ever have the same devastating impact as Maria did on Puerto Rico. This US territory, suffering from an inept federal response and a comparatively insubstantial economy, is still facing a humanitarian crisis six months after Maria passed through.
Citing Hurricane Katrina as another example, Abdi stressed that “in the US system, the poor cannot build resilience to climate change because the odds are pretty much stacked against them.”
Living in a wealthy country is no guarantee of safety from climate change. The brutal truth of the matter is that you need to be geographically fortunate, affluent, and resource-rich yourself. Inequality is a killer. So some parts of the US will be fine; others will certainly not be.
So, if you wish to bury your heads in the sand within those select few havens, and you have the means to do so, go ahead. Alternatively, we could try fixing the underlying problem of climate change in the first place.