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How to find a climate haven
Or, why I *really* bought my New Hampshire homestead
October 8, 2018, isn’t a day most people would remember. But it’s the day I began obsessively searching the Internet for an answer to a seemingly simple question, a question it appears is almost completely absent from conversations about digital nomadism, remote work, quiet quitting, and the like.
The question I had suddenly become obsessed with is this: where could I buy property that would escape the worst impacts of climate change?
The search started out simple, but I quickly realized the question was more complicated than I’d thought. Soon, I was formulating theories of community resilience, doing deep dives on the national flood insurance program, devouring books about sea level rise, hypothesizing second-order effects, and oh yea, emailing my family summary explanations of David Wallace-Wells New York Magazine articles.
One thing I recognized early is that buying an off-grid cabin in the woods would not be good enough. That would disconnect me from the social qualities which make humanity resilient in the first place. No man is an island, and besides, the deeper you dig into off-grid cabin dwellers, the more you understand how much food and fuel they are routinely driving in from somewhere far away.
At times I admit I became a little apocalyptic, especially once I began to think through climate change’s second-order effects: mass migrations, destabilized governments, economic depression, war. Yet I was motivated by a desire for something, not just security for me and my family, but a kind of connectedness, a place where I might know my neighbors, where I might begin to focus on the things most important to me. Climbing came to mind. So did family.
In truth, I had been searching for a place like this for years, only my search had been anchored primarily by climbing or kitesurfing locations.
So, what happened on October 8, 2018, that altered my thinking? That was the day the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the IPCC, released its report about what would happen if global temperature was allowed to rise just 1.5 degrees Celsius.
The IPCC Report
The 2018 IPCC report was big. Or at least, it should have been.
It was the first time scientists actually got real about their warnings. Past reports had strained to remain optimistic. Also, when you’re trying to deliver a consensus opinion about how bad it is, the tendency is to water down the most serious claims.
This time the language was different. Headlines around the world repeated the IPCC report's central claim: we had 12 years to avert climate catastrophe.
The moderation which had so characterized the global scientific consensus was gone. In its place, they were sounding the alarm as clearly and as loudly as they knew how. It was hair on fire time.
From activism to investment
I wrote about my disillusion with climate advocacy back in April (Why I hate Earth day), still months before Congress got its act together at the 11th hour and passed the biggest climate bill in history.
In any case, I’d already been an idealistic young person trying to save the world from global catastrophe. When the IPCC report came out, I was in no mood to get all idealistic again.
I was, however, in the mood to do something concrete. Not fluffy activist stuff, but a real-world investment in the future for me and my family. In essence, I needed to properly take my head out of the sand, and go north.
You probably need to move
That’s what all of us need to do, actually: go north.
It’s fair to say that help is coming for the environment—but it’s also fair to say that we’ve got unprecedented disruption, drought, wildfires, hurricanes, and the like already baked into the system. Those will be here for generations to come
What you need to do is the thing no politician is willing to tell you to do: move. Or at least, buy property now, while you can, before literally everyone in the world recognizes how valuable property that is insulated from climate change is and will be.
So, what is a climate haven and how does one start to look for one?
Definition of a climate haven
This definition is my own. I came to it after years of searching and researching, and especially after being frustrated about a certain over-emphasis on large regions, or conversely an over-simplified focus on certain cities. In my opinion, a climate haven has to be more specific.
So, here is my definition. A climate haven is a sustaining property, in a resilient community, in a region insulated from the worst effects of climate change.
Without all three of those criteria, you don’t have a climate haven. You could have just bought your dream off-grid cabin in the middle of the woods, complete with a well, solar panels, and enough timber to produce firewood for a century. But if that cabin is in the Sierra Nevada in California, well then you don’t have a climate haven. You’ve got an off-grid cabin likely to be destroyed by a forest fire in the very near future.
A climate haven requires all three elements: a sustaining property in a resilient community in a region insulated from climate change. So how do you find a place like that?
1. A region insulated from climate change
No place on earth is completely insulated from climate change, but many places are broadly insulated from the worst effects of climate change. In the United States, that’s the Great Lakes region, the Upper Midwest, and New England.
Why so few places? Because it’s not just forest fires and rising sea levels you’re trying to avoid. It’s heat waves, stronger and more frequent hurricanes, droughts, increased prevalence of tropical diseases (soon to be formerly tropical), and the impact of additional pests and weather changes on plant life and crops. The Great Lakes, the Upper Midwest, and New England all fit the bill.
There may be individual communities, cities, or smaller parts of the country outside those regions that are seemingly insulated from climate change, but I would still shy away. The reason is second-order effects.
Take Florida, for example. It’s not that every square foot of The Sunshine State is going to be underwater in the future. But enough of Florida will be impacted by flooding, hurricanes, and rising sea levels that the state’s shrinking tax base and deteriorating infrastructure are likely to lead to negative economic effects for the entire state, even in the in-between areas. This is already being born out in the state’s attempt to reform its flood insurance program.
In other words, rich people in Miami may think they can get away with living in a tall, posh building away from the ocean—but how will Miami itself fare when the property tax base has been generally laid to waste by rising flood waters? (Jeff Goodell has a good book on the second-order effects of rising flood waters.)
Then there are the non-U.S. destinations to consider. There are some clear “winner” regions in a climate change future: Russia, Canada, New Zealand, and Scandinavia. These are all places where growing seasons will actually increase, land formerly covered by, say, tundra, will become more livable, and where extreme climates generally will become more temperate. Yet, a climate change future is also likely to be more unstable politically, as governments around the world cope with wars, droughts, hurricanes, and the climate migrants those upheavals will cause. The U.S. alone is predicted to average more than 230,000 people displaced by climate disasters every year. So, you can't just look at a changing climate—you have to consider what impact that changing climate will have on jobs, economies, and governments.
This is all to say that a climate haven should and must take into account the stability of the national and local governments and the capacity of its institutions. Canada and Scandinavia score well on those factors but are also not exactly easy to move to.
Realistically, if you are looking for a climate haven, you’ll most likely be looking in the U.S. That means Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan, Upstate New York, Vermont, New Hampshire, and parts of Maine. I like this map for its illustration of which areas of the U.S. face which threats:
The red waves all along the coast are rising sea levels. Orange boxes for hurricanes cover much of the area up and down the east coast. Increased pests and wildfires are problems for most of the Mountain West, and tornados, heat waves, and drought are a problem for much of the midwest.
But see those white hearts up by the Great Lakes and in parts of New England? They're not perfect representations of where to look, but you get the idea.
After you’ve chosen a region, the next thing is to start looking for a resilient community.
2. Community resiliency
A resilient community is the most overlooked, under-appreciated element of a climate haven. Wherever you are, no matter who you are, I submit that you need people around you to rely upon.
Notice I didn’t say a resilient city. Cities are fine, but they are highly complex systems, which is why they’re often the first to stop working right when a major disaster strikes. If the power in New York City goes off due to a hurricane making its way up the coast, there’s only so much time before things start to go really wrong. We’ve seen that story before, and we’ll see it again, time after time. There’s a good reason why the first thing every character in a disaster movie does is try to get out of the city.
This isn’t to say a city can’t also contain within them resilient communities. Great Lakes cities like Buffalo, Cincinnati, and Deluth are all trying to bill themselves as climate havens because of their region, and it’s true these cities are less likely to experience the kinds of disasters which will routinely disable cities elsewhere in the country.
But just naming Buffalo doesn’t get you to what you really want: which is a place where you can rely on your neighbors, and where your neighbors are actually useful, not just because they can lend you sugar in a pinch. In a climate-changed future, actual useful neighbors are ones who will be growing food, keeping animals, building things, repairing plumbing, installing and upgrading electrical panels, insulating buildings, and redoing HVAC systems. Sadly, these days you’re not likely to find too many neighborhoods like that in big cities.
However, there are hundreds, if not thousands of small towns across the Great Lakes, Upper Midwest and New England where you will find neighbors like that—places where community resilience means that the community could, in theory, provide for most of its essential needs for at least a few months, if not years or decades.
It’s not just the ability to produce and make things people actually need to sustain themselves, though, which makes a community resilient. There’s also the fabric of a community. This is hard to measure, if not impossible. Yet you know it when you experience it. There are indicators: neighbors who know each other; community meetings just to inform and collaborate; unifying industries or activities; centers of social life; grandmas sitting on front porches (no joke — they know everything); and involvement in or awareness of local politics, to name a few.
This is the kind of community you are looking for. And after you’ve found one? That’s when we finally get to the exciting part.
3. A sustaining property
Once you’ve found a resilient community (or a few options for one) in a region insulated from climate change, you’re ready to start property hunting.
But what kind of property will complete the trifecta? Ideally, one that can begin to provide some of its own resources. A well is good, but you should also be looking at what can be done for food and energy.
Food is straightforward. You want a property with at least a little bit of land. What you don’t need are 25 acres of farm pasture. Depending on what size family you have and just how much gardening you plan to do, anywhere from ¼ acre to 1 acre will actually do fine.
Energy is a bit more complicated. Most people are aware that you want good south-facing exposure for solar power—and that’s true. You can usually get a good, free evaluation for rooftop solar potential before you make an offer on a property, or otherwise, you will need to devote some open space to panels. Actually, you’d be crazy not to: the IEA confirmed back in 2020 that solar power was now the “cheapest electricity in history."
Yet few properties, especially those in the North, can heat themselves entirely off of solar power, even well-designed passive solar. Most of the homes in the regions mentioned above rely on propane, gas, or wood for heat. Hopefully, the incentives for heat pumps in the new climate change bill will begin to change this. Really, everyone needs to go in that direction, though I recommend always having a wood stove in the living room, because hey, life is good around a wood stove. And of course, there are few activities in life as satisfying as chopping and stacking wood to heat your home. Plus, sitting around the fire in your living room is the very best possible way to spend a cold winter evening.
The X Factor: Nostalgic Attachments
All of the above is important to finding a climate haven, but there’s one more factor that absolutely cannot and should not be ignored as you search: nostalgic attachment, or, if you will, love of place.
Here’s what I mean.
In the Summer of 2015, I took myself on a trip to Lisbon. When I emerged from the subway from the airport, it was at the Baixa-Chiado station in the city center. One of the first things I saw was the bronze statue of Fernando Pessoa, a celebrated Portuguese writer. It’s located on the street outside a busy café that looks like something out of La Belle Epoque, a place where writers and artists would gather to discuss politics and begin love affairs.
I checked into a hostel overlooking Luís de Camões Square, named for the great 16th-century Portuguese poet. At the edge of the square sat another statue, this one of António Ribeiro—a poet, satirist, and one of Camões’ contemporaries. As I was learning, Lisbon adores its writers and poets.
Later, I took a walk down toward the water, through the Arco da Rua Augusta and into a square where I could order a beer while looking out onto the Tagus River. I sat there observing the ships moving down the river and toward the ocean and thought about the other people for which Portugal is world-famous: its explorers.
I’d been in Lisbon for just a few hours, and I felt very much at home.
Since then, I’ve visited Lisbon three more times. I could see myself living there one day. In fact, I very nearly did buy a fixer-upper in the old Alfama neighborhood, where the sounds of fado music ring through narrow, steep cobblestone streets where no cars can go.
At the time, buying that house felt just one step too impetuous for me, though. My romance with Lisbon was just that—a flight of fancy, a good time on a vacation, perhaps, but no place to make a home.
Can moving to a different city make you happy?
Can moving make you happy? I’ve always thought the answer to this question was a definitive no. I used to think that the kind of romantic daydreaming about living in other locations—Europe, the mountains, the ocean, South America, some small town farming village somewhere, you name it—only served to mask personal issues that I needed to deal with then and there.
A few years ago, my opinion began to change.
First, I listened to an interview with writer Johann Hari, about his book Lost Connections. For me, Hari’s book overturned decades of conventional wisdom about the causes of depression.
My previous understanding was that depression was largely a matter of brain chemistry. Specifically, an inability to produce enough serotonin. This could be corrected either with drugs, or (my preference) through exercise and diet.
Notably, neither of those solutions has anything to do with where you live.
Hari’s book, on the other hand, argues the primary causes of depression are not biochemical, but rather environmental. Specifically, the cause is disconnection. He outlines root causes of depression. Six of them have more to do with your environment than your brain chemistry:
Disconnection from meaningful work
Lack of social connection & meaningful friendships
Loss of meaningful shared values
Loss of status (high in places with extreme income inequality)
Disconnect from nature
Disconnect from a secure and hopeful future
Hari also acknowledges that genetics, childhood trauma, and other changes in the brain can all also have an impact. But those are already understood and widely accepted.
What is not widely accepted, is that we can become happier by changing our environment. In other words: moving to a new place might actually work.
My evolving relationship with D.C.
D.C. is a great city for an ambitious young person to pursue a career, especially one interested in politics, climate, and the environment. When I first moved there, I had many of the things Hari mentions: hope for the future, meaningful work (the aforementioned climate advocacy organizations), good relationships, and rising status.
Ten years later on, a lot had happened. Over time, most of my close friends had moved away in a kind of agonizing slow drip. First, it was the couple I’d gone to college with. They’d married and had kids, and decided to move away when the husband got a job working in land conservation in Montana. Then, it was my friends from grad school. They’d also married and had kids—and now they were off to Portland, Oregon.
The last straw was a close friend I’d met through kitesurfing. He and I would grab whatever spare days we could muster between parenting and work and drive the three hours to the Delaware coast, which was the nearest kitesurfing spot. But then he and his wife, both biologists, decided to move to the Massachusetts coast for work.
DC is nothing if not a city of transients, and that transience had begun to show.
It wasn’t just the loss of friendships—it was also tough to form new ones. People are focused on work. It takes a time to get around to the different neighborhoods. A coffee date or finding time to grab a beer might have to be planned weeks ahead of time.
My life become a lot less focused on work and career and a lot more focused on spending time with friends and family and time outdoors. And it’s tough to get to the outdoors from DC—the real outdoors. The nearest halfway decent rock climbing is a two-hour drive. The nearest really good climbing is five hours to New River Gorge in West Virginia. If you’re into hiking, the only real mountains are at least an hour and a half west to the Shenandoah. And the ocean, well—I’ve already mentioned how far that was.
Recognizing the role of place in your life
When I realized it might be D.C. itself that is the problem—and not me—my mind starts to resist. Most of us have been conditioned to try and face up to our own role in our unhappiness.
“This isn’t about a different place,” we tell ourselves.
But why isn’t it?
Over the past two years, Arthur C. Brooks, a social scientist and Harvard professor, has been publishing a series in The Atlantic about how to build a better life, including a meta-review of studies on the sources of happiness. One of them is a piece titled, Find the Place You Love. Then Move There.
“If where you live isn’t truly your home, and you have the resources to make a change, it could do wonders for your happiness,” Brooks wrote.
He starts with the anecdotal — the man who moved from Minnesota to Northern California, but who will forever think of those “bone-chilling winters” in that northern land as his home; and also Brooks’ own experience of living in Barcelona in his 20s, where he married his wife and which he still remembers as the happiest time in his life.
But then Brooks turns toward the meaning of these positive associations. There is actually a word for this: topophilia.
Topophilia was popularized in 1974 by the geographer Yi-Fu Tuan, in a book of the same name. Topophilia is defined as “the human being’s affective ties with the material environment.”
Or, as Brooks puts it: “the warm feelings you get from a place.”
Topophilia is what I felt for Lisbon nearly as soon as I got there.
In fact, I feel that warm feeling for a lot of places. I feel that way about the wide open desert of New Mexico, and the achingly beautiful way the burnt orange light hits the Sangre de Cristo mountains almost every evening at sunset. For a long time, I felt that way about Cabarete, in the Dominican Republic, which is where I learned to kitesurf and have gone back to three times.
We have “vivid, emotional” experiences with these places, Brooks writes, leading to “unexplainable” affections:
It is worth reflecting on your strongest positive synthetic tendencies—and the place they remind you of. They are a good guide to your topophilic ideal, and thus an important factor to be aware of as you design a physical future in line with your happiness. It is notable that one of the world’s most famous happiness experts, Tal Ben-Shahar, left a teaching position at Harvard University several years ago, where he had created the university’s then-most-popular class, to return to his native Israel—because he felt the pull of this homeland.
I’ve moved around a lot in my life. As a child, my family never lived in the same house for more than two years. But there are a few places which still feel, if not like home, then a place I want to make into a home.
The White Mountains of New Hampshire
The Summer after my freshman year of College, I took a job as a camp counselor in Maine. The camp was situated on Long Lake, an hour Northwest of Portland. It was a 30-minute drive from the New Hampshire border, and 45 minutes from the entrance to the Kancamagus Highway, the jumping-off point for dozens of trailheads leading into the heart of the White Mountains.
My first year as a camp counselor, I hiked several of those mountains, along with my campers. The next year, I became the camp’s trip counselor. I led weekly trips into the wilderness, mostly to the White Mountains. I hiked the Franconias, the Presidentials, Carter Dome, and more.
The next year I became the climbing counselor. During the week, I took kids on day trips to North Conway, where I would set up single-pitch top ropes for them to get destroyed on, and on my nights and days off I’d drive to the multi-pitch trad classics of Cathedral Ledge and Whitehorse where I’d get my own butt kicked.
After one Summer a friend and I drove to Rumney, a mecca for sport climbing tucked a mile down the road from the tiny village of Rumney: one tavern, one general store, and not much else. We camped, we climbed, and we drank beer by the campfire. In short: the formative Summers of my young adult life were spent exploring New Hampshire's mountains and cliffs.
Years later, when I started plotting an escape from Washington DC, I kept an eye on those towns that surrounded the White Mountains, especially Rumney. I paid attention to that topophilic love of place.
Finding a Climate Haven—While Following My Heart
This then is the most important thing to look for, aside from a sustaining property in a resilient community in a region insulated from climate change: nostalgia, affection, love.
Realtors know this. It’s not just a financial investment. It’s about finding home.
That search can’t be undertaken without paying at least some attention to where you feel comfortable, where you have those synthetic affections, whether that’s the smell of salt in the ocean, the burnt orange light of a sunset, or fresh mountain air.
Yes, I believe everyone needs to find a property that will serve as a haven from climate change for themselves and their family. But I also believe your love of place can help anchor that search. Your nostalgia for a different time in your life might be more than just longing for the past. If you pay attention, you might actually find that it’s a guidepost toward the kind of community you’re looking for.
That’s how I settled on my New Hampshire homestead. It wasn’t just the climbing, and not it wasn’t just the climate resiliency. It was everything.