The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion The D.C. area, with planning, can be a climate refuge

More severe storms are predicted for the D.C. area as a result of climate change. (Kevin Ambrose for The Washington Post)
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Gabriel Popkin is a science and environmental journalist in the D.C. area.

Like, I suspect, most of the nearly 1 million people who have made the D.C. area their home over the past decade, I moved here not for the climate but despite it.

In the 15 years I’ve lived in the Mid-Atlantic — a period during which much of the rest of the country has been beset by semi-apocalyptic fires, storms, heat and droughts — I’ve changed my thinking. I’ve come to view this region not as a place cursed by the weather gods but rather as a potential climate refuge for people fleeing places that are rapidly becoming unlivable.

I realize this might sound absurd. The term “climate refuge” probably evokes for most people a spot high on a mountainside or a northerly place that’s frozen much of the year — Duluth, Minn., perhaps. In other words, places too frigid for most people today but that are forecast to be pleasant, or at least bearable, in an overheated future.

Here in the Mid-Atlantic, half of us already complain that summers are too hot, and nearly everyone complains about the humidity. But we do have some crucial things going for us that I think we don’t always appreciate. Perhaps most important, we have abundant fresh water resources that are not going to dry up. We have fertile soil and varied landscapes of forests and farms — two ecosystems essential to human survival. And we’re protected by geography from the most severe extremes that near-term climate change will inflict. Most of our great cities are far from the coast, relatively sheltered from hurricanes, storm surges and sea-level rise.

The biggest climate challenges the Mid-Atlantic will face in the coming decades, according to scientists, are intense rain events and summer heat waves. These won’t always be pleasant. I, for one, am not excited about more 90-degree days. They will require planning and preparation, but they are manageable. They are not like the megastorms, megafires, megadroughts and rising oceans putting much of the country in existential peril.

Some regional climate changes could even yield benefits. Longer growing seasons, for example, could allow farmers to grow new crops, though summer droughts could pose a challenge; beautiful Southern trees such as live oaks could thrive here.

I sometimes think of what Capt. John Smith wrote about the Chesapeake region more than 400 years ago: “Heaven and earth never agreed better to frame a place for man’s habitation. … Here are mountains, hills, plaines, valleyes, rivers, and brookes, all running into a faire Bay, compassed but for the mouth, with fruitful and delightsome land.”

Though Smith’s antiquated language should probably be read to some extent as real estate marketing, I think he was on to something — as, of course, were the Indigenous people who made their living here for thousands of years before Smith arrived. The Mid-Atlantic was, and still is, a beneficent place for humans. The story of America since then has been to a large extent one of defying natural limits and enabling people to live in harsh, unsupportive environments — the desert Southwest, for example, still booming despite the worst drought in a millennium. But climate change will eventually outstrip human hubris. And when people start looking around for hospitable places, some will have the same realization that Smith did.

Unfortunately, not all people will have this option. Unless immigration policies change, many potential climate migrants from other countries won’t be able to get here.

Climate-driven population growth would boost the regional economy, but it would also present challenges. Our environment is already straining under the pressures of today’s population. Our roads are choked with cars, and our streams and rivers are polluted with water running off pavement and roofs.

But if we start to prepare now, we will be able to welcome climate migrants rather than see them as a burden. Most important, we can kick our addiction to single-family housing and build more densely and affordably across the region. We can preserve the protective forests and wetlands we still have. We can commit to finally developing world-class public transit systems and bicycle networks that will incentivize more people to not drive cars. We can deploy energy-efficient heat pumps and solar panels to make the air conditioning we unfortunately will need as climate-friendly as possible. We can support our local farms so they will be there when the unsustainable desert agriculture that supplies our grocery stores dries up. We can plant and care for climate-resilient trees that will provide shade, cooling and flood control for future residents.

Since I moved here, I’ve had countless friends and acquaintances decamp for the West, drawn by open spaces, big mountains, the Pacific Ocean and that cool Western mystique. I’ve envied them sometimes and wondered if I was missing out. But when I see news of fires turning the air orange and people fleeing their houses while I look at the verdant ecosystem in my yard and listen to the songs of birds that also make their home here, I realize I have it pretty good. I’m not gloating; I want to share the good with as many people as possible — including former East Coasters who, I assume, might move back. I hope my fellow Mid-Atlantic-ers want to share our bounty, too.