Studies show that climate change could prompt millions of Americans to relocate in the coming decades. And by some measures, New Hampshire and northern New England could be ideal places to move.
But preparing for those potential waves of climate migrants will be no easy task – and some are already arriving.
The Mountain West always felt like home for Judith and Doug Saum. Until recently, they lived in the hills above Reno, Nevada.
“It was with a view of the Sierra [Nevada Mountains] that was just to die for,” Judith said in an interview. “We had a lot of friends, musician friends, we'd get together and play music with them often. It wasn't easy to leave all that.”
The Saums had been thinking, several years ago, of moving when they retired – maybe to Colorado, or Montana to be near Doug's parents. But around that time, they were also noticing a change. Wildfires in the increasingly hot western summers were becoming a serious threat to their home and health.
“For me, it was unbearable,” Judith said. “I was so sensitive to the smoke that I start to swell up, I get sinus infections and going outside was intolerable.”
In 2017, the Saums ruled out the fire-stricken Mountain West in favor of the Northeast, where their son lives on Cape Cod. They moved to a house in Rumney, New Hampshire, surrounded by farms and forests at the foot of the White Mountains.
Doug Saum said they think of themselves as climate migrants.
“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,” Doug said.
Research shows that climate-related hazards could soon play a role in prompting millions of Americans to relocate north and away from the coasts. Disasters driven by climate change will force still more people to move – the way many Puerto Ricans resettled in Nashua after Hurricane Maria.
This change could bring new, diverse populations to New Hampshire and its neighbors, which have seen population decline and workforce shortages.
Anna Marandi, a senior climate specialist with the National League of Cities, said parts of New England could benefit economically and culturally from rebranding as a climate haven – but it will take buy-in.
"I think there’s a tension there between what do residents want and what is good for the economy,” Marandi said.
Becoming a climate haven, she said, takes infrastructure upgrades to water, sewer and road systems, and investments in affordable housing and zoning to keep vulnerable people from being displaced. Without good planning, she said, waves of migration could be disruptive.
“An increase in traffic, people getting evicted, a lack of hospital beds because there’s more people – these are the kinds of things that create tension,” Marandi said. “It’s not that people don’t want new people to come in. It’s that when the systems aren’t set up properly in advance to hold more people, then the existing population can get resentful.”
This has already been happening in New Hampshire due to the pandemic, as people have come to stay in their second homes and families have consolidated due to the economy. It's added to school enrollments and strained local water systems that were also afflicted by a historic, climate change-driven drought this past summer.
Unplanned population growth can also lead to sprawl, which undermines the region's other climate goals – like lowering transportation emissions and maintaining forests.
But these challenges also create opportunities. Conservation Law Foundation attorney Elena Mihaly calls it "multi-solving” – she said you can prepare for climate change and migration and fix community problems, all at the same time.
“I am optimistic,” Mihaly said. “I think over the last year I’ve seen more people – and I think the pandemic in particular is bringing this out – focusing energies around resiliency, and looking at that term pretty broadly as the capacity for the state to really withstand change and adapt in a way that makes us thrive.”
Nashua is one community that's already moving in that direction. They don't have much data on this yet, but they expect their climate migrants will come from nearby coastal areas, like Boston and Hampton.
Community development director Sarah Marchant said they're factoring that in as they work on affordable housing, increasing green space and improving stormwater systems.
All the effects of climate change, she said, are increasingly woven into how Nashua plans for an uncertain future.
“I think the best way we can do that is to ensure that what we are building is sustainable, and ... be smarter about what we do have,” Marchant said.
Whether or not the climate migrants come, she said, the city is making improvements that will benefit everyone – now and down the road.
This story is a production of New England News Collaborative. It was originally published by New Hampshire Public Radio on Jan. 12, 2020.
This segment aired on January 12, 2021.