Central Appalachia Could Become Haven for Climate Migrants, Report Says
The narrative has been set for decades—Appalachia is a place people want to leave in search of better opportunities, not come to as a safe haven. But a new report by Invest Appalachia makes the case that extreme weather unleashed by climate change could make the Appalachian region an attractive alternative to residents of flood-plagued coastal areas or regions suffering from extreme heat like the South and Southwest. Invest Appalachia CEO Andrew Crosson spoke with Spotlight recently about the report’s findings and what it means for the type of investments that should be made in Central Appalachia to prepare for this looming challenge. This transcript has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
Tell us about this new report.
Let me start by saying that my organization, which did the report, is not a research organization. We are an investment platform that includes an impact investment fund, and then what we call catalytic capital, which is basically grant making to spur investments. Our thesis is that disinvested communities like those in Central Appalachia that have persistent poverty counties and structural barriers to opportunity don’t get their fair share of investment of any kind. Sure. And so, the expectation that they’re just going to start generating new inclusive diversified economies on their own with just access to market rate capital is faulty. So, we’re trying to bring capital to communities in a way that can support community-led economic diversification and we’re also looking at sectors and industries and projects that are strengthening inclusivity and equity at various levels, building community wealth.
And then one of our cross-sector goals is climate resilience. We didn’t have a super clear notion of exactly what that meant, but we knew we wanted to go beyond environmental sustainability and do-no-harm principles to be proactive in preparing the region for climate resilience. And so, we started to look around to say, what does it mean to prepare the Appalachian region in particular for climate resilience? And what we found is that there’s not a lot of literature on rural communities in general, as regards to the effects of climate change. There’s a lot about agriculture, a lot about crop failures and things like water scarcity issues in the Southwest. But there’s nothing about just rural communities and rural climate resilience and then there’s not very much about climate migration as regarding to rural areas. All the literature about climate migration tends to focus on cities absorbing people and to focus on upper New England, and in particular the Great Lakes regions as the sort of default climate receiver places.
So, we set out to explore, what is the baseline analysis of climate change impacts on the region, and what should we do? And we found that there was a deficit of analysis and literature on the topic for rural areas and in particular for Appalachia. So, what started out as a very simple undertaking—we figured it was a several-page document—turned out to be something that doesn’t exist. There was no way to summarize this analysis; we needed to create the analysis.
We looked at all the literature that was out there—methodologies to predict weather patterns, risks of climate change, and related weather events in the region. And as you can probably guess, it’s mostly flooding. We’ve already seen evidence of that and the effect it has. But then migration was the big thing that we wanted to focus in on because it seems an unavoidable conclusion that climate change is going to be the dominant driver of migratory choices that people make, both under duress or voluntarily. And Appalachia by all metrics is really well positioned to absorb population and to be able to be a net receiver place, as the literature calls it. So, that’s sort of the baselining aspect of it. And then we also wanted to go into the implications for community development. If you’re interested in a robust, community-centered economy in the context of climate change, what do we have to be thinking about? What do we have to be doing?
We looked across our different sectors, which include health and clean energy, agriculture and place making and said, what are going to be the opportunities in each of these sectors? What are some issues that we should be very proactive in thinking about? And then ultimately, because we’re an investment organization, what are the investments that we need to be making now so that we’re preparing these places to thrive in the future?
And while you’re obviously not going to be making the case that this part of the country is immune to climate disasters—as we’ve seen that happen in eastern Kentucky and elsewhere—I guess it does seem less likely than in a lot of other places.
My co-author on the report lives in Hazard, Kentucky, which was sort of the epicenter of the flooding and so that became sort of a focal point of the report. Major rainfall events are real risk, but compared with widespread drought or wildfires it seems much more manageable.
And one of the things that we point out is that the devastation from the flooding in Kentucky last July really can be a great source of education for us, in terms of what is needed. One of the issues that I think is underappreciated is that rainfall patterns are changing, so that most of the homes that were flooded were not in the floodplain. So, it’s really not a question of insurance—we have to change our analysis of what is in danger, but then also we have to recognize that it costs more to build civilian housing and housing that’s resistant to these sorts of events. But that’s not an option that a lot of people have; a lot of people are going to build in the cheapest place that they can. So, we talk about the effects of not just climate change, but also climate migration and gentrification, in terms of displacing and marginalizing people who are already on the cusp of poverty.
We really emphasize that equity angle of climate resilience—to say that people who are marginalized now and that are suffering socioeconomically now are going to be the same people who are going to suffer more when these adverse weather events begin. And we need to start doing something about that now.
What are the top two or three investment areas that you would list as a result of doing this work that you would immediately like to see being filled?
One obvious one is clean energy, and we do a lot of clean energy investment—it gets a lot of attention, and it is often generally what people equate with climate resilience. But part of our point with this report is that climate resilience is not just about clean energy and green tech, which is what a lot of the national dialogue is focused on. But I just think that analysis misses the point, because climate resilience, if you look at what it actually means, it, it means the ability for communities, for people to, to exist and thrive in place. And that takes a lot more than just renewable energy. Renewable energy is important, but I would like to see more attention on resilient food systems, for example. Another one is construction, whether it’s commercial real estate or housing, and trying to make sure that construction is climate adaptive, energy efficient, and weatherized. The brick-and-mortar decisions that we’re making now are going to be the decisions we have to live with in the decades to come.
And I guess this argument is also an interesting case of trying to do some narrative change—positioning Appalachia as a place to migrate to rather than from.
That’s correct. I think it’s a really good point and it’s something that has been fascinating to talk to people about, because people truly have never considered that there might be such a change in terms of migratory pattern. Appalachia is so equated with decline, right? And population loss. And it’s been the reality that people have been experiencing since at least the middle of the 20th century. All these towns and communities that were built up through the coal industry getting hollowed out . . . people can’t really even wrap their heads around what it will mean to have more people coming than going. It’s a narrative change, and not just for people outside the region to understand that Appalachia has a lot to offer, but also for people in the region to understand that within a decade or two, we’re going to have the opposite problem, which is how do we accommodate all these people? How do we do the infrastructure development, the industry development, in a way that can absorb all these populations?