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Climate Analysis

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Climate Resilience in Central Appalachia: Impacts and Opportunities

An analysis of projected climate crisis impacts and its implications for community and economic development in the Central Appalachian region.

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The Climate Resilience Landscape and Appalachia

Across the country, Americans are beginning to feel the direct impacts of the climate crisis on their lives, work, health, and property. This has led many from “bellwether” regions like the Gulf Coast, parts of California, and the Pacific Northwest to reconsider the long-term viability of these geographies to sustainably support large populations and functional economies. While adaptation efforts in the most climate-impacted regions are worthy and important, these residents are increasingly seeking alternate locations perceived to be better suited to withstand and adapt to the increasing frequency and severity of climate shocks. Appalachia also finds itself facing the immediate effects of the climate crisis, especially with the increased regularity and unprecedented intensity of flooding across the region (USGCRP, 2018), including recent historic rainfall events in Eastern Kentucky, West Virginia, and Western North Carolina. Despite increased rates of severe flooding and other climate-related challenges, the Appalachian region is relatively well-poised for climate change-linked in-migration in the coming decades.

Analysis of available data and literature reveals that climate change concerns are already influencing where many Americans are choosing to live (Allen, 2022). Significantly, much of the available data and information point toward Central Appalachia as a likely important hub for in-migration and climate-adaptive development. However, there is a noticeable lack of region-specific research in this field, especially concerning the role of geographies in greater Appalachia. We recommend development of extensive and publicly available research from federal agencies, as well as academic and private institutions on the topic of internal US migration as a consequence of climate change, with specific attention paid to states and communities inside Appalachia as possible climate receiver places.

To date, popular and academic discourse on the topic has focused heavily on the Great Lakes region and the post-industrial cities of the ‘Rust Belt’ as prospective havens for climate migration. Much of the existing literature also reflects an urban-centric analysis for where and how climate migration will occur. However, anecdotal and quantitative data of migratory trends during the COVID-19 pandemic challenge a solely urban centric analysis (Riordan, 2022). Rural areas seem to represent stability in the popular consciousness, and real estate professionals in Appalachia report that buyers from outside the area have begun seeking properties in the region as a hedge against climate disruptions even before the COVID-19 pandemic began (Walton, 2020). Meanwhile, the geostrategic importance of the region’s natural and ecological assets in the face of the climate crisis present significant and complex opportunities for future generations. Invest Appalachia (IA) and its regional partners believe that Central Appalachia—and the rest of the 13-state Appalachian region—has a vital role to play in national climate adaptation and mitigation efforts. With this report, Invest Appalachia aims to shed light on the key role the region can and must play in safeguarding American economic development, safety, and security through climate adaptation and mitigation, while seeking to re-center rural communities as viable and necessary hubs for forward-looking investment in this era of climate crisis. Furthermore, this report seeks to establish a baseline analysis of a climate-impacted future for the region that can be broadly shared and understood, so that we can collectively develop the forward-looking tools and resources we need in the present in order to build equitable markets, increase resilience, and safeguard our future.

“Invest Appalachia (IA) and its regional partners believe that Central Appalachia - and the rest of the 13-state Appalachian region - has a vital role to play in national climate adaptation and mitigation efforts. The geostrategic importance of the region’s natural and ecological assets in the face of the climate crisis present significant and complex opportunities for future generations.”

Given its elevation, mild warm-season temperatures, ecological diversity, mountainous terrain, water resources, and proximity to regions at severe risk of climate disruptions, Central Appalachia is relatively well-positioned geographically to act as a “climate receiver place,” defined as those communities expected to see a net gain in population due to climate change-related migration. This represents extraordinary opportunity for the region in the form of expanded investment and economic growth. At the same time, there exists the possibility of exacerbating longstanding socioeconomic disparities and even creating new challenges such as sharply rising home prices, land access, and cost of living increases linked to rural gentrification.

It is the aim of this report, and of Invest Appalachia generally, to identify the most important and impactful areas for investment and growth while simultaneously seeking to safeguard existing ecosystems and communities that are in many cases currently striving towards greater socioeconomic inclusion, sustainability, and economic parity with the rest of the country.

The physical properties of a geography are only part of what makes a place resilient and viable in terms of climate change adaptability. Also relevant are issues of equity and justice, affordability, opportunity, good governance, housing and food access, and education, to name just a few.

Invest Appalachia is focused on addressing the aforementioned issues through community-aligned, strategic deployment of catalytic and investment capital to facilitate community development. The goal is to nurture sustainable and autonomous economic systems in the region that are able to withstand the shocks and pressures associated with the climate crisis to the greatest possible extent. Invest Appalachia has identified several areas in which climate change is likely to affect community development and resilience across the region’s economy, including IA’s four key impact sectors: Community Health, Clean Energy, Food and Agriculture, and Creative Placemaking. This report explores how forward-looking planning, strategy, and investment across these and other sectors can help to position the region to adapt and thrive in a climate-impacted future.

Invest Appalachia is committed to continued research and exploration in the areas outlined in this report. Our next step is to begin work alongside partners. Our deepest hope is that this analysis contributes to a regional response that will sustain our region’s land, people, culture, and economies for generations to come. We welcome any and all partners in this dialogue and this shared pursuit.

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