Climate adaptation is the practice of lowering risks from the consequences of climate change. For Western North Carolina, these risks include more frequent wildfires caused by drought as well as increased flooding and erosion due to more common and severe storm events.
The local real estate market is strong thanks in large part to our abundant protected natural areas and the culture of healthy living they inspire.
At the same time, this love of nature also inspires homeowners to seek land for agriculture, a home with views of mountain ranges, or sites close to our abundant water features. Such an intermix of natural areas and development invariably creates a vulnerability to risks from drought, floods and wildfire.
However, if you are in the market for a traditional home that is well outside the flood zone, in an area with low wildfire risk, and not on an erodible slope, then climate adaptation is more a concern for your city or county. In such cases, homebuyers should ask the city or county that provides their public services whether it is anticipating and budgeting for climate change.
There is a real need within the real estate market to create awareness and include climate-change risk in the home-buying decision. Frankly, relying on insurance coverage may leave homeowners in a difficult position.
A Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) review was reported to show that 80 percent of homeowners’ claims in recent natural disasters were underpaid by their insurance companies, undoubtedly leaving some of those people homeless and with a mortgage.
The National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP) managed by FEMA, which pays insurance companies for claims, is $23 billion in debt, according to media reports. Meanwhile, the insurance companies that act as the middleman for the NFIP by collecting premiums and distributing payments are reportedly making a 30 percent profit on average. Effectively, it would seem that federal taxes are paying for flood-insurance coverage while the insurance companies profit as the middleman.
Enhanced by drought, wildfires have been increasing in frequency. Thanks to advances in modern firefighting, these fires tend to be smaller and better contained than those observed in the past—though historically there were fewer homes built near National Forests.
Fires in Western North Carolina affected 55,000 acres in 2016, causing thousands to evacuate their homes, according to Carolina Public Press. Simultaneously, just across the state border in Gatlinburg, Tennessee, fall wildfires caused the evacuation of 14,000 people and the destruction of roughly 1,700 homes and businesses, as told by the Knoxville News Sentinel.
Given that climate change is a global threat, shouldn’t our federal government be generating solutions? I personally remain hopeful, but the political process has been much slower than the rate of climate change. The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change in 2015 resulting in the Paris Climate Agreement was critical step in the right direction.
However, the reductions in greenhouse gases agreed to in Paris will still lead to an average warming of 3 degrees Celsius by 2100, according to some projections. To put this into perspective, the European Geosciences Union predicts that a shift from a 1.5 to 2.0 degrees Celsius will cause a 30 percent increase in severe weather events and a 30 percent increase in sea level rise. We broke the 1 degree Celsius mark in 2015 and are quickly approaching the 1.5 degree Celsius mark, according to the World Economic Forum.
With all that said, what can you do as a homebuyer? Energy-efficient green-built homes are an important solution. But it is also critical to think about where you buy or build within the landscape.
If you want to be close to forests, consider maintaining a 30-foot buffer of grass around the home to reduce wildfire risk. If you find a site outside the 100-year floodplain, within say the 250-year floodplain, consider getting flood insurance from a reputable insurance company. The FEMA floodplain designations do not consider changes in storm events due to climate change.
If part of the land is forested, then plan to budget to reduce fuels over time to lower wildfire risk. If part of the land is in the floodplain, then plan to install and maintain vegetated riparian buffers to reduce the impacts of floods and erosion. Many of these land-management activities will have the added bonus of increasing biodiversity.
Remember, adaptation is important for all species.
Doug Bruggeman received his doctorate from Michigan State University. He is adjunct faculty at Lenoir-Rhyne University, where he teaches a graduate course on the Economics of Sustainability. He has worked as an environmental consultant supporting brownfield redevelopment, and is a licensed realtor with Keller Williams Professionals.
You can also view this article as it was originally published on page 53 of the 2017-18 edition of the directory.