Here are the most climate-resilient cities in the USA, and the ones most likely to have a future of constant, worsening disasters

Unfortunately, there’s nowhere to hide from the effects of climate change. Every region in the United States has experienced rising temperatures, extreme weather patterns, and greater damage from natural disasters.

Most experts predict that many areas will be unlivable by 2050, which is well within the scope of a 30-year mortgage. While some U.S. cities are better prepared to weather climate change’s effects, other locations are more likely to suffer based on geography and a lack of infrastructure and preparation.

The 50 most climate-resilient U.S. cities.

If you’re moving to a new area, consider climate change as an important deciding factor.

Communities invested in renewable energy sources are well-positioned to adapt to a changing climate and will become increasingly more desirable places to live. This will drive up the area’s real estate value.

To help you identify these locations, we’ve rated 50 major cities across the United States based on population, historical weather data, and more to determine which spots to keep on your radar.

We identified 14 factors to quantify a given city’s climate resilience using reliable data sources.

For example, we obtained population data from the U.S. Census Bureau, weather data from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), and risk and readiness scores from the University of Notre Dame’s Urban Adaptation Assessment.

Here are the factors we considered and why they’re important:

  • Population: Areas with lower populations are less likely to overtax existing resources as more residents move in.
    Elevation and projected sea level rise: The higher a city is above sea level, the less susceptible it is to rising oceans.
  • Extreme weather: We looked at occurrences of tornadoes, hurricanes, floods, wildfires, droughts, and excessive heat and cold since 2012 to see where weather events are becoming more severe.
  • UND UAA Risk score: This number measures an urban environment’s exposure to flooding, the vulnerability of its people and buildings, and its ability to provide health care.
  • UND UAA Readiness score: This number measures an urban environment’s social, economic, and governmental engagement concerning climate change and overall adaptability.
  • Air quality index: We measured the number of days in 2022 when each city had good-quality air.
  • Clean energy ranking: This is determined by the percentage of power use provided by green energy sources such as solar, water, and wind.

Each city received a score out of 5 for each factor, with 5 meaning “most resilient” and 0 meaning “least resilient.” These factors were then weighted based on their importance, with the UND risk and readiness scores carrying the most weight. The weighted scores were added together, and cities with the highest scores were deemed the most resilient to climate change.

3 Best Cities for Climate Change

As you might expect, our top-ranked cities had a few things in common. They were likely to have lower populations, higher elevations, fewer adverse weather conditions, and lower overall risks. However, even the top three cities have significant variation when it comes to their strongest factors. Our top 10 cities are located in nine states with widely varying elevations. Here are the three with the highest scores.

Denver, Colorado
It’s no surprise that the Mile-High City got a perfect 5 out of 5 for elevation. The oceans would have to rise for a very long time before Denver becomes beachfront property. However, Denver has more going for it than just its height above sea level. With the exception of a few droughts and tornadoes, Denver hasn’t experienced any of the measured extreme weather events in the last 10 years. It also scores very well on clean energy sources.

That doesn’t mean it’s perfect: Denver has dealt with air quality problems in the recent past, and while its risk score is low, its readiness score is only slightly above average. Still, Denver has a substantial score advantage over even our second-place city. Denver residents are unlikely to sustain property damage from extreme weather, and they can take advantage of renewable energy that could potentially lower utility bills. This puts Denver in the top spot for climate-resilient cities.

Raleigh, North Carolina
The capital of North Carolina and the state’s second-largest city, Raleigh may appear to be Denver’s opposite. It’s located just a few hundred feet above sea level, and it has few options for renewable energy. However, the city’s mild weather, excellent air quality, low risk, and high readiness push it to the No. 2 spot on our list. Located far enough inland that it’s rarely affected by hurricanes, Raleigh has only experienced tornadoes from our list of extreme weather events.

Raleigh is the largest city in North Carolina’s Research Triangle, an area bordered by three major research-oriented universities. That means a high population percentage is well-educated, engaged in civic life, and able to innovate, giving the city its high readiness score. Charlotte, the largest city in the state, comes in fifth on our list based on its similar good weather and low risk.

Salt Lake City, Utah
Salt Lake City ranks third for its low population, high elevation, and low risk. Although it’s unlikely to experience extreme weather events, the area has had numerous wildfires over the last 10 years. The winters are cold on the western edge of the Rocky Mountains, but the NOAA didn’t record any instances of excessive cold.

Salt Lake City could stand to improve its readiness score in terms of civic engagement and innovation capabilities, but it’s well-positioned economically. Additionally, the solar industry has done well in Utah thanks to the state’s numerous sunny days, large average property sizes, and relatively low cost of living. In fact, SEIA’s National Solar Job Census found that Utah was the top-ranked state in solar jobs per capita in 2020. As the renewable energy industry grows, it’s likely that Utah will experience further job growth.

3 Worst Cities for Climate Change

Alas, some cities had to land at the bottom of our list. You’ll immediately notice that all three cities are coastal locations in Florida. This means very low elevation, high risk from rising seas, and vulnerability to severe weather. While not all of Florida is at equal risk—for example, Orlando ranked in our top 10—these cities are likely to experience the worst climate change effects in the near future.

Jacksonville, Florida
When you think of coastal Florida, you probably immediately think of hurricanes. However, Jacksonville, the state’s largest city, is located in a northeast region that doesn’t take many direct hits from storms. Tornadoes, floods, and wildfires are bigger issues. Fortunately, temperatures tend to fall within the expected range. Overall, Jacksonville was the third-worst city on our list.

What really presents a problem for Jacksonville is its high risk and low readiness scores, according to the University of Notre Dame. Much of the city is in danger of flooding due to its Atlantic Coast location and because the St. Johns River runs through the downtown area. Although civic engagement and general education are high, low economic indicators such as high debt per resident and low creditworthiness greatly hurt the city’s readiness score. There are concerns that Jacksonville would be unable to adapt financially to a changing climate and increasing extreme weather.

Tampa, Florida
Tampa, a city on Florida’s Gulf Coast, had no wildfires or floods in the past 10 years, but it was susceptible to hurricanes and tornadoes. Despite this, it actually has a much lower risk score than the other two Florida cities at the bottom of our list. What hurts Tampa is its abysmal clean energy rating and readiness score. Despite its place in the Sunshine State, there are almost no clean energy or pollution-reducing initiatives or policies on either a local or statewide level. Out of a possible 100 points, the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy gave it just 11.5, as opposed to an average of 31 for similar cities.

There is hope for Tampa. It has reasonably high civic engagement and adaptability scores, along with a lower percentage of buildings in flood zones than Jacksonville. However, it would take substantial work from the local government to bring up Tampa’s readiness and clean energy factors.

Miami, Florida
Miami may seem like a vacation paradise, but it’s the least climate-resilient city on our list. Its biggest issue is location, as it’s essentially at sea level and in an area of southeast Florida highly vulnerable to hurricanes. As a result, Miami has experienced severe flooding in the past decade from two hurricanes, as well as wildfires and drought. Though the city has average air quality and clean energy, it has by far the highest risk score of any city on our list, coupled with one of the lowest readiness scores.

An aging population, little government support for climate initiatives, and many mobile homes puts Miami in a difficult position to prepare for climate change. Although Miami can’t do anything about its geographic location, it can offer better tax incentives and set goals related to emissions and renewable energy. Until then—and simply because it’s likely to be the first to suffer problems as sea levels rise—Miami remains a better place to visit than live.

The Impact of Natural Factors and Current Events

We’re already starting to see some of climate change’s severe effects. However, they impact various cities, states, and regions differently. For example, California and Nevada have been experiencing a 22-year drought, and precipitation levels in 2021 were the lowest they’ve been since 1895. As a result, crops suffered and wildfires consumed thousands of acres of land. A recent study showed that droughts of this type are now six times more likely due to climate change.

Droughts and heat waves are often the direct result of global warming caused by greenhouse gasses. Other types of extreme weather, such as hurricanes, are more likely because of warmer ocean water, though the exact amount they’re increasing is difficult to quantify. These storms cause flooding from both rain and storm surges, which are often the worst in areas of low elevation.

One certain global warming effect is rising sea levels as the polar ice caps melt. At the same time, many cities close to sea level are building new homes in zones with a high flood risk. Zillow found that 1.58 million homes in Florida are expected to be in severe danger from flooding in the next 80 years. Hundreds of thousands of homes in New Jersey, Virginia, California, and Louisiana are also at risk. Clearly, climate resiliency is an increasingly important factor to consider when deciding where to make your home.

Plans for the Future of Select Ranked Cities

Geographic location and features aside, what’s the difference between a city that’s prepared for climate change effects and one that’s not? Climate-resilient cities have plans and infrastructure in place to help adapt to changes in population, energy use, and disaster management.

Green Infrastructure

A climate-resilient infrastructure is one that relies on renewable energy sources rather than fossil fuels. Another key concept is sustainability, so the city can continue to function even when nonrenewable resources become scarce. Clean power sources like wind, water, and solar energy are a vital part of green infrastructure for obvious reasons. Not only do they come from renewable sources, but they also don’t create emissions when in use.

Some cities have already reached their goal of running on 100% renewable energy sources. Burlington, Vermont, was the first city to cross this threshold in 2014, with Aspen, Colorado, right behind it in 2015. Other cities like Rochester, Minnesota, and San Diego, California, have plans in place to hit that threshold in the 2020s or 2030s. Large-scale wind farms provide power to some areas of the country, but they require so much square footage to operate that they aren’t practical for individual homeowners or even many individual cities. Few areas are located near the kind of running water needed for hydropower.

Thus, solar panel systems are becoming popular to power both residential and commercial buildings. The solar industry is growing quickly in the United States, even at a time when the global economy is suffering. In fact, solar power accounted for 60% of the country’s new green energy installations in 2022, a year in which total global investment in clean energy sources hit $2.4 trillion. While solar panel costs and availability have been affected by supply chain issues, this hasn’t slowed down industry growth.

Of course, renewable energy is not the only important part of sustainable infrastructure. Water management is especially important in areas prone to heavy rains and flooding. Rainwater harvesting systems reduce pollution typically spread by storm water, and permeable pavement gives water somewhere to go in a storm. Readily available public transportation, green spaces, and urban farming are infrastructure projects that can make a city more able to respond to the changing climate.

Climate Plans

An important part of the University of Notre Dame’s Readiness score was an evaluation done by the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy. The ACEEE developed scorecards for cities across the nation based on their plans for reducing contributing climate change factors and responding to climate change’s effects.

Here are the factors they looked at when evaluating a city’s climate plan:

  • Local government operations: Does the city have goals for reducing greenhouse gas emissions and increasing energy efficiency?
  • Community-wide initiatives: How actively is the community working toward accomplishing these goals?
  • Buildings policies: What policies encourage or require new construction or upgrades to buildings that increase energy efficiency and reduce waste?
  • Energy and water utilities: What steps are utility companies taking to embrace renewable energy sources and reduce inefficiency?
  • Transportation policies: How is the local government making public transportation more accessible to reduce car use? Are communities mixed-use to encourage walking and biking?

Cities with these five factors in place scored highly in terms of readiness. For example, California has required since 2020 that all newly constructed homes have solar panels. Ten other states are considering similar legislation, which would more than double the amount of U.S. solar panels by 2026. While climate resilience doesn’t look the same in every city, policies and initiatives that take advantage of local renewable resources and cut down on inefficient solutions show that a city has a plan to remain sustainable as circumstances change.

Disaster Management

While no one hopes for a natural disaster, catastrophic natural events have served as wake-up calls that some cities’ policies and infrastructure need changing for safety. In other words, learning from natural disasters can and does prevent crises in the future.

For example, the small town of Greensburg, Kansas, was all but wiped out by a tornado in 2007. About 95% of the town needed to be rebuilt, and the locals did so with sustainability as their primary goal. Though the town was nearly destroyed by wind, residents decided to harness its natural power to rebuild. Today, the Greensburg Wind Farm provides so much power that the town can’t use it all. Instead, it’s sold back to companies looking to invest in green energy. Rebuilding this way cost about 20% more up-front, but it has netted the town huge savings in energy costs ever since.

Power plants and fossil fuel pipelines are particularly susceptible to environmental disasters, worsening blackouts, and energy shortages during a natural disaster. Oil, gas, and coal are centralized energy sources that must be mined, transported, and burned in centralized locations. If a disaster strikes one of those locations, it can affect the entire world. By contrast, solar panels and wind turbines are distributed systems, making them more resilient to disasters.

Some cities have realized this and acted before problems happened. A small Native American community in California called Blue Lake Rancheria set up a 1,500-solar panel system in 2015 that fully powered the reservation. When a nearby 2019 wildfire caused widespread power outages, Blue Lake Rancheria was able to keep the lights on and opened their buildings to neighbors—including those who needed critical hospital care. In this case, disaster readiness directly saved lives.

Although Greensburg and Blue Lake Rancheria are both small communities, they should serve as models for larger cities looking to increase adaptability and sustainability in the face of changing climate conditions. Natural disasters such as storms, floods, droughts, and wildfires will become increasingly frequent and intense, and cities need to both learn from and plan for them.

Our Recommendation

Disruptions to everyday life caused and worsened by climate change are predicted to increase over the next years and decades. That’s why it’s important to look to the future now and make smart decisions in terms of where and how to live. While nowhere on the planet will remain unaffected, the safest cities are both geographically sheltered and politically and economically prepared for what’s to come.

These cities may need to be located at high elevations like Denver and Salt Lake City, or have a high potential for human innovation like Raleigh and Charlotte. Cities that have invested in renewable energy sources, as Seattle and San Francisco have, are ahead of the curve when it comes to providing for their citizens as extreme weather increases and the availability of fossil fuels decreases.

On the other hand, cities like Jacksonville, Tampa, and Miami will need to work diligently to make up for their inherent geographic vulnerabilities to rising seas and hurricanes. These cities would do well to put their resources into better public transportation, emissions reduction, and community climate initiatives. If they don’t, they could find themselves unable to deal with rising sea levels, intense storms, and increased flooding.

As for you and your family, you can do more to protect yourself than just reduce your personal carbon footprint. It’s impossible to overstate the importance of good homeowners’ insurance. This insurance will cover catastrophic damage from many natural disasters linked to climate change. Meanwhile, a home warranty can cover repairs and replacements when important home systems and appliances break down from everyday use—for example, your AC dying from overuse in the midst of a heat wave. Having these financial protections in place will help you increase your own climate resilience score.

How We Chose the Most Climate-Resilient Cities

We analyzed the following 14 factors to identify the most climate-resilient cities in the United States:

  • Air quality index
  • Clean energy ranking
  • Elevation
  • Historical weather data on
    • Droughts
    • Floods
    • Hurricanes
    • Extreme cold
    • Excessive heat
    • Tornadoes
    • Wildfires
  • Population
  • Projected sea level rise by 2040
  • UND UAA Readiness score
  • UND UAA Risk score

We ranked and scored each city based on these weighted data points to find the top 50 cities in the country. The maximum overall score for any city was 136.3. Higher scores indicate a more climate-resilient city.

Our research included data from government agencies and respected institutions, including the following:

  • American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy (ACEEE)
  • Climate Central
  • National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA)
  • Notre Dame Global Adaptation Initiative
  • US Geological Survey
  • United States Census Bureau
  • United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)
  • World Resources Institute

Photo of Jacksonville, Florida by Jorge Molina from Pixabay

This article by Amanda Lutz originally appeared in Architectural Digest. Reprinted here by permission.

You must be logged in to post a comment