Fleeing global warming? ‘Climate havens’ aren’t ready for you yet.

Forget the palm trees and warm ocean breeze. The upper Midwest could soon be the most sought-after living destination in the United States.

The curb appeal of the Great Lakes region is that it appears to be a relatively safe place to ride out the wild weather of the future. It’s far from the storm-battered Eastern seaboard and buffered from the West’s wildfires and drought, with some of the largest sources of fresh water in the world. The Great Lakes help temper the bitter winds of winter and cool the muggy summer. And rising temperatures are beginning to take some of the bite off that winter weather: Michigan, in fact, is turning into wine country, with vineyards growing warm-weather grapes like pinot noir and cabernet sauvignon.

Long-simmering speculations about where to hide from climate change picked up in February 2019 when the mayor of Buffalo, New York, declared that the city on Lake Erie’s eastern edge would one day become a “climate refuge.” Two months later, a New York Times article made the case that Duluth, Minnesota, on the western corner of Lake Superior, could be an attractive new home for Texans and Floridians looking to escape blistering temperatures. 

“In this century, climate migration will be larger, and is already by some measures larger, than political or economic migration,” Parag Khanna, a global strategy advisor, told me over the phone. His recent book, Move: The Forces Uprooting Us, analyzes where people are relocating to and how the “map of humanity” will shift in the coming decades, with an eye toward climate change, politics, jobs, and technology. Khanna is particularly bullish on Michigan. When I mentioned I grew up in northern Indiana a couple of miles south of the Michigan border, he said, “Go back and buy property now. At least, that’s the way some people are interpreting it.”

There’s a big market for mapping out where people will live in a hotter climate, with the consensus landing mostly on northern latitudes buffered from rising seas, heat, and drought. These forecasts are already shaping reality, with Great Lakes cities planning for an influx of residents and rich preppers buying bunkers in New Zealand to ride out the apocalypse. Vivek Shandas, who studies climate change and cities at Portland State University, says he regularly gets calls from real estate investors asking where to buy up property.

A map of the world shows parts of South America, Africa, the Middle East, Southeast Asia, and the southern U.S. in red, and nothern latitudes in shades of green.
The optimal geographies for human habitation are shifting as temperatures rise. Red indicates that regions may become unsuitable by 2070 or sooner, while green means that regions may become more suitable.
NASA, National Academy of Sciences, Chi Xu, Marten Scheffer

More Americans are moving for jobs and affordable housing than because of climate change, Khanna says. But migration from wildfires, hurricanes, and drought is already well underway. “The global answer is, it’s already happening, right?” Khanna said. “In America, you’re only seeing early signs of it.” Around 25,000 migrants fleeing Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria in 2017 settled in Orlando, Florida, and as many as 5,000 moved to the proclaimed “climate haven” of Buffalo. Many of the thousands of evacuees from the 2018 Camp Fire that destroyed Paradise, California, relocated to the nearby town of Chico.

Recent headlines have predicted that the state of Michigan will be “the best place to live by 2050” and that cities in upstate New York will be among the “the best ‘climate havens’” in the world. In October, a local paper in Minnesota declared that “climate-proof Duluth” was already attracting migrants from the smoke-filled, wildfire-ridden West.

With as many as 143 million people worldwide expected to be on the move because of climate change by 2050, would-be havens are sure to face new challenges — gentrification, housing shortages, and issues scaling up services quickly. But advance planning can alleviate the stress on cities as well as on their newcomers. With expert advice, these climate havens can learn how to become a fair and welcoming refuge for everyone, as opposed to a hostile citadel surrounded by, say, a giant wall.

Step 1: Figure out what a ‘climate haven’ really is

There is no escape from the effects of an overheating planet, even in a so-called haven. The Great Lakes region is witnessing heavy flooding: 11,000 people in central Michigan evacuated last year as severe rains overwhelmed dams. This summer, wildfire smoke from Canada blew into Minnesota, bringing an unprecedented haze and making it hazardous to breathe.

So defining what makes a city a “refuge” isn’t simple. A recent study by researchers at MIT and the National League of Cities attempted to lay out the qualities of “climate destinations” like Duluth, Buffalo, and Cincinnati, Ohio. First, the effects of climate change should be considered “more manageable” than other places — in other words, not subject to monster hurricanes, fast-moving wildfires, and the relentless rise of the sea. Havens should also have ample fresh water, lots of affordable housing, and infrastructure to support several thousand new residents. 

The final qualifications are a bit squishier: These cities must express a “desire to grow and be welcoming” and work on becoming sustainable and resilient. The study points to Duluth investing $200 million over recent years into improving its shoreline protections and wastewater system, and Cincinnati’s plans to cut carbon emissions and host climate migrants (prompted in part by a wave of former New Orleans residents that moved to the city after Hurricane Katrina in 2005).

A streetview of a small town is submerged in brown water.
A flooded street in Sanford, Michigan after a dam was breached on May 20, 2020.
Gregory Shamus / Getty Images

Nicholas Rajkovich, a professor studying resilience and urban planning at the University at Buffalo, says he wants more concrete action behind Buffalo’s “climate haven” promises. “In some cases, it’s become more of an economic development slogan than the real detailed and robust planning that is going to be necessary to actually make these places a haven from climate change,” Rajkovich said.

Step 2: Put people first

Cities that want to attract climate migrants emphasize the opportunities that come with people moving in, like economic growth and attracting new, skilled workers. But it’s important to remember that “migrants are not a tool to an end” and that they get the support they need, said Susan Ekoh, an adaptation fellow at the America Society of Adaptation Professionals, an organization preparing towns in the Great Lakes for the expected waves of future inhabitants.

Some residents in self-declared climate havens don’t want the title. Ekoh has had conversations with business groups, environmental justice organizations, local and state officials, and representatives from tribes around the region. She often hears worries about gentrification, that their towns will attract wealthy people, drive up housing prices, and push out poorer residents. Another critique is that climate “refuges” are failing to protect the people that already live there. For all the talk of Michigan being surrounded by ample freshwater, it’s also known for lead-poisoned water in cities like Benton Harbor.

Shandas, the professor at Portland State, said cities should implement housing policies that can guard against gentrification and also prepare for a backlash. Idaho, for instance, has seen an influx of California expats escaping fires and drought and looking for someplace more affordable. One researcher told Politico that some locals, conservatives and liberals alike, resent the newcomers, painting things like “California sucks” on highway overpasses. 

“That’s the kind of stuff I worry about,” Shandas said. “We can build the schools, we can build the housing, but is that local community ready for big shifts of people moving into the location, and potentially people who are very different from them?”

People wait at an information center.
A reception center for Puerto Rican refugees at the Orlando International Airport on November 30, 2017, after Hurricane Maria. RICARDO ARDUENGO / AFP via Getty Images

Step 3: Build smart

The next step is to make the city an appealing place to live while trimming emissions, using resources wisely, and keeping the dangers of climate change at bay.

There are many ways to cut a city’s carbon output, like building dense housing, improving public transit, and cleaning up the electric grid. “You’d want to build in such a way where you have a lot of access to renewable and decentralized power,” Shandas said. But what you don’t build is also important. Constructing a new “green” building still leads to a lot of carbon emissions; retrofitting existing buildings is often cheaper and less wasteful. 

The Midwest is already prone to flooding, and climate change is expected to make it worse. So building in floodplains is not ideal, nor is covering everything in impermeable pavement. Cities should also find ways to beat the heat — parks keep things cool, while highways make it hot. Nothing here should come as a surprise to city planners. “I mean, it’s not rocket science,” Shandas said. “We’ve been doing this for a while.”

Shandas said he’s heard people in Midwest cities get pretty excited about their future. “I was in a couple of meetings with a group of folks in the Great Lakes, and they were just like, ‘We are the climate haven — we are going to be the best place in the country and people are gonna flock to us,’” he said. While that kind of enthusiasm is “fantastic,” Shandas said, if cities don’t start preparing for the actual reality of thousands of people moving in, “it’s going to be a hard sell.”

This story was originally published by Grist with the headline Fleeing global warming? ‘Climate havens’ aren’t ready for you yet. on Dec 7, 2021.