Natural features, water resources, and environmental conditions have long influenced people’s choices about where to put down roots. The emerging concept of climate migration introduces a new and complex factor. The city of Duluth may soon be wrestling with the tantalizing question of whether to encourage larger numbers of people to move here. In a region that historically has been hungry for economic development, some citizens object to the idea as a distraction from the need to combat the causes of climate change.
An Agate Original
Those Duluthians who have lived here long enough (including me) can remember the time back in the mid-1970s when someone put up a billboard on the freeway going south, saying “Will the last one leaving Duluth please turn off the lights.” The steel plant had closed, the iron mines were struggling, and this was one discouraged town.
Then city leaders transformed the derelict waterfront into a magnet for tourists, the hospitals and colleges grew, and suddenly Duluth was okay again. Coffee houses popped up, restaurants followed, craft breweries, even a boutique distillery. Still, the city’s population sticks at about 86,000 hardy souls.
Now we’re told we’d better get ready for lots more people to move here. Harvard climate adaptation expert Jesse Keenan describes Duluth, along with Buffalo, New York, as likely climate refuges, places where climate migrants, “climigrants,” might move. “Their sources of energy production are stable, they have cooler climates and they have access to plenty of fresh water,” Keenan told The Guardian last fall. Keenan also likes the infrastructure here, our cheap land, and skilled labor force.
It’s difficult to picture many Floridians or Arizonans deciding to move to a city that just endured a winter with an average temperature of 13.2° F and a record February snowfall of 36.4 inches.
However, as a nation we are beginning to see climate migration. A recent piece in Scientific American points to wildfires in the West, hurricanes in the South, and drought in the Midwest that have forced millions from their homes. “Some estimates put that number as high as 1.5 million Americans having migrated in the face of such disasters, temporarily or permanently, to other parts of the country in 2017 alone,” according to a report from the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre.
Jesse Keenan came to Duluth at the invitation of the University of Minnesota Duluth, which organized a series of talks, panel discussions, interviews, and art exhibits to encourage the city to start talking about whether it wants to be a climate refuge city.
In the keynote address March 20, Keenan spoke like a Harvard professor harnessed to a machine gun. Words like “transformative adaptation” and “resilience versus adaptation” and “single equilibrium capacity” tumbled out, racing to keep up with his thoughts. The audience tried gamely to follow, and laughed appreciatively at his more personal reactions to Duluth, as when he noted the deep and ubiquitous potholes and the utter absence of rush hour.
He presented a range of “market segments,” that is, demographic descriptions, of the kinds of people who might want to move to Duluth, such as affluent retirees and young up-and-comers. He assured the audience that such new arrivals, “voluntary migrants,” would contribute to a net gain in the city’s tax rolls. He offered up ideas for ads to attract people: “Duluth: it’s not as cold as you think.”
But to do it right – to make the city efficient and the changes effective, fair, and just — Keenan urged Duluthians to be ready to accept higher densities, mass transit, and affordable housing. “Duluth has the physical capacity for those things,” he said, “but there are going to be winners and losers, trade-offs and conflicts.”
In a panel discussion after his talk, Duluth Mayor Emily Larson pointed out that Duluth’s infrastructure was built to accommodate more people, but she worried about the inevitable conflicts. “There’s a tension that comes with growth and change,” she said. “There’ll be a lot of tension on how we do that and do it well.” Another panel participant was Karen Diver, the former chair of the Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa, whose reservation is 30 miles south of Duluth. Diver observed that the region is homogenous and that some people here have trouble accepting different kinds of people. “We haven’t even figured out how to interact with the indigenous people here. If we can’t figure out how to handle everyone’s needs, we have no business inviting more.” Panel moderator Andrea Schokker, from UMD’s Civil Engineering Department, moved to Duluth from Austin, Texas, where she experienced the kind of growth Keenan was describing. “During the tech boom, it went from funky Austin to a very different place,” she said.
There was a lot of chatter after the program. Duluth’s Energy Coordinator, Alex Jackson, mused, “I don’t have a problem with more people, but can Duluth as a community evolve and accommodate that at a pace that’s healthy?” For Lucy Grina, the talk “had no connection to reality for me.” Grina is a veterinarian and a volunteer with Citizens Climate Lobby. “I want to focus on reducing carbon dioxide emissions and moving on to something positive, rather than saying, ‘this is the best we can do.’ We don’t want to have to adapt to the point where we no longer recognize our planet because it’s not livable,” she said.
Jodi Slick participated in a panel earlier in the day. She is CEO of Ecolibrium3, a non-profit focusing on energy and sustainability. She said the entire program revealed a tension in the community. “Even the idea of climate migrants needed to be whitewashed—Keenan only described attractive demographics. He seemed to be saying, ‘These are the populations you could collect for your community. You could collect the last vestiges of the middle class to build your city.’ But we know we need to be less homogenous because the entire population of the country is changing.”
She agreed we need to plan for change. “Even with our aging infrastructure, our economic cycles and all that, we really have a proactive opportunity to determine who we are and who we want to be,” she said. “If we can get clarity on that and approach our future from that lens, we’ll be better off: we’ll be intentional, we’ll have designed our future.”
Given Keenan’s warning that climate change will create “winners and losers,” it may become even more important to talk together and plan for the future, so that at least some of today’s “losers” might have a chance of becoming “winners.” Better still, we can act now to prevent the worst of climate change impacts from occurring. Now that would be winning.