Great Lakes cities could become destinations for climate change migrants

LANSING – A California woman on “The Daily Show” recently swapped her sandals for snowshoes after moving to Duluth, Minnesota, to escape her state’s wildfires.

The Comedy Central show featured Duluth as a climate haven, an ideal place to live to avoid wildfires, droughts, hurricanes and extreme flooding.

Climate change risk may cause people to flee cities like Miami, Houston, Los Angeles and New Orleans, said Derek Van Berkel, an assistant professor at the University of Michigan School for Environmental Sustainability.

Whether that’s a good decision depends on whether other states are ready to receive them.

“Places like Duluth definitely could be a good place to live, but we’re going to have to plan now,” Van Berkel said. “In areas where we have quite aging infrastructure, that can be a big challenge. The notion of a climate haven is a little bit aspirational.”

Minnesota is among the states least vulnerable to the ravages of climate change, ranking in the 14th percentile for social and environmental vulnerability, according to the Environmental Defense Fund. Wisconsin falls in the same lower vulnerability category.

Michigan, New York and Illinois follow with average vulnerability. Ohio, Pennsylvania and Indiana are the most vulnerable Great Lakes states.

The Great Lakes region has a lower risk of extreme weather than other parts of the country.

Southern and Western states are most vulnerable. They’re the most likely to continue to experience sea level rise, drought and other social and environmental stressors, according to modeling by the Environmental Defense Fund and Texas A&M University.

Van Berkel said the cities most prepared for climate change don’t necessarily have a checklist of characteristics. Climate change planning looks different in different cities.

“We’re finding that cities are becoming more aware of the climate crisis,” Van Berkel said. “They’re having those conversations, and that’s what makes them the most prepared because they’re thinking about things long term.”

Van Berkel has mapped the social and environmental risk of counties across the Great Lakes states. His research team uses it as a basis for climate change planning conversations with city officials.

“The map gives a snapshot of the social and environmental challenges that Great Lakes cities have,” Van Berkel said. “It’s about evaluating exposure.”

The team plans to work in Grand Rapids, Duluth and Buffalo to implement urban planning strategies and will include residents in a collaborative process, Van Berkel said.

“It’s important for us to have local knowledge and understanding of the challenges of neighborhoods,” Van Berkel said. “It’s important we give people an equal voice in making decisions.”

First Street, a New York City-based nonprofit research organization, also puts climate change risk data into the hands of the public. Users of its web-based tool can see a summary of a location’s climate change risks like flooding, wildfires, wind, heat and air quality.

“When we first started about seven years ago, there really was no way to get access to climate information for your city,” said Jeremy Porter, the group’s head of climate implications. “The role that we play is making this data available so that the public can make informed decisions.”

Homeowners in high-risk climate areas who are unprotected by flood insurance are forced to pay for damage out-of-pocket, Porter said. The most vulnerable homeowners are those in smaller communities that lack the resources to adapt to climate change.

Kayla Nelsen reports for Great Lakes Echo.


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