Cool U.S. cities prepare as future 'havens' for climate migrants

By Sebastien Malo, Thomson Reuters Foundation

By Sebastien Malo

NEW YORK, April 6 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - The
lakefront Minnesota city of Duluth has some of the coldest
temperatures outside Alaska in the United States, and gets more
than seven feet (2 m) of snow each winter on average.

But Harvard professor Jesse Keenan thinks the frigid city
may eventually prove an appealing relocation destination for
Florida residents, as climate change brings increasingly
unbearable heat to already warm parts of the United States.

"If you're Florida ... (the predictions) should be quite
unnerving," the expert in climate adaptation and design said in
a telephone interview with the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

As climate change brings more stifling summers, worse
flooding from storms and rising sea level, crueler droughts and
ever-longer allergy seasons, what Americans consider a nice
place to live may shift, along with Americans themselves.

Some of the changes won't be by choice, scientists warn. As
many as 13 million Americans could be displaced by rising seas
alone by 2100, 6 million of them in Florida, according to
estimates published in 2017 in the journal Nature Climate
Change.

That, planners say, presents an opportunity for cities such
as Duluth and New York's Buffalo, which are already launching
efforts to rebrand themselves as destinations of the future in a
climate-changed world.

 

DISBELIEF

When Duluth's mayor, Emily Larson, first heard of Keenan's
proposition that her city of 86,000 could be one of the best
choices for climate migrants, her reaction was "astonishment,"
she said.

But Keenan sees some northern Rust Belt cities - which
stretch from the Midwest to parts of the Northeast - as natural
destinations in a hotter world.

The Rust Belt lost jobs and population starting in the 1950s
as industries moved overseas, and some of its cities still have
more buildings and infrastructure than they can use.

Duluth, for instance, was planned for a population of
120,000 people - something it has yet to achieve.

To show how an underutilized city such as Duluth might be
repurposed, Keenan has created computer renderings of what it
might look like if it becomes a major draw for climate migrants.

One rendering shows downtown Duluth with new structures -
represented by gray blocks wedged amid historic landmark
buildings - that could help accommodate tens of thousands of new
residents fleeing climate pressures.

Zack Filipovich, a Duluth city councilor, worries what that
influx would mean for his city's downtown ensemble of government
buildings, designed about a century ago by prominent architect
Daniel Burnham and listed on the National Register of Historic
Places.

Utilitarian housing for new arrivals could cause the city to
"lose some of our charm," he said in a telephone interview -
though he said he still sees benefits from the city having a
larger population.

In Buffalo, another city Keenan considers promising for
climate migrants, under-used roads and public transport testify
to the city's more populous heyday as a steel powerhouse.

It, like Duluth, nestles along the Great Lakes, which
contain 20 percent of the world's surface freshwater, a
significant attraction in a potentially hotter world.

Both cities also are healthcare hubs and have nearby major
economic centers - Minneapolis for Duluth and Toronto for
Buffalo, Keenan said.

A woman and dog walk in the snow during a winter storm in Buffalo, New York, U.S., January 31, 2019. REUTERS/Lindsay DeDario

 

PROMOTION PUSH

Buffalo's mayor began publicly talking about the city's
future potential earlier this year.

"Based on scientific research, we know that Buffalo will be
a climate refuge city for centuries to come," he said in a
February speech.

Brendan Mehaffy, executive director of the mayor's office of
strategic planning, said top city officials had been briefed to
talk positively about the city's potential appeal in a
climate-changed world.

Buffalo often "takes the shots" for its reputation for heavy
snow, he added. A 1977 blizzard saw parts of the city buried
under 30 feet of cement-like snow.

But predictions of more clement weather could change that.

"Our climate ... will be different in 20 to 30 years' time
and could be very beneficial for certain types of businesses and
certain types of lifestyle," he said.

Climate scientist Katharine Hayhoe, co-author of
a government report on the impacts of climate by region in the
United States, said the report offered hints about areas that
may become climate sweetspots.

The National Climate Assessment, published last year, warned
of growing water scarcity in large swathes of the southwest and
the northwest, more people exposed to illnesses such as Lyme
disease in the southeast, flooding in the northeast, and
declining harvests in the Midwest as temperatures rise.

Coastal and island communities also could suffer higher
storm surges and heavier precipitation, it said.

"To look for places that are potential climate havens, we
have to look for locations where key resources, such as water,
will not be short in the future and where extremes are not
already overwhelming," Hayhoe said.

 

SPACE TO SPARE

Cincinnati is another city identified as likely to escape
the most extreme climate stresses the National Climate
Assessment describes - and it is already looking to promote its
unique attributes.

One sections of the city's 2018 green plan boasts the
title: "Climate Haven" and suggests the city "leverage climate
resilience to attract new business and residents."

That plan to welcome Americans displaced by extreme weather
grew in part from the realization that thousands of victims of
Hurricane Katrina, which hit Louisiana and Florida in 2005, had
relocated to Ohio, said Oliver Kroner, sustainability
coordinator for the city.

Cincinnati's green plan notes that Ohio faces fewer
climate-related threats than all but a handful of other U.S.
states and is therefore "well suited to serve as a climate
haven."

It speaks of the importance of offering affordable housing
and emphasizes the "economic opportunities if Cincinnati is
prepared to market itself" to businesses seeking to set up
outside disaster-prone areas.

Like Buffalo, Cincinnati's metropolitan area was built for
more people than its nearly 300,000 residents, Kroner said.

Its population has declined by about 40 percent from a 1950
peak, largely due to falling demand for manufacturing workers,
according to the Cincinnati Museum Center.

There are up to 40,000 vacant housing units across the wider
county, Kroner added.

"We're interested in returning to the economic strength that
we have had in the past," he said.

 

DUST BOWL REDUX?

But not all cities that have looked into becoming climate
havens think constructing a tailor-made plan for climate
migrants makes sense.

In Portland, municipal chief sustainability officer Michele
Crim said authorities decided to keep tabs on climate migration
starting about a decade ago.

Oregon's largest city, which has 630,000 residents, has been
identified by experts as a likely climate refuge, and has
partnered with universities to explore the idea.

But researchers concluded climate migrants in the
fast-growing Pacific Northwest would be "noise lost in other
migration," Crim said.

The region is already experiencing strong growth, in part
because of rising economic opportunities, with Portland
projected to add 260,000 new residents between 2010 and 2035.

Geographer Robert McLeman, who has studied the 1930s Dust
Bowl migration, which saw 2.5 million people flee
drought-stricken U.S. Plains states, said more urban planners
need to begin preparing for waves of climate migrants.

But potential refuge cities may struggle to build costly
infrastructure, such as water treatment plants and gas and
electricity supplies, without a large enough tax base ahead of
time to pay for them, said the associate professor of
environmental migration at Canada's Wilfrid Laurier University.

And with researchers predicting that nearly 2 million
residents of Florida's Miami-Dade County could face coastal
flooding by 2100, McLeman said the scale of needed preparations
is daunting.

"If a city the size of Miami has to be relocated, heaven
help the United States," he said.
(Reporting by Sebastien Malo @sebastienmalo, Editing by Laurie
Goering. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the
charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers climate change,
humanitarian news, women's and LGBT+ rights, human trafficking
and property rights. Visit http://news.trust.org/climate)