Climate haven: Will Michigan be a future refuge?
By Stacy Gittleman
Zach Welcker would rather not call himself a climate change refugee. The environmental lawyer who spent more than a decade fighting for tribal water rights in the Pacific Northwest has moved back to his Great Lakes roots doing similar work as the new legal director at For Love of Water (FLOW), an environmental nonprofit based in Traverse City. After living and working in Oregon and Washington for 20 years, Welcker said that he and his family enjoyed the West's large mountain ranges and open spaces.
But things began to change.
Welcker said when people think of Washington, the rainy, temperate climate of Seattle comes to mind. But eastward of the Cascade Mountains, the terrain surrounding Spokane is a high desert. Welcker said in the last five summers, he and his family experienced more days of fire and smoke than "bluebird skies" that used to be the norm.
"The first 10 years I lived out west, the forest fires were new to me, but they weren't too bad," recalled Welcker over the phone as he spent a late February lunch break cross country skiing near his Sutton's Bay home. "There were a few smoky days a year. But more recently, we have lost whole portions of our summer to forest fires, including canceled summer camp and days at the public pool. I don't want to sound like moving from Washington to Michigan was a dramatic decision because we could no longer handle the fires. But it was definitely a factor. We've had very bad fires and the fire season kept getting longer. There were months without rain."
So, last summer, as west coast states broiled in triple-digit temperatures and endured unprecedented fires, Welcker and his family moved to Michigan. Here, they experienced more rain in just a few days than they had encountered in four summers in eastern Washington. And although he was told that the air quality in northern Michigan was not as clear as it had been in years past, also due to fires in Canada and even California, it was an improvement over the west's air quality issues.
Though Welcker said he did not move to Michigan specifically thinking of it as a climate haven, the increasingly dire water shortage out west makes him believe that more people will think twice about moving or living in places of the country prone to wildfires, drought, coastal flooding, and sea-level rise.
The United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) in February 2022 released its most grim report yet on climate change. Depicting an "Atlas of Human Suffering," the report said that climate change, which is already taking place, will drastically worsen within 18 years. The U.N. report says that already at least 3.3 billion people "are highly vulnerable to climate change" and 15 times more likely to die from extreme weather. Already, there are large numbers of people, mostly from the poorest rungs of society, who are being hit the hardest and will likely see the greatest upheaval. By 2050, a billion people will face coastal flooding risks, and more will be forced out of their homes from flooding, rising sea-levels and tropical cyclones.
In its timeline, the U.N. predicts that between 2021 and 2040, an average global temperature rise of 1.5 degrees C would cause unavoidable increases in multiple climate hazards and present multiple risks to ecosystems and humans. There is high confidence that rising sea levels will invade coastal settlements and infrastructure and submerge low-lying coastal ecosystems. Continued development of these fragile coastal areas – such as building on Florida's Intracoastal waterway – will only make things worse. Americans, especially the 130 million who live within 60 miles of the ocean by 2050, will see ocean levels rise by one foot. Flooding that was once considered a nuisance will make coastal regions uninhabitable.
Michigan's vast freshwater resources, relatively calm environment free of severe drought, fires and hurricanes, and sea-level rise beg the question: Does the state have what it takes to be a climate change haven?
The notion was acknowledged by the Michigan Environment Great Lakes and Energy (EGLE) in the January 2022 draft release of the MI Healthy Climate Plan. In its introduction, EGLE Director Liesl Eichler Clark wrote: "…it is easy to understand why people might migrate to Michigan to be buffered from the most dramatic impacts of climate change. However, while Michigan may experience the impacts of the climate crisis differently from other places, the threats from a changing climate are already posing a range of risks to our environment and economy and inflicting real harm on our health and well-being."
The report points to increased power outages, flooding and sewer backups, struggling farmers grappling with dramatic thaw-freeze temperature fluctuations, and an influx of disease-carrying mosquitos and ticks.
Since biblical times, people have migrated. It is the human condition to pick up and move, either to follow roaming herds of animals for food, to escape drought and famine, or in more modern times, to pursue religious freedom or economic opportunity, or escape the perils of war.
The migration shifts in the last 100 years have shaped the United States as we know it. Perhaps the greatest domestic population shift due to climate upheaval is the Dust Bowl Era of the 1930s. Thousands from the southwest and the Great Plains, known as "Oakies," made their way to the west coast, leaving behind parched farmland in hopes of a new start in California's verdant landscape. Researchers from a 2019 Yale University study show that with climate change, the type of heat waves that powered the Dust Bowl and the hottest summer on record – in 1936 – is now 2.5 times more likely to happen again.
What was once considered a one in 100-year heatwave event is more likely to become a one-in-40-year event due to trapped greenhouse gasses.
As the American west burns and the southeast floods, where are Americans left to turn? More and more media outlets are pointing right here – to Michigan.
Whether Michigan truly becomes a climate change haven is a question put to climate change experts, researchers who have published multi-disciplinary studies on the intersection of climate change, socioeconomic trends, real estate, and public health. Though some say the needle is slowly moving where people will begin to factor in climate change risks into their next planned move, in the coming decades there may be many Americans relocating while in crisis mode, having lost everything to a fire or flood. Whether Michigan will have the capacity to absorb tens of thousands of people in decades to come depends on how we start managing our resources and adapting our infrastructure now.
For right now, the 2020 U.S. Census tells the opposite story. Between 2010 and 2020, Michigan's population, now at 10 million, experienced the second slowest rate of growth in the country at two percent. In 2010, Michigan was the only state in the country to have a population decrease and to lose a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives. Michigan is one of seven states that will lose a seat again, based on the 2020 census data.
Conversely, more people are still moving into states that are already experiencing the devastation of climate change. California's population since 2010 grew 6.1 percent; Florida grew by 7.1 percent; and Texas saw a 7.4 percent population increase.
Reynolds Farley, University of Michigan Population Studies Center Research Professor Emeritus, said he was unaware demographers have begun to study how climate change and population shifts are linked. From a historical standpoint, Farley said people in the United States move in great numbers because of job opportunities and affordable housing.
"Migration within the United States has been driven by economic opportunities,” he said. “People are most likely to move either when they are young, or when they reach retirement age. As far as the question of whether climate change is going to be a major driver of migration, demographers have yet to factor this in on a large scale in their research. Climate change may be one reason people take into account when they move, but I still think it is fairly far down their priority list. History shows that people move mainly for housing and employment, but that could change in the future."
From a demographic perspective, Foley said that Michigan's low birth rate and high mortality rate reflect that its population will decrease in decades to come, though he understands that the state's relatively low risk of natural disasters and freshwater resources make it a plus for those looking to relocate.
"Michigan's many amenities, plus the fact that we are generally free of horrendous severe weather events, might make Michigan somewhat more attractive to a lot of people,” he noted. “But I think they would only come if there is an employment opportunity. And pitching Michigan as a place to retire? I think that's a pretty hard sell."
For Love of Water Executive Director Liz Kirkwood said the idea of Michigan becoming a climate change haven has a lot to do with maintaining the health of the Great Lakes.
She pointed to research by University of Wisconsin Professor J. Val Klump, who concluded that Great Lakes, because of their relatively young age and still-evolving ecosystems, are more vulnerable than people think. Kirkwood said that Lake Michigan is under the constant strain of development, invasive species such as the Asian Carp, agricultural runoff, and the threat of a rupture in the Enbridge Line 5 pipeline that runs beneath the Straits of Mackinac.
"At only 10,000 years old, the Great Lakes are considered a young ecosystem that is less complex than others and therefore it may not be able to rapidly adapt to changes. Plus, unlike the ocean, it is a closed system. Once pollution gets in, it is unlikely that it will cycle out."
Kirkwood said the Great Lakes water supply is protected from being siphoned out of the region thanks to the Great Lakes-St. Lawrence River Basin Water Resources Compact, signed into law by President George W. Bush in 2008.
Kirkwood said her organization is working to increase the power of the compact and to assure that in the coming decades, it cannot be overridden to divert water from the Great Lakes to increasingly parched regions of the country.
With climate change, new disciplines such as climate adaptation and resilience professions are emerging. One of the country's most sought-after experts and thinkers on the convergence of climate change adaption in urban environments is Jesse Keenan, associate professor of real estate within the faculty of the School of Architecture at Tulane University in New Orleans. He was among the first scholars to study the relationship between climate change and real estate and was among the first to publish peer-reviewed evidence of the existence of a climate change signal in real estate and mortgage markets. Keenan's theory of climate gentrification has gone on to shape a global discourse on the relationship between climate change, social equity and applied economics.
"The idea of a climate haven is a bit of a misnomer because no one is immune," said Keenan. "Some places in the country will fare better or worse than others, and certainly, the Great Lakes region has a long-term advantage in terms of natural resources and fresh water. I think Michigan is well positioned, though it will have its challenges – like aging urban infrastructures and maintaining the quality of its freshwater resources. These will not just evaporate with new people moving in who could very well exacerbate these challenges."
Keenan said if Michigan is to be considered a climate change haven, it must be viewed as three distinct geographic areas: the rural west and Upper Peninsula, the Detroit suburbs, and Detroit itself.
Keenan noted that with its relatively affordable housing and large amounts of empty acreage poised for renewal and development, Detroit has a lot going for it to take in newcomers. He pointed to development, such as the $740 million Ford Motor Company's Michigan Central project, an inclusive, walkable mobility development in Corktown anchored by the historic Central Train Station, as an example.
"Detroit can be an accessible place for many who would want to start fresh and rebuild. The cultural dimension at work here means that depending on their age, people are going to want to put down roots and build their own community. In many ways, there's a bit of a tabula rasa (clean slate) attitude towards Detroit by outsiders. People who live in Detroit may not think that way, but there is the opportunity for people to bring in new ideas that will be hopefully synchronized with people who have been longtime Detroit residents. Within Detroit, there's a willingness to do something different."
But outward towards the more rural areas, Keenan said it is unlikely that insular, rural farming areas would seem attractive to diverse, more progressive populations fleeing eroding coastlines. Keenan said outside of Detroit, Michigan culturally melds in with other Midwestern states like Wisconsin, with communities that cling to insular and increasingly segregated and partitioned ideologies that may make it less appealing as a relocation spot to diverse populations living on the coasts.
"The idea of the diverse bunch of people from the coasts moving to Middle America is more culturally challenging."
When he's not teaching in New Orleans, Keenan spends time in his second home in Miami. Census statistics aside, he said that the long-term prognosis of Florida's housing market, especially in Miami-Dade County, is not good as there is a "mass exodus" of native Floridians to Atlanta, Nashville and Charlotte.
He explained, "Miami-Dade County is experiencing a net loss if you don't include foreign-born immigration, which was greatly cut under the Trump Administration. When it comes to real estate, people balance several factors: affordability, accessibility, school systems, tax base and wage growth. Then there are environmental amenities that people will pay a premium for, such as sunshine. So, climate may not always be the first or second consideration, but that also is changing."
Keenan referred to an August 2021 report from data-driven real estate brokerage Redfin.com, which announced it would begin publishing climate risk information for every location page on its website to factor in the risks of fire, heat, drought, and storm flooding over 30 years, the typical length of a mortgage. In a 2021 survey, Redfin reported that 80 percent of 2,000 respondents would hesitate to buy a home in an area that experienced an increase in natural disasters.
New Michiganders such as Emily Schoerning believe that counties and municipalities need to prepare for 2100 and beyond by harnessing the power of climate modeling data. She is the founder of the fledgling nonprofit called American Resiliency, which aims to provide consulting resources on creating customized response plans for municipalities by developing a "stakeholder team" of local representatives and community leaders invested in climate adaptation, gathering future forecasting information specific to their locality and then helping the stakeholders get an adaptation plan up and running with follow up consults along the way.
A climate refugee herself, Schoerning in 2005 was about to begin her doctorate research in infectious diseases at Tulane University. Then Hurricane Katrina struck. She transferred her graduate research lab to Arizona State University, where she earned a doctorate in microbiology and then specialized in science education research. She loved taking time off to hike through the Grand Canyon state's desert terrain. However, she was troubled by Arizona's out-of-check development and dwindling water supply. In her climate research, she learned that by 2050, Arizona will experience approximately two more months of intense triple-digit heat, and farmers there stand to see their water allotments cut in half.
Schoerning said climate change is already prompting people to relocate, or at least give serious consideration on where they will move next to places that will be less severely impacted as the planet warms.
Looking at climate modeling, Schoerning said that Michigan's wetter weather is putting a strain on farmers who have fewer ideal planting conditions. More drastic temperature fluctuations in late winter and early spring are endangering fruit tree crops. But she said while there are agricultural changes, she is hopeful that innovations will help farmers adapt.
Schoerning said that in decades to come, the climate in the state will be less hospitable to wintry conditions and activities that are much a part of the state's culture, and Michigan will feel more like the eastern seaboard states of Maryland.
"The character of the place will feel substantially warmer and swampier," said Schoerning. "There will be a need to set more areas aside for wetlands, substantially more drainage work. And there will be changes in the forests. For a place that cares very much about trees, about tree agriculture, this outlook is serious and should push Michigan towards action."
In helping regular residents and community leaders alike better visualize what their surroundings, especially the urban ones, can look like to adapt to climate change, Derek Van Berkel, University of Michigan Professor of Data Science, Geovizualization and Design, and colleague Mark Lindquist, University of Michigan Assistant Professor of Landscape Architecture at the School for Environment and Sustainability, in 2019 were awarded a $300,000 grant by the National Science Foundation to launch land.info. Part computer game, part landscape design simulator, land.info is being used by community planning leaders in Detroit and New Orleans to help them understand the connection between community needs and green spaces.
It was first tested out by residents in Detroit's Mack Avenue Chandler Park community as a collaborative tool in transforming vacant spaces in their neighborhood, with the plans implemented starting in 2018. Van Berkel said Detroit, with many blocks once populated with homes or apartments that were demolished, may have the potential to welcome newcomers. But based on peer research, he remains skeptical whether climate refugees of the future will flock to Michigan in great numbers.
"There are cities around the Great Lakes that are anticipating a rise in population due to climate refugees,” said Van Berkel, pointing to Buffalo, New York, as a model city gearing up for this potential trend. "City planners in Buffalo are looking at the wildfires out west and record heat in the south and are thinking, 'Becoming a climate haven can be something that happens in our future.' Cities like Buffalo (which in decades past have been part of the Rust Belt) are explicitly planning for it. So, for Detroit, maybe this will also be an actuality."
Van Berkel said if that is to happen, development should be practiced with as much equity as possible to minimize gentrification that could lead to the displacement of people already living in the neighborhoods. Additionally, infilling existing urban and suburban areas is a far more optimal plan than continuing to eat up more land with suburban sprawl, which has been the trend in western states like Nevada, Arizona and California.
"Planners need to consider against replicating these practices in the name of sustainability and climate resiliency. "
Van Berkel said as Detroit looks ahead to more possible flooding events with climate change, improving its aging infrastructure that has been hurt by a flight to the suburbs and a decreasing tax base is essential to create a lively vibrant city. And getting input from existing residents through using planning tools like land.info is a great way to get these conversations started.
"When we plan for Detroit's sustainable future, it is important to engage residents and community leaders and city leaders who are currently living there," said Van Berkel. "Ultimately, the premise of our project shows that before Michigan's cities can become climate havens – if they should even be called that – we have a lot of work to do. Each city has different improvement needs. Detroit looks a lot different than Grand Haven. Can we revitalize communities through migration from climate change? This is not something that we have had a conversation about with Detroiters we have been working with. Our research makes us uncertain that we can alleviate and revitalize communities in Detroit through migration, but it is something to think about and examine in terms of how it will impact existing residents from an equity standpoint."
Also addressing the issue of how to prepare urban and suburban infrastructures for a possible influx of climate change refugees is Beth Gibbons, executive director of the American Society of Adaptation Professionals (ASAP). The organization is a national network of 1,000 government, nonprofit and consultancy professionals focusing on the challenge of climate change adaption and resilience professionals.