Why the Rust Belt May Soon Become the Climate Migration Belt

“You can’t just declare yourself a climate refuge, you know. You’ve got to work and earn it.”

Danny Schleien
Jan 12 · 7 min read
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Photo by ginger juel on Unsplash

The Rust Belt has sadly lived up to its gloomy moniker. Globalization and other economic trends did a number on the so-called Rust Belt, a swath of the United States extending from New York to Minnesota that was once dominated by manufacturing.

The Rust Belt has suffered economically, and the associated decline has had demographic impacts. People have left the region in droves, searching for warmer weather and better economic opportunities.

These trends began about a half-century ago. Back then, no one could have imagined that a scientific trend — rather than an economic or political one — could reverse the decline of the Rust Belt.

A half-century ago, some people (particularly academics and fossil fuel industry experts) knew how bad climate change would get in the decades to come. But no one listened.

Many of those Rust Belt escapees moved to sunnier places like California or Florida. They congregated in big coastal cities that were poised for economic expansion rather than decline.

Well, in case you’ve missed it, you probably know those places aren’t well equipped to deal with a warmer world. The climate chickens have come to roost. And the snowbirds will begin migrating back to their nests.

The Rust Belt might soon become the Climate Migration Belt.

Why The Rust Belt May Fare Better Than Other Regions:

Climate change is an inescapable reality. It will affect the entire planet. Physics does not respect borders and ideologies.

But certain corners of the planet will fare better than others. I’ve written about this before here and here. In the former piece, I concluded that within America, the Upper Midwest (think Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Michigan) is the best place to escape climate change.

The Rust Belt is known for its cold and snowy climate. Areas adjacent to the Great Lakes experience particularly brutish winter weather given the copious lake-effect snow received downwind of the lakes as colder air from the north passes over the relatively warmer lake waters. Subzero temperatures and snowstorms that drop feet of snow are common during these long, dark winters.

This climate doesn’t exactly entice migration. People don’t move north for more sunshine and warmth. And some will likely choose to stay put in the sunshine rather than uproot their lives, particularly given the global, borderless nature of climate change.

But the Rust Belt’s natural features will no longer be such a liability. All of that freshwater will prove valuable in a world besieged by water shortages. The cold temperatures insulate the region from some of the worst effects of climate change, such as infectious diseases carried by zoonotic vectors and scorching heatwaves. The abundant precipitation ensures droughts and wildfires won’t be a problem.

And some foresighted individuals realize the opportunity to turn the Rust Belt into a Climate Migration Belt.

How The Midwest Could Become A Climate Haven:

“We are already seeing northern range migration of flora and fauna in the Northern Hemisphere,” says Jesse M. Keenan, lecturer in architecture at Harvard’s Graduate School of Design. “What is to say that we humans won’t be next to move?”

It turns out cities across the Rust Belt — which includes the Upper Midwest — are well aware of this freaky fortuity. And some of them have opted to embrace the opportunity granted by climate change to revitalize their cities and welcome climate refugees.

Keenan, who has a postcard in his Harvard office touting Duluth as the “Air-Conditioned City,” isn’t simply accounting for those of means who will move by choice. He emphasizes the factors that could make Duluth more affordable and accessible to climate migrants who move by coercion (thanks to socioeconomic factors or natural disasters) rather than by choice.

Duluth has a cooler climate and ready access to freshwater from Lake Superior. Land prices and the cost of living are low, and the region has a well-educated and skilled labor force, which manifests in high-quality healthcare and education. Strong infrastructure capacity will enable the city to diversify economically and advance climate mitigation and adaptation policies, setting an example for sustainable urbanization across the United States and the world.

Keenan also argues that beyond Duluth’s affordability and accessibility, Duluth hosts a diverse and vibrant range of cultures that will attract migrants looking for an accepting home where they can more easily assimilate.

Cincinnati is another Rust Belt city preparing for incoming residents. The city has no lack of capacity. Its population has fallen to about 300,000 residents, down roughly 40% from its peak in the 1950s. The U.S. Census Bureau estimates that there are up to 48,000 vacant housing units across the greater metropolitan area.

Cincinnati stated in its 2018 Green Cincinnati Plan that it intends to promote itself as a climate haven for both people and businesses. 2,000 people moved into Cincinnati in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, prompting the city to think about long-term climate migration.

Another so-called “climigrant” friendly city in the Rust Belt — Buffalo — sees a similar opportunity as Duluth and Cincinnati. Byron Brown, Mayor of Buffalo, read an article in The Guardian which featured Keenan, who mentioned the possibility of cities like Buffalo to become climate refugees. The article caught Mayor Brown’s attention, and he said in his 2019 State of the City Address that Buffalo has “a tremendous opportunity, as our planet changes. Based on scientific research, we know that Buffalo will be a climate refuge city for centuries to come.”

Since his address, Mayor Brown has trumpeted initiatives like installing solar panels on public buildings, planting trees, and making the sewer system more flood-proof. But George Besch, an octogenarian urban planner who returned to his hometown of Buffalo after a career helping local governments across the world decide how to make better use of their land and natural resources, believes such initiatives are not enough.

Besch, like many experts, believes Buffalo must embrace a sweeping vision of change that not only promotes sustainability across the board but makes the city more inviting to migrants, whether they’re moving because of climate change or other reasons.

“You can’t just declare yourself a climate refuge, you know. You’ve got to work and earn it,” Besch said. “I could declare myself a millionaire, but the bank would not cash my checks accordingly. I would need to earn it.”

Will Climate Migration Exacerbate Inequality?

Besch’s concerns point to a broader concern among many who foresee the potential for greater inequality that must be addressed by these planners. The ability to migrate away from climate-hit areas (like Florida or Louisiana) is often excluded from people without means, leaving behind poorer families who may concentrate in vulnerable communities if they don’t get the support they need.

Dr. Jack DeWaard, from the University of Minnesota’s Population Center, worries inequality may worsen as climate migration increases, “because disasters are inherently (a) social phenomenon, that require us to think about place vulnerability and social vulnerability,” he said. “And indeed there has been growing calls, even by natural scientists to embed the social sciences in climate policy.”

Vivek Shandas, a professor of urban studies at Portland State University, says those with the capacity to move will look to places with strong economic opportunities, presence of family or friends, and high quality of life — consistent with existing mobility patterns. His concerns broadly reflect the fears of people like George Besch.

“These ‘Rust Belt’ cities are well-situated,” he said. “But if they want to attract those who are electing to move, then we need to see empirical evidence — not marketing and general claims — of how they intend to address a surge in population and avert the challenge of higher temperatures and other climate-induced stressors.”

Final Thoughts:

Climate-related displacement will induce one of the largest mass migrations in human history. We’re past the point of no return in that regard. Read the following context from a September 2020 Quartz report on climate migration:

A 2018 World Bank study projected that by 2050, 143 million people will be displaced within their own countries by climate impacts in sub-Saharan Africa, Latin America, and South Asia alone. A model produced this year by the same researchers and ProPublica estimated that in a dire warming scenario, 30 million migrants could come to the US from Central America by 2050.

Within the US alone, where one of the primary climate risks is flooding exacerbated by sea level rise, 13 million people across a wide spectrum of social and economic backgrounds — but in many cases starting with minority and low-income communities that are at higher risk — could be forced away from the coasts by 2100.

Clearly, climigrant-friendly areas like the Rust Belt need to be prepared for an influx of migrants. It’s good to see many of these cities view a terrible situation as an opportunity to revitalize themselves and welcome people who will be desperate for a self place to call home.

It’s also crucial for them to continue incorporating a more holistic view of climate migration, which includes a recognition of the potential risks of climate influx, particularly risks that could result from inaction or poor planning.

We’ll have enough trouble on our hands with a warmer world.

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Danny Schleien

Written by

Writer, editor, explorer, lifelong learner. Social distancing expert since 1994, big fan of semicolons and Oxford commas. Think green.

Climate Conscious

Building a collective vision for a better tomorrow

Danny Schleien

Written by

Writer, editor, explorer, lifelong learner. Social distancing expert since 1994, big fan of semicolons and Oxford commas. Think green.

Climate Conscious

Building a collective vision for a better tomorrow

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