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Climate migrants may not yet be flooding into Michigan, but eventually (as we discussed in part one of this series on climate migration in Michigan), they will. And though we may not yet know when or how many – it's likely will come.
So what can we do to start planning for them?
Susan Ekoh, Climate Adaptation Fellow with the American Association of Adaptation Professionals, is working to answer that question. Ekoh recently completed a literature review describing what we know about climate change and demographic change in the Great Lakes region. She's also working with researchers Mathew E. Hauer, Florida State University, and Kim Channel at the University of Michigan's Great Lakes Integrated Science & Assessment Program to predict how many climate refugees may come and when. ASAP held a workshop on climate migration in December, focusing on "preparing receiving communities."
"There's an interest in understanding how climate and climate change might impact or has impacted people and lead to people moving, and also the future of people moving whether intentionally or through forced migration," Ekoh told Michigan Climate News. "We need to know more about what do we need to be looking at to plan for climate migration? So thinking about the various actors involved, local governments, state governments that are presently thinking about climate migration, but don't know necessarily how to incorporate it into existing climate change plans."
In the literature review, Ekoh describes the challenges and opportunities of climate migration for the Great Lakes region, which will primarily function as a "receiving region" for climate migrants. That's because the area possesses a range of climate amenities, like "mild seasonal weather, high elevation (relative to sea level), an inland location, abundant surface water, and minimal wildfire risk. Potentially these could be a draw for climate migrants.
It also has capacity. The decline of manufacturing and exodus of the population to warmer climes with more jobs in recent decades means Rust Belt cities and towns in Michigan have excess buildings and infrastructure to accommodate a population influx. For example, Rochester, New York notes excess capacity in its parks and healthcare facilities in its climate resilience plan.
"We certainly have the infrastructure, the housing, the roads, the cultural institutions to host a city that is twice our size because we used to be twice our size," said Dr. Lee Murray, a professor of atmospheric sciences at the University of Rochester.
That's true of many Great Lakes cities across the Rust Belt. At its peak in 1950, the population of Detroit was more than 1.8 million people, and the 2020 census shows that number to be 639,111, a third of what it was in its glory days.
But assets and capacity don't tell the whole story. The Great Lakes region also faces challenges that could impede its ability to absorb migrants successfully. These include poorly maintained, aging infrastructure, pollution, and limited mass transit. While new migrants to cities may bring tax revenue to help improve these issues, cities with small and shrinking tax bases may find it challenging to rebuild infrastructure to support new populations in advance. A rapid influx of migrants in the wake of catastrophic climate change-induced events could catch Great Lakes cities unprepared, creating crises.
Entrenched segregation in Midwest cities and inequitable development across the region create barriers to economic activity that climate change could exacerbate.
Segregation hinders regional collaboration and employers' ability to tap talent in marginalized populations. Although most of this list of the nation's top 25 most segregated cities are in the south, seven of them – including Great Lakes "climate receiving regions" of Buffalo, Cleveland, Detroit, Chicago, Niles-Benton Harbor, Flint, and Milwaukee.
Ekoh's review finds that these regions with entrenched racism and segregation may have less capacity to respond effectively to threats and opportunities collectively – risking strain on basic amenities like infrastructure, housing, and social institutions and driving turmoil in local politics.
And the receiving regions within the Great Lakes are not without their climate threats. Even as they accept new migrants, climate issues will likely cause displacement locally.
"Many of these are climate receiving regions, but it doesn't mean that they don't experience climate vulnerabilities themselves," Ekoh said. "They have communities that are already undergoing climate change impacts and general socio-economic impacts on their lives and livelihoods. And so if we're planning for population growth, while there are so many opportunities that can come with that, at the same time, it's important to consider how you might impact communities already disadvantaged."
A conversation convened by the Anthropocene Alliance and The Climigration Network convened grassroots leaders from ten low-income, Black, Latinx, and Native American communities in 2021. The group discussed how climate migration would impact already-marginalized communities in sending and receiving regions in the next 50 years. They note that "Black, Latinx, and Indigenous communities in the U.S. are more likely than white ones to experience climate exacerbated disasters, and receive less government support for recovery."
The participants call on the government to help educate at-risk communities, provide support, reduce bureaucratic hurdles to accessing aid, and avoid perpetuating the impacts of redlining. They warn against a new wave of "climate gentrification" by supporting migration into receiving communities with basic amenities like quality housing, schools, jobs, and transportation.
"We've got to try to make families and communities whole," one participant said. "We need to ensure that we have safe housing, away from vulnerable areas," said another.
The participants warn against "disaster capitalism" – or profiting off of the misery of others and the continued reality of systemic racism leading to inequitable investments in infrastructure. They call on relocation authorities to facilitate the ability of marginalized communities to migrate as a group, remaining together and retaining kinship ties that can help ease the transition. '
Ekoh's findings suggest that local and state governments should consider incentives, policies, and plans to mitigate and prevent inequalities along the lines of race and age. She said that the well-off might already be purchasing land and second homes in climate-resilient areas, planting the seeds for a new wave of climate gentrification.
"What does [climate migration] mean for housing prices? How does that impact community already living there and the availability of affordable housing options?" she asks.
Ekoh's literature review explores how the Great Lakes region must overcome racism and segregation while investing in education, workforce, infrastructure, new manufacturing, and environmental restoration.
"The Great Lakes region has this abundant abundance of natural resources, especially freshwater. But what does [climate migration] mean in terms of the stewardship of these resources, the use of resources?
Join the Michigan Climate News on Friday, Jan. 28 via Zoom and Facebook Live with Richard Ackerman, Director of Climate Equity, Eastside Community Network and Susan Ekoh, Climate Adaptation Fellow, American Association of Adaptation Professionals for a discussion on Climate Migration and Detroit.
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Photo: Rouge River flooding after rain, south east Michigan