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Will Michigan and the Great Lakes be the climate haven that so many are predicting it will? In his book “Move: The Forces Uprooting Us,” author and self-described "global strategist" Parag Khanna writes that Michigan will come out a climate winner as part of the emergence of a “New North” that will include the Great Lakes region and Scandinavia.
Khanna points to Michigan’s “abundant freshwater, progressive governance” and potential to “attract talent to innovative industries” as factors that will drive climate refugees to the mitten state. He spins a tale that sounds like an economic developer’s (or a politician's) dream about Michigan’s potential future – including a revitalized Detroit (complete with boutique hotels and swanky Asian restaurants), retooled manufacturing churning out electric vehicles and 3D-printed houses, and an economic corridor served by autonomous vehicles linking Chicago, Ann Arbor, Detroit, and Toronto.
In Khanna’s vision, by 2050 Michigan will offer a safe, stable, thriving, climate-resilient mecca for those fleeing sea-level rise, heat waves, and wildfires in other parts of the United States and the world. Our discarded rural industrial towns will refill with people taking advantage of the ability to produce local food and work remotely, while our urban centers will thrive with tech entrepreneurs.
As anyone who actually lives in Michigan now (Khanna has visited a couple of times and lives in Singapore) knows, we’re far from seeing that vision materialize at the moment. Michigan is still losing population – and congressional seats – to places like Florida, Texas, and the Carolinas. Michigan was the sixth highest state for population loss in 2021.
Writing this on a frigid January day with temps in the teens under a steely gray sky, one can appreciate that the desire to move to a warmer locale remains strong, despite a growing acknowledgment that climate change is real and that we are now experiencing its early effects through severe weather, constant wildfires in the west, and unprecedented downpours leading to flooding here in Michigan.
And people are not leaving Michigan just to avoid frostbite in January – they’re also looking for better economic prospects amid a climate of high unemployment, moving towards jobs that can be found more easily elsewhere.
So will an influx of climate change refugees turn the tide for Michigan?
“It’s too tantalizing to not ask the question,” Beth Gibbons, executive director of the American Society of Adaptation Professionals, told Circle of Blue. “How could we not be a climate haven when you watch the world and the nation suffer these consequences?”
Gibbon’s nonprofit is studying the issue, authoring a literature review that describes “the current state of knowledge concerning climate change and demographic change in the Great Lakes region” and 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.
Hauer is building a demographic model to predict how many climate refugees Michigan can expect to welcome due to factors like coastal sea-level rise and heat and cold. He presented preliminary county-level data showing migration patterns after a coastal sea-level rise of two feet at a Dec. 7 workshop on Climate Migration presented by ASAP.
Among the winners? Michigan, but also our typical competitors: The Carolinas, parts of Texas, Colorado, Arizona, California, and the Pacific Northwest. Hauer expects his data to be peer-reviewed and published this year.
Source: Climate migration patterns due to sea level rise. Model results presented by Mathew E. Hauer, Florida State University.
Clearly, climate refugees aren’t yet at the gates in Michigan, but Hauer’s initial models and Khanna’s analysis seem to agree that eventually, they will come. Fundamentally according to Khanna, that’s because people are living in the wrong places now, and those places will likely become more wrong – hotter, drier, more prone to floods and catastrophic storms – over time.
“The world is shaped by…. layers of geography and they are badly misaligned,” Khanna said in a webinar to promote his book in the Great Lakes. “The geography of resources on the planet does not well align with the geography of people….. the geography of the climate-resilient zones of the world where you can imagine populations fruitfully settling does not align with the geography of people.”
When and exactly how many people Michigan can expect to absorb is an unknown at this point, and will likely be impossible to predict with any accuracy for the foreseeable future.
But this is nothing new, Khanna points out. Migration has been a constant in human history. People have moved across the planet over millennia in search of food and resources.
But never before have there been so many potential migrants on the planet. The sheer numbers involved in future climate migration are likely to be unprecedented.
Khanna, however, is bullish on Michigan's ability to absorb them.
“We're spending a billion dollars repairing power lines in Louisiana every year that are going to get destroyed in the next hurricane,” Khanna said in a recent Washington Post piece. “How about we give everyone a plane ticket to Michigan?”
It’s hard to believe it will be that simple.
Stay tuned for Part 2 of this Michigan Climate News’ series on the challenges and opportunities for climate migration in Michigan. And join the Michigan Climate News series on Climate Change and Detroit 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.
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