Opinion: As people flee climate change on the coasts, this Midwest city is trying to become a safe haven
Then came the fires, the smoke, the evacuations, the days when the sky turned red and they were unable to see the sun. It was terrifying, she said. Understandably. And it’s poised to get worse because of the climate crisis, which is contributing to longer and more dangerous wildfires in the West as humans dump fossil fuel pollution into the atmosphere.
Because of this, Tracy made the difficult decision to leave.
Then came more questions that seemed even trickier.
Is anywhere safe from the climate emergency?
“The big question I have is: If not here, where?” she said.
Feeling a little bit like a climate journalist (which I am) and a little bit like an annoying HGTV host (which I am not — yet?), I went on a quest to try to answer that question for Tracy.
I had a hunch that she wasn’t alone in asking this question. The last several years have shown the degree to which human carbon emissions already are shaping reality: more-frequent wildfires raging in California, rapidly intensifying hurricanes pounding the Gulf of Mexico, sea levels rising on the Atlantic and droughts become more severe in the West. I’m sure there are plenty Americans asking themselves if home will ever feel safe.
I’ve done pretty extensive reporting on climate-induced migration — including from Honduras, Puerto Rico or the Marshall Islands, where people tend to be thinking less about where they will move to and more about the climate disasters that are pushing them out.
But I have to admit: I haven’t thought much about where people should go.
Or about who’s able to move and why.
Tracy knows she is privileged to be able to plan this move and to have the resources to make it comfortably — to choose while others are forcibly displaced. Her house is still standing and in good shape. The fires came to a nearby ridge, but not to her pond or land.
Rather than pretending the fire risks will recede, or waiting for a fire to come and force her out, she is facing harsh realities and trying to make what I would consider a wise decision — one that, for her, focuses on her granddaughter’s future.
When this happens at the community level, climate adaptation specialists call it “managed retreat.” Without government programs to help people relocate out of harm’s way (there are very few, and they’re not scaled appropriately), climate migration will only widen gaping inequalities in this country. Some can choose to move. Others will be left to fend for themselves. It’s the scattered, diffuse successor to the Dust Bowl in the 1930s, the Great Migration of Black Americans from the South in the 1900s and of White flight to the suburbs in the 1970s.
And it usually happens with little discussion.
In taking up Tracy’s question, I had my own.
Were there other people like her? And if so, where were they moving?
The scale is far greater than most people realize.
“This is on the scale of the great Dust Bowl and the migration that came along with that,” Keenan told me. “There are too many unknowns” to fully quantify the scope of climate-induced migration, he said, “but we do recognize that this is in the order of millions of people.”
In this context, Keenan has become fascinated by the same question as Tracy — the where. Where will people move as the world continues to warm? And are there any places that would be smart to position themselves as a “climate refuge?”
His answer: Yes.
In particular, the Great Lakes region and the American Rust Belt.
And in hyper-particular: Duluth, Minnesota.
‘Not as cold as you think’
In 2019, after conducting a statistical analysis of US cities — including the cost of living, relative vulnerability to climate-related disasters and effects, availability of diverse housing stock, natural resource availability, and so on — Keenan began discussing Duluth, Minnesota, as one of the most climate-friendly places in the United States. Scientists and other academics from the University of Minnesota Duluth caught wind of this and asked Keenan to come to town to present his research in town.
People in Duluth are still talking about the visit two years later.
His thesis rests on a few key points:
- Water: Duluth sits at the western point of Lake Superior, which is among the largest freshwater lakes in the world, containing about 10% of the world’s accessible freshwater (10%!). California is running out of water. (The massive Colorado River often is sucked dry by cities in the Southwest before it meets the Gulf of California). The West is getting drier, overall. And here’s Duluth sitting on an abundant, stable supply of the stuff.
- Housing: Duluth, like other Rust Belt cities, has available and affordable housing stock. According to the mayor’s office, the city was built for 130,000 people. Manufacturing declined. Now the city’s population is only 86,000. In other words: room to grow.
- Infrastructure and mindset: Duluth has been investing in a clean-energy future in ways that not all former industrial towns have, according to Keenan. It has abundant public parks, health care facilities and water infrastructure that could support a growing population, he said.
- Cool factor: Keenan describes Duluth in his presentation and interviews as progressive, inclusive and welcoming — the type of place a Californian can tolerate. There’s an art scene, breweries, a distillery that makes gin from the area’s spruce and juniper trees. The county — St. Louis County — is reliably blue in a blue-leaning state that happens to have the nation’s highest voter turnout rate. It’s an engaged, interesting place.
The entire Great Lakes region is poised to succeed in this way, Keenan told me. Thinking across decades and generations — not right away — that northern region could undergo a Renaissance as people flee fire, rising seas, floods, hurricanes and extreme drought. There are still climate risks in the upper Midwest, to be sure. But they are expected to be less intense than those affecting other parts of the United States.
Lucinda Johnson, associate director of the Natural Resources Research Institute at the University of Minnesota Duluth, recalls thinking that this idea of “refuge” was the most natural thing in the world. She studies other organisms that seek it — and they’re usually looking for freshwater.
“There’s no reason to think that humans are going to be any different from other species” when it comes to seeking out that resource, Johnson told me. “We are part of the ecosystem, so there’s not a lot we can do to separate ourselves from the natural world.”
‘San Francisco of the North’
I decided to follow in Keenan’s footsteps and take a trip to Duluth.
After all, if I were going to recommend this place as a future home for Tracy — and all of the other people considering similar moves — I should at least set eyes on it. Duluth sounds fine on paper, but “House Hunters” teaches us that listings aren’t always what they seem.
I’m not going to sugarcoat my first impression: Driving into town, Duluth struck me as a Midwestern version of Pittsburgh. The city is about two hours north of Minneapolis by car. The first thing you see from that direction is its industry — a paper mill, factories, heaps of ore.
Plus, the weather. In mid-March, after one brilliantly sunny afternoon, it was very windy and therefore fairly cold. (I’m not going to say “frigid” even though it felt that way to me at times, coming from Salt Lake City; Minnesotans, who are known for being super nice, also are known for being super not-nice to people who complain about their weather.) In February, before my visit, the temperature dropped to minus 27 degrees Fahrenheit.
Get a little closer, though, and Duluth’s allure begins to reveal itself. You can see the hillside that plunges with San Francisco-like steepness toward Lake Superior. And then, of course, there’s the lake. I’ve spent relatively little time in the Great Lakes region, but this is a lake that looks and sounds like an ocean. Signs alert visitors of its substantial currents. There’s a light house, a boardwalk and a lift bridge that crosses St. Louis Bay. Waves crash on the rocky shore of the lake — and, truly, you can forget for a moment that you’re not on the Pacific.
I felt conflicted right from the start.
One of my first stops was to meet the city’s mayor, Emily Larson.
“We are known as the San Francisco of the North,” Larson said with smile.
“I’ll let you decide if you think that’s true.”
At first, Larson didn’t know how to feel about Keenan’s proposal — Duluth as climate refuge. The idea “really challenged me, actually,” she told me, “like, challenged me personally.”
She found it difficult to grapple with the fact that people are being forced from homes they’ve built and have loved — that human-caused warming would undercut entire ways of life.
Given that stark reality, though, she wants to help.
“It’s a wonderful place to live. It’s an extraordinary place,” she said of Duluth.
“And we want to be that (refuge) for people.”
It happens to be a potential refuge where the average home price, according to Zillow, is just north of $200,000. Far short of San Francisco’s $1.4 million.
Not everyone shares this vision of Duluth-as-climate-refuge.
There are fears in town that property values will go up — that the clean water, ample parks and relatively affordable housing may not survive thousands of new arrivals.
The state and nation’s painful legacy of colonialism complicates matters further.
I spoke with Karen Diver, a member of the Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa and a former adviser to President Obama on Native American affairs, about this idea.
For her, the stakes could not be higher.
“If you are going to come here, then you need to support us as Indigenous people so that your climate solution doesn’t end up in our cultural and spiritual genocide,” she said.
“This is treaty area for the Fond du Lac Band (of Lake Superior Chippewa). And, once again, we are going to bear the brunt of colonization,” she said. “These will be new colonizers coming to the area, but it’s going to because they’re going to come here for reasons that have nothing to do with anything that Tribal people have done.”
Diver said it’s not that she doesn’t sympathize with people who are moving because of the climate crisis. It’s that she wants to be sure their arrival doesn’t further degrade the natural resources that make northern Minnesota special — and that Indigenous people aren’t further marginalized (or further pushed off of their land) by new migrants.
“If you’re coming for the clean water, can we still promise you clean water with 50,000 or 100,000 more people?” she said. “Don’t kill the thing you love, you know?”
Larson, the mayor, told me the city is planning for sustainable growth. She said she’s sensitive to Diver’s concerns and the fact that “this land has been inhabited for centuries,” well before Duluth existed as a town, should be front of mind during this potential transition.
‘Our home didn’t feel habitable’
Largely, Duluth-as-climate-refuge is still a theory.
But I did meet two people for whom this is reality.
Jamie Beck Alexander and Doug Kouma both moved to Duluth, separately, in circumstances similar to Tracy’s. They lived in California and became fearful of wildfires and toxic air quality. They sought out Duluth in part because of its perceived insulation from climate disaster.
Kouma, who was living in Sonoma County, created a spreadsheet with some of the qualities he was looking for in a new city. Duluth ranked near the top for him, particularly for its lack of climate risks and its relatively progressive politics. A visit in 2019 sealed the deal.
“Duluth is today is sort of maybe what San Francisco might have been 20 or 30 years ago?” he told me, not 100% sure about this but also not willing to dismiss the comparison. “It’s crunchy. It’s granola. You can be who you want to be and live the life you want to live here.”
As for the winters? They’re super cold, he said. But people embrace it by cross-country skiing and snowshoeing. He actually didn’t mind it. His biggest complaint seems to be the small size of the 40-something dating pool. He jokingly asked me to encourage dating prospects to check Duluth out.
Jamie Alexander, meanwhile, left San Francisco with her husband and two young children last summer. They didn’t want to live through another fire season — particularly because of their children’s health. “Our home didn’t feel habitable to us anymore,” she said.
They couldn’t be more pleased with Duluth. Alexander told me she feels more at home here after several months than she’d felt in other locations the family had lived in for years.
“We’ve been really warmly welcomed,” she said.
Given the similarities between Alexander’s story and Tracy’s, I asked Alexander if she had anything she wanted to say to the woman struggling with the question of where to move.
“I would say, ‘We’re all in this unknown together.’ I don’t think there are some people who have the answers and other people who are searching for them. I think we’re all, you know — we’re all searching and we’re all trying to make sense of what’s happening” to the planet.
“There’s no guidebook for this,” she added.
“History is no guide for the future.”
‘I’ll go look’
After the trip, I called Tracy.
I wasn’t trying to convince her to move to Duluth, per se. This isn’t actually HGTV. I share Mayor Larson’s sentiment that none of this feels good. There are terrible inequities baked into the way climate migration is unfolding in the United States. My true wish is that the world would stop burning fossil fuels, which would slow down the rate of warming that’s driving these changes.
Short of that, it’s logical to me that Americans like Tracy would seek to adapt.
If only this country could help lower-income people do the same.
And if only the United States could become a global leader in a push to include the climate as a valid criterion for status under the Refugee Convention. Currently, climate migrants are not covered under international refugee law like political refugees, for example.
I also want people like Tracy to find safety — to find home in this troubled world.
I told her about Keenan and Duluth.
About how it meets many of her personal criteria — the sense of community, the progressive politics, the availability of freshwater and (for the most part) the apparent reduced risk of wildfire.
“I’ll go look!” she said, partly just to placate me, I think.
“Maybe it’s closer to San Francisco than I realized. If so, that would be wonderful.”
There’s no easy or happy ending to this story. Tracy has decided to move. But she still doesn’t know where. The idea of the Midwest doesn’t appeal to her culturally, and she’s worried about the cold winters.
Maybe Vermont? New England?
Nothing feels exactly right — or doesn’t yet.
Even Alexander, who is happy now in Duluth, told me this transition has been extraordinarily painful. She left San Francisco without really saying goodbye to a place she loved.
I thought back on my conversation with Keenan, who told me that the United States is “an extraordinarily mobile country.” We’re people who adapt to problems by moving — for better and worse. The climate crisis may prove to drive the Greatest Migration of them all.
It’s playing out today with relatively little notice.
And with little support from governments or international organizations.
Nowhere is truly safe.
But perhaps it’s only human to seek whatever refuge you can find it.