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Why the Great Lakes need to be the center of our climate strategy

If you’re looking for a strategy to get the most value from climate investments, the answer is simple: Cities like Detroit, Cleveland, and Buffalo will still be livable as the climate changes, and have the space to absorb climate migrants.

Why the Great Lakes need to be the center of our climate strategy
[Source Photo: NASA]
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Last month, President Biden issued an executive order directing government agencies to assess the risks climate change poses to federal assets, budgets, and investments. Presumably, this order also applies to the American Jobs Act, Biden’s $2.25 trillion plan to electrify transportation, build millions of energy-efficient homes, and upgrade to a more renewable and resilient power grid. Together with the proposed $1 trillion Green New Deal—which is aimed at creating new, green jobs and investments in frontline communities bearing the brunt of environmental injustice—they offer a blueprint for both cutting U.S. carbon emissions in half by 2030 and doing so equitably.

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But neither plan explicitly grapples with the politically thorny question of where to invest. Should the money follow the people, who have flocked for decades to the Sun Belt, where homes are cheap and jobs are plentiful but climate risks mount by the day? Or, following the logic of Biden’s own order, should funds be directed to more resilient regions where people might move someday? If it’s indeed the latter, let’s make the Great Lakes great again. Not only is the region projected to avoid the most egregious climate impacts, but it also possesses an abundance of affordable housing, room to grow, and a commitment to equity and sustainability. Funneling growth there would not only address the legacies of disinvestment but create new opportunities for those who will need to move by providing dedicated resources for climate migrants relocating from other parts of the country.

The decisions can no longer be put off until the future. New data from the EPA reveals temperatures are rising, precipitation patterns are changing, and abnormal weather is the new normal. The problem is that development is still booming in some of the areas of the country most at risk.

Extreme heat is the number-one weather-related killer, but many of the country’s fastest-growing cities—Miami, Phoenix, and Austin among them—are already hot, and getting hotter. But Phoenix still grew by an average of 200 people per day for the last decade, despite breaking its own heat-related records in repeated succession in 2020, including number of days over 110 degrees. To save lives during extreme weather, we need air-conditioning, and lots of it. But abnormal weather, which is becoming the new normal, puts tremendous strain on electrical systems, as seen during Texas’s deadly winter storm. Summer blackouts may become even more common, and deadlier, as temperatures soar. The energy required to save lives during these events directly threatens emissions-reduction targets, and makes our planet even hotter.

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Things aren’t much better along the coasts. Around the country, more than 300,000 homes (worth $117.5 billion) will be at risk of chronic inundation from rising sea levels by 2045. But despite the increasing availability of flood-risk data, homes are still being built two to three times faster in the riskiest areas of Florida, North Carolina, and New Jersey. The most vulnerable homes in California are appreciating the fastest.

[Photo: Adam Bouse/Unsplash]
The bipartisan Flood Resiliency and Taxpayer Savings Act would require federally funded projects to incorporate climate projections into their design, so vulnerable municipalities may struggle to win increasingly competitive national competitions for resilience dollars or borrow money as their credit ratings fall. Coupled with rising flood insurance premiums and stringent building code updates, these market shifts could result in budget cuts and housing price drops that could create a positive feedback loop of decline. As far back as 2016, Freddie Mac’s chief economist warned that losses from flooding coupled with panic selling are “likely to be greater in total than those experienced in the housing crisis and the Great Recession.”

The federal government’s strategy for permanently mitigating flood losses happens primarily through post-disaster buyout programs, which suffer from inconsistency, inequity, inefficiency, and a failure to address more systemic needs. That’s why, in 2020, the Government Accountability Office recommended Congress take action to develop an interagency climate migration pilot program “to enhance the nation’s resilience and reduce federal fiscal exposure.”

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But climate migration—when people move due to experienced or expected climate impacts—is already taking place. An April survey by Redfin found nearly half of Americans planning to move this year factored natural disasters in their decision, bolstering a previous study indicating buyers will incorporate climate considerations when moving in the decade ahead. So where will people go?

This is where the Great Lakes and Green New Deal come in.

Some are already calling the Great Lakes the country’s climate refuge, thanks to mild weather and an abundance of natural resources, including an estimated 20% of the world’s surface freshwater resources. Buffalo has already proclaimed itself a “climate refuge city,” resettling hundreds of Puerto Rican families after 2017’s Hurricane Maria. These so-called receiving cities are the places where people will relocate to escape intolerable environmental hazards in their own communities.

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Once the nation’s economic engines and manufacturing hubs, Great Lakes “legacy cities” such as Detroit, Cleveland, and Buffalo have suffered from decades of redlining, segregation, and political negligence. White flight and disinvestment led directly to years of contaminated water in Flint and similar crises. But these cities never abandoned their hopes for a renaissance, still possessing anchor institutions such as universities and hospitals, not to mention the capacity to house populations twice as large as today’s residents.

Forced to grapple with a shrinking tax base, they’ve also became leaders in sustainability. For example, Flint, Michigan; Worcester, Massachusetts; and Rochester, New York, are remediating contaminated land to create new amenities. In Ohio, Akron, Cincinnati, and Cleveland have focused their efforts on racial equity and resilience. Dayton, Toledo, and Detroit welcome refugees and immigrants to cope with population loss.

No place is immune to climate change, but these cities offer a solid foundation for investing in hard infrastructure and providing frontline communities with green jobs, affordable housing, and freedom from egregious climate risks.

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What about people living along the coasts and in flood plains? Don’t they deserve green jobs, too? How do we ensure communities on the literal front lines—the ones who can’t move—aren’t left behind? And how can we ensure Great Lakes communities aren’t gentrified by wealthy climate migrants or barricaded by NIMBY homeowners already present?

The trick is to link the two: earmarking $500 billion for climate mitigation to frontline communities, as the Green New Deal for Cities would do, but also to make robust infrastructural investments in areas like the Great Lakes that are destined to be a refuge for people seeking relief from climate change. A robust federal climate migration pilot program must identify places where relocates will move to, including by leveraging other federal resources to cities and states that build resilient housing and economic opportunities in safe locations.

One tool legacy cities have wielded to preserve future affordability is land banks and land trusts, using public money to acquire and insulate properties against market appreciation. The American Jobs Act will reportedly include $318 billion to preserve or produce 2 million units of housing, including $45 billion for the National Housing Trust Fund established under President Obama to subsidize shelter for the poorest Americans.

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Once again, it’s not only a question of how much, but where and for whom. The Biden administration should ensure those funds are steered toward land banks and land trusts in more resilient areas, using the EPA’s indicators as guides, and offer green jobs recipients in frontline communities priority access to affordable housing under these plans.

The federal government has the power to persuade with its dollars, by directing targeted investments to cities and regions where people could or even should move, with a once-in-a-generation opportunity to steer Americans to safety on higher ground. Funneling targeted infrastructure spending toward regions with fewer climate risks and providing dedicated resources to help climate-affected communities relocate can reap the benefits of mitigation and adaptation simultaneously. It can also ensure the longevity of these programs, providing a new legacy for the rest of the world to live up to.


Kelly Leilani Main is the executive director of Buy-In Community Planning. Greg Lindsay is director of applied research at NewCities, where he leads the Higher Ground initiative.