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Climate change could make Duluth America's premier destination

Cities like Duluth and Buffalo will be cooler, wetter, and safer from hurricanes and vanishing coastlines. And people will want to get a piece of that.

Cities like Duluth and Buffalo will be cooler, wetter, and safer from hurricanes and vanishing coastlines. And people will want to get a piece of that. Brian Peterson, Star Tribune

Climate change does not make most people excited for the future. But Harvard professor Jesse Keenan had a silver lining of sorts to share at a recent presentation at the University of Minnesota-Duluth.

This lakefront city, with its cold temperatures and the fresh waters of Lake Superior, could be a haven – nay, a destination – in our hotter, wilder future.

If things keep going the way they are, places like Texas and Florida would be blazing hot or half-drowned in a matter of decades, thanks to rising temperatures and sea levels. Cities like Duluth and Buffalo, meanwhile, will be cooler, wetter, and safer from hurricanes and vanishing coastlines. And people will want to get a piece of that.

As Keenan sees it, it's time Duluth thought about how it will capitalize on its enviable insulation from a ravaging climate. He even tested out his own marketing lines: “The most climate-proof city in America” and “Duluth: not as cold as you think.” 

Duluth City Council member Joel Sipress was in the crowd that day. The presentation caught him by surprise. Not because he’d never thought about the effects of climate change – just the opposite. He was hoping for some insights on how the city could grow intelligently, shifting its economy away from mining and oil pipelines as those resources dwindle.

He just didn’t expect to hear a business plan. “What [Keenan] is proposing is that climate change can be profitable,” and that “high-income climate immigrants” could eventually be the city’s bread and butter, or at least the jelly on top.

That’s a concept a few city leaders find distracting at best, and troubling at worst.

“We don’t just want [Duluth] to become an enclave for the wealthy,” Councilman Gary Anderson says. The city already has issues with equity, and it's been struggling to correct a dearth of affordable housing. Between its wealthiest and poorest neighborhoods, he says, the difference in life expectancy is something like 10 or 11 years.

If Duluth is going to become a climate change refuge – which “would be great to see” -- he wants to make sure it can be a refuge for everyone.

Keenan says he never advocated for marketing Duluth to the wealthy, and that his "central thesis was the opportunity to repopulate Duluth and redevelop central Duluth" with "affordable housing, mass transit, historic preservation" and "environmental stewardship in mind. He says he was the person who coined the phrase "climate gentrification," and that the council members' impressions were "selective." 

This conversation may be new to Duluth, but it’s been simmering for a while on a national scale. Hurricane Harvey, which pounded the south in 2017, forced 30,000 Texans into shelters. Hurricane Maria caused 300,000 Puerto Ricans to abandon their flooded homes and flee to Florida. More than 1 million Americans were displaced due to natural disasters that year.

And it’s probably going to get much worse. The journal Nature Climate Change predicted that by 2050, 30 percent of the Earth’s land – where 1.5 billion people live right now -- will be reduced to “desertlike conditions.” As many as 143 million “climate migrants” are expected to take flight. 

“As our world heats up, the line between those who can move to milder climates and those who are left behind will become increasingly stark,” a 2018 Rolling Stone report said. Not everyone has the money or the means to relocate. 

“I think that this concept [of marketing to wealthy refugees] is a distraction from the huge challenges posed to Duluth by climate change,” Sipress says. “It’s a distraction from our central challenge: How do we build an ecological, sustainable, environmentally friendly city in a world faced by climate change?”

Duluth probably will, at some point, end up playing host. The question is what kind of a host it will be.