Duluth, in the north of the United States, a possible “refuge” in the face of climate change

In the far north of the United States, Duluth, home to 86,000 residents, is known for its snowy winters and its almost ocean breeze from vast Lake Superior. Today, the city is being talked about as a possible future “climate haven”.

Christina Welch explains why she left the vineyards of Sonoma County in California for Duluth on the Boardwalk, which runs along a melting lake whose surface blocks of ice slide under a bright sun.

In 2017, the first scare, a fire is dangerously approaching her neighborhood. Then in 2019, when she was in Duluth to explore the city on the advice of a co-worker, a fire forced her parents to evacuate their home.

“It was the last straw that broke the camel’s back,” she told AFP.

Christina Welch in Duluth on April 12, 2023 (AFP-Stéphane Maturen)

Wildfires, which experts predict will get worse with global warming, are among the reasons that prompted John Jenkins to leave California’s beaches for the snowy shores of Minnesota nine years ago.

“The air is clean. The water is one of the best in the world. It’s very clean, beautiful, spotless,” he says at the cafe-restaurant he bought and renovated.

So Christina, 40, and John, 38, have turned the page on their Californian lives and settled in Duluth – also the city of Bob Dylan’s birth. It is believed that sometimes it is minus 30 degree Celsius in winter. But they have no regrets.

John came with his wife. Since then, he has two children and many members of his family have taken advantage of this.

John Jenkins in Duluth on April 12, 2023 (AFP-Stéphane Maturen)
John Jenkins in Duluth on April 12, 2023 (AFP-Stéphane Maturen)

Christina and John are among the pioneers of a new trend that may rise in the coming decades: that of “climate migrants”. People who take climate change into account when choosing to move – in addition to real estate prices, quality of life or job prospects.

– Pure water –

The story begins a few years earlier with Professor Jesse Keenan, the talk of the town around Duluth. In the articulation between urban planning and adaptation to climate change, this expert examines the areas to which future climate migrants in the United States may move.

Duluth, Minnesota, April 12, 2023 (AFP - Stephen Maturen)
Duluth, Minnesota, April 12, 2023 (AFP – Stephen Maturen)

It identifies several cities: Buffalo, Detroit, Duluth among others. Without being impervious to climate change, the latter is a historically industrial city that has benefited from investment “from Minnesota to try to foster a sustainable economy” and has “extremely affordable” housing stock, he told AFP. .

On top of all that, thanks to Lake Superior, Duluth has plenty of water. and “fresh water is the new oil”, according to Mr. Keenan.

The media is upbeat about the concept of a “climate shelter”. Most of the people who reached the spot say that they are ready to open their arms.

“I think it’s wonderful!” said Lezlie Ochs, a 65-year-old retiree. But these people “have to get used to the fact that it’s cold almost all the time,” she smiles.

– “Climate Optimists” –

In Duluth on April 12, 2023 (AFP-Stéphane Maturen)
In Duluth on April 12, 2023 (AFP-Stéphane Maturen)

However, the tone from the authorities is cautious. Mayor Emily Larsen “politely declined” to speak to AFP, but recently candidly said she was “horrified” when her city’s name began to circulate.

“I have the impression that we are still putting on our oxygen masks. We are not prepared to help the passenger next to us, and yet the climate is forcing us to do so”, he said during a public lecture. Summarized.

And he would find it “cynical,” he explained, that his city is growing by focusing its “marketing strategy” on people fleeing climate change.

Jesse Keenan doesn’t hide his “disappointment” with this speech.

“Guess what: the people will come” anyway, they say.

For him, “the challenge is simple”: either the city respects the environment and social equity with suitable housing and transportation; Or it will be developed in a more traditional way, with expansion towards the periphery and massive use of cars.

Chunks of ice float on the lake in Duluth on April 13, 2023 (AFP - Stephen Maturen)
Chunks of ice float on the lake in Duluth on April 13, 2023 (AFP – Stephen Maturen)

And it is possible to work upwards to avoid gentrification – the gentrification of working-class neighborhoods – he argues.

Jesse Keenan firmly believes that “Duluth is a place for climate optimists”, who believe that it is possible to accommodate the upheavals of the world as we know it.

But he warns: if adaptation “is not done well, it could make things worse” for newcomers.

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