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Joyce Coffee headshot

Midwest Braces For Climate Change Migrations North

By Joyce Coffee

For the third straight year, Illinois lost more residents in 2016 than any other state. But could climate change alter that trend? Chicagoans are talking about how much better the Midwest region seems since Hurricanes Harvey and Irma left such a devastating swath from Texas to the Atlantic coast.

A friend’s parents are reconsidering leaving Chicago to retire to Florida, and a neighbor’s family in Houston talked about moving the family hub north as they camped out in his Detroit guest room after Hurricane Harvey struck Houston. So, is a reverse migration to the Midwest out of the question?

Not at all. Even before these recent destructive storms, experts were contemplating that climate change could benefit the Chicago metro region. A March (2017) memo from the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning staff to CMAP committees includes this possibility related to the region’s “On to 2050 Plan.” It said:

Potential economic opportunities may arise [in the Chicago metro region] from population growth and increased reinvestment, as residents and industries from areas more severely impacted by climate change impacts move to the region.

And our increasingly balmy winters may themselves reflect a changing climate. Research conducted by respected climate scientist Katherine Hayhoe, PhD., Chicago’s average temperatures have increased 2.6 degrees Fahrenheit since 1980, with the largest increases of almost 4 degrees occurring in winter.

With Midwest cities seeking ways to attract and retain top talent, grow their tax base, infill the city and retain big-city vibrancy, city and state leaders may want to make more of the area’s relative climate resilience. Especially since Americans already are on the move because of climate change.

Federal Emergency Management Administration data shows that in the past 17 years, over 1,000 communities in 40 cities have experienced managed retreat, largely due to flooding, permafrost melt and other climate-related changes.  This managed retreat is a better option than forced flight. Over 20 percent of those who fled New Orleans and that region because of Hurricane Katrina never returned.

Of course, the Midwest isn’t free from changing climate conditions. Higher average temperatures that spark periods of extreme heat, heavy downpours and flooding will affect infrastructure, health, agriculture, forestry, transportation and air and water quality.  But these are risks we can prepare for and mitigate against.

Important strides already have begun. Take air quality, which extreme heat makes worse and which Grist, a newsroom focusing on environment, contends is Illinois’ biggest climate worry. In the past several years, three factors have improved air quality in the state, maintains Respiratory Health Association’s Brian P. Urbaszewski, director of Environmental Health Programs:

  1. Major coal-fired power plants such as Fisk, Crawford, Joliet and Romeoville have been shut down. Some that remain, such as Cauveen, have added the latest technology scrubbers, reducing air pollutant loads by up to 99 percent.

  2. Federal rules on heavy duty on-road diesel engines require that any model year beyond 2007 meet particulate matter standards that are 90 percent tighter than before. The rule means that recent diesel trucks and buses emit one-tenth the soot than a 2005 model.

  3. Illinois’ Future Energy Jobs Act will increase cleaner energy, especially wind power, while requiring that utilities such as ComEd and Amren decrease electricity demand.

In addition, the Midwest possess pro-job, pro-innovation and pro-community choices to solve more.  For instance:

  1. To continue to improve air quality, lawmakers and leaders can encourage the shift to higher fuel efficiency and battery powered private and public vehicles, including public buses.

  2. To improve stormwater management, the region can bring back the sponge function of the land by increasing the use of permeable paving, green roofs, tree planting, development of bioswales and disconnection of downspouts to prevent the overfilling of sewers.

  3. To decrease risk of illness from extreme heat, local governments can expand public awareness campaigns and emergency response plans that focus on communities with less air conditioning or with access to department stores and other cool places.

  4. To protect the agricultural industry from drought, farmers can enhance the soil, invest in water-efficient irrigation and seed varieties and consider what crops will flourish here as the climate changes.

Let’s start branding the Midwest as safe, secure and stable places from climate risk, making climate resilience a key feature of our pitch to young people, commercial enterprises and retirees.

Some Midwest cities such as Milwaukee already are grasping the potential rewards. Milwaukee is selling its water (from the same beautiful lake we get ours) as “the freshwater capital of the world,” cites former EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy, and has attracted over 200 water technology businesses in the region.

Coastal communities do not have many choices.  Midwest cities do. One is to promote their resiliency while working diligently to improve it so they can be a welcoming host to climate migrants – and their bright minds, diverse backgrounds and tax dollars. As Mayor Emmanuel Prepares to host the North America Climate Summit, welcoming mayors from coasts and fire zones, he and his midwest peers demonstrate great climate resilience.

Joyce Coffee, LEED AP, is founder and president of Climate Resilience Consulting and has over 20 years of global experience applying resilience and sustainability strategies, management systems and performance measurement to climate-related issues.

Joyce Coffee headshot

Joyce Coffee, LEED AP, is founder and President of Climate Resilience Consulting. She is an accomplished organizational strategist and visionary leader with over 25 years of domestic and international experience in the corporate, government and non-profit sectors implementing resilience and sustainability strategies, management systems, performance measurement, partnerships, benchmarking and reporting.

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