There is a real opportunity for Milwaukee to become a destination for climate refugees in the not-to-distant future, but embracing that role means the region must address its own ecological, economic and social challenges.
That is according to experts and stakeholders who envision Milwaukee as a climate haven.
It is one of several cities researchers named last year as probable havens for those fleeing areas that will become more difficult, or impossible, to live in as the impacts of climate change worsen. Generally, a climate haven will avoid the worst impacts of global warming and has the necessary infrastructure to support an influx of people.
“Milwaukee is interesting, because it is still a pretty robust manufacturing economy, it has a pretty robust health care system that’s regional in its footprint, and it also has a trajectory from a cultural point-of-view of having (a history of) a lot of immigration,” said Jesse Keenan, an associate professor of sustainable real estate at New Orleans-based Tulane University.
People living in areas along the coastline, which are in the path of rising sea levels, and in areas prone to catastrophes like wildfires and drought will start moving out en masse when it is no longer financially feasible to remain, said Itziar Lazkano, an economics professor at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee who specializes in environmental macroeconomics.
“We see a lot more extreme climate events that make some areas of the country a lot more expensive to live in, because adapting to the costs of those extreme events is expensive,” Lazkano said. “That does predict a climate migration, and an area like the Midwest or like Milwaukee can have the potential to absorb some of the migration because of the (relatively affordable) cost of living and the fact that we’re less susceptible to extreme climate events.”
Keenan was involved in the research that identified potential climate havens. The majority of named climate havens are in the Midwest, and in particular are clustered in the Great Lakes region. They include Madison; Cincinnati; Detroit; Minneapolis; Buffalo, New York; and Duluth, Minnesota, among others.
“With these Great Lakes cities, fresh water is truly your greatest resource,” Keenan said.
Research suggests communities that historically have experienced waves of immigration or domestic migration tend to be more accommodating of new incoming groups, said Keenan. Milwaukee’s lengthy migrant history is evidenced by its various annual cultural festivals.
Keenan predicts Wisconsin could see “hundreds of thousands” of people moving here over the next 80 years.
But mass migration does not happen in a vacuum, and stakeholders estimated a potential mix of both positive and negative outcomes associated with an influx of new arrivals.
“When we think of climate migration, in addition to thinking about how attractive different parts of the country might be, including Milwaukee, we might also want to think about the impact of that kind of migration on housing and wages, because that is going to have another effect on the migration itself,” Lazkano said.
Milwaukee and Wisconsin currently contend with “brain drain,” or the movement of highly skilled and intelligent people away to other parts of the country, noted Rafael Smith, climate and equity director of Citizen Action of Wisconsin and a member of the City-County Task Force on Climate and Economic Equity. Climate migration could create the opposite effect, as people from coastal cities move to the area.
The potential downside to this “reverse brain drain,” Smith said, is a scenario in which only certain people benefit from associated wage increases. He’s also worried about displacement and neighborhood gentrification as new high-income residents price people out of their homes.
One way community leaders can combat that future scenario is ensuring Milwaukee’s most vulnerable communities are part of the region’s transition to renewable energy. If they aren’t, they risk losing out on the associated economic benefits, Smith said.
“One of the biggest things to do is introduce trades at the scale that is necessary into our Milwaukee Public Schools system, getting kids connected with careers at a very early stage,” he said.
The City-County Task Force recommended, among other things, that Milwaukee implement a green jobs accelerator to help prepare residents for a career in the skilled trades and the green economy. This would include the creation of “green hubs” throughout the community to directly connect residents with job opportunities and career managers.
“This is not a question of whether we have to do the transition. Our fate as a human species is counting on making that transition,” Smith said. “But by making that transition, that’s going to produce jobs. If we’re not intentional on the front end, a lot of those jobs are not going to go to the people who have been the most impacted.”
The Milwaukee region must also do more to address its own environmental challenges resulting from climate change, experts warn. One of the biggest environmental challenges Keenan sees for Milwaukee is pollution. With its industrial history, Milwaukee has toxic metals in its soil. Greater rainfall fueled by climate change will increase the amount of toxic runoff into the area’s lakes and rivers.
“If you can’t manage that water quality, it’s an impediment to your single-greatest resource,” he said.
Civic leaders and the private sector must come together to create mitigation and adaptation strategies, said Stephanie Hacker, strategic planning leader with Milwaukee-based engineering firm GRAEF.
For example, a community thinking about its climate footprint will take a different approach to roadway design and construction. Instead of simply repaving a street, the community would consider the use of permeable materials, carbon sequestration, and expansion of the infrastructure or underlying utilities to accommodate new residents.
The City of Milwaukee is presently undertaking climate planning. Milwaukee County is doing similar planning, but solely for its facilities and operations. Other municipalities within Milwaukee County have not begun climate planning, and the county’s Intergovernmental Cooperation Council hasn’t yet established a regular agenda item on the topic.
“Just in this region of the county, we’re missing the opportunity to climate-plan ahead and position our region to better serve existing and future residents, because we need to have those mitigation and adaptation strategies planned for the other communities as well,” Hacker said.
Companies like GRAEF are also obligated to examine how they’re contributing to the climate crisis and devise ways to lessen their climate footprint and adapt their operations to a changing global climate, Hacker added.
She said corporations should be asking, “What emissions are they producing? Have they done a greenhouse gas inventory? Do they know what kind of footprint they have, and what are they doing to adapt at the same time?”
“The obligation is not only on our government bodies … we need to have that expectation applied to our corporations as well,” she said.
Devised climate actions need financial backing to have any real impact. Otherwise, they are just ideas without a path forward, said Hacker and Smith. GRAEF worked with the village of Oak Park, Illinois, for the last roughly 18 months in creating its climate action plan. Importantly, Hacker said, the plan included financing methods, such as the specific fiscal year the village would pay for each of its planned actions and from which part of its budget the village would draw the funding.
“We can have all the best ideas in the world, but if you don’t actually have the money to invest in the projects, then it’s just like we spent the last three-and-a-half years talking amongst ourselves and coming up with good ideas, but we don’t actually have the money to implement them,” Smith said.
There is no time to waste on preparing, experts and stakeholders warn.
“This is not something happening in the future,” said Keenan. “It’s happening now.”