Standing on the frigid shoreline of Lake Superior, melting snow glistening in the Minnesota sun above, Christina Welch recalls what drew her from the Bellamy vineyards of northern California in the American West to the frozen town of Duluth. Inspired to do business.
In 2017, a wildfire broke out close to their neighborhood in Sonoma County. Then, two years later, while visiting Duluth on the advice of a coworker, another fire forced her parents to evacuate their home.
“That was the straw that broke the camel’s back,” Welch, 40, told AFP.
Duluth, in the far north of the United States, is known for its extremely cold and snowy winters, driven by powerful winds blowing off Lake Superior.
But despite its harsh climate, this city of 86,000 is starting to make a name for itself as a haven for people fleeing the effects of climate change.
Wildfires, which scientists say have become more frequent and powerful around the world because of climate change, also convinced John Jenkins to trade the golden beaches of California for the icy shores of Duluth.
“The air smells clean. The water is one of the best in the world. It’s so clean, pristine, it’s beautiful,” Jenkins, 38, told AFP inside the restaurant he bought and renovated in the city.
Even on winter days that drop below -29 °C, Welch and Jenkins don’t regret their decisions.
And the Jenkins family has only grown. Since he moved here with his wife, he has two children and many other family members have joined them.
Around the world, climate change has already displaced thousands of people involuntarily. But Jenkins and Welch could also be considered “climate migrants.”
They are part of a small but potentially growing group of people for whom climate change is affecting, along with traditional factors such as quality of life, job opportunities and house prices, where they reside.
– “New Oil” –
Jesse Keenan, an associate professor of sustainable real estate at Tulane University, is responsible for much of the buzz surrounding Duluth these days.
An expert in urbanism and climate adaptation, Keenan started a few years ago on where climate-conscious Americans would prefer to live.
Thus, he identified several cities, including Buffalo in the upstate of New York (east), and Detroit in Michigan (northeast).
But Duluth, a historically industrial city with plenty of high-quality, affordable housing, has benefited from “many years of investment from the state of Minnesota to try to foster a sustainable economy.”
The shores of Lake Superior offer another advantage.
According to Keenan, “fresh water is the new oil”.
So far, many residents seem willing to have more neighbors if the newcomers can accommodate.
“I think it’s wonderful,” says retiree Lezlie Ochs, 65. “But they have to get used to the fact that it’s cold here most of the time,” he remarked.
– ‘Climate optimist’ –
Local officials have taken a notably different tone regarding the city’s growing popularity.
“It looks like we are still putting on our oxygen masks. We are unwilling to help the passenger next to us, and yet the weather tells us to do so. And that’s a lot,” he said by way of example. Furthermore, Larson considers it “predatory” to run a “marketing strategy” based on climate change in California or elsewhere, “I’m very sorry … But you can come here because it’s cool by the lake.”
Keenan argues that this is the wrong way of looking at things. He said, “People are going to come one way or another, no matter what you do.” Larsen’s office declined to speak to AFP.
The challenge facing Duluth is “quite simple” and according to Keenan, there are two options: either the city can “promote sustainable urban growth,” requiring investment in housing and transportation, or growth—willing or forced—will appear. . In the traditional way, a kind of “climate gentrification” with car-dependent expansion and poorer residents would be excluded.
Duluth is a place for “climate optimists” who “believe we can do it, that we can decarbonize the world.” But even the experts have their concerns.
“It’s a beautiful part of the country. And it’s a very sensitive ecological domain”, emphasizes Keenan, who nevertheless warns: a flourishing Duluth, “if it’s not done well, So it could make things worse”.