DULUTH — A vintage Duluth postcard shows beachgoers sunbathing on the sandy shores of Park Point as others wade into Lake Superior. The red mercury on a thermometer hovers at 70 degrees.
“Come to Duluth,” the card reads. “The air-conditioned city.”
Other tourism materials from that era capitalize on Duluth’s proximity to the always-chilly Lake Superior. One brochure proclaims Duluth as “America’s coolest summer city.”
Citing climate change, Dr. Jesse Keenan thinks it’s time Duluth brands itself, again, as a destination for people seeking cooler temperatures in a warming world — climate refugees or “climigrants.”
Keenan, a climate change adaptation expert at Harvard University, even has marketing lines he’s tested for the city: “The most climate-proof city in America” and “Duluth: not as cold as you think.”
Through his research, Keenan believes two cities along the Great Lakes would be well-positioned sanctuaries for those fleeing warming or worsening climates: Buffalo, N.Y., and Duluth.
“Their sources of energy production are stable, they have cooler climates and they have access to plenty of fresh water,” Keenan told the Guardian last year. “They also have less vulnerability to forest fires, as compared to somewhere like the Pacific north-west. They also have a legacy of excess infrastructural capacity that allows them to diversify their economy in the future. Land prices are cheap and they have a relatively well-educated and skilled labor force.”
Keenan said that while some climate refugees would be fleeing an increase in weather extremes and rising waters along the coast, he also predicts retirees will move to Duluth for the three warmest seasons of the year — the opposite of what retired people, or “snowbirds,” from Minnesota do each winter when they move to Arizona or Florida for several months.
“What we understand is the northern migration of flora and fauna, fisheries and everything else in the Northern Hemisphere … they’re moving north slowly. So why wouldn’t people also do that?” Keenan said in an interview Wednesday afternoon before his presentation at the University of Minnesota Duluth’s conference on climate change.
“It would not surprise me if 10 or 20 thousand people moved to Duluth,” Keenan said during his presentation.
The article in the Guardian got Pat Schoff, a research associate at the University of Minnesota’s Natural Resources Research Institute in Duluth, thinking. But he said his initial reaction was to laugh.
“The climate refuge idea is really, for us, so new that it's still a question,” Schoff said. “We have the same sorts of discussions about it that everybody else does when they hear about the first time. But that said, what the NRRI is all about is, is really planning for potential futures.”
So Schoff and others organized a two-day long conference — “Our Climate Futures: Meeting the Challenge in Duluth” — at UMD, which examined climate change more broadly but concluded Wednesday evening with Keenan’s presentation on Duluth as a destination for climate refugees.
In a panel discussion that followed, Duluth Mayor Emily Larson, former Obama White House advisor and onetime chair of the Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa Karen Diver and Allete Clean Energy President Al Rudeck discussed what would need to happen in the community if Keenan’s predictions were to come true.
Diver said she was concerned about a suburban spread beyond the city disrupting or taxing existing natural resources. She said that if careful planning for the future doesn’t take place, then it would only make existing disparities worse.
“There’s a place in this for every citizen in our area, but if we can’t figure out what to do with the ones we have now, we have no business inviting more,” Diver said.
Larson said that while the city has sat at a population of about 86,000 people for decades, Duluth was built to accommodate a larger population and could handle more people living within its existing boundaries.
“One of the reasons we really struggle … is that our built environment exceeds our capacity for people to actually pay for it currently,” Larson said. “So from that vantage, we actually do have the capacity to be an environment and a city that could build upon what we have. I think that puts us in a strong position.”
Echoing Diver, Rudeck said foresight and consistent leadership is needed.
“I think there’s a lot of opportunity — if we plan ahead,” Rudeck said.
Keenan said he just wants the research on Duluth he presented Wednesday to be a conversation starter. It’s up to Duluthians to decide what to do about a potential population jump.
“Who knows when people will come? Or if they come?” Keenan said. “I think they will.”