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The Great Lakes region is blessed with an abundance of water. But water quality, affordability, and aging water infrastructure are vulnerabilities that have been ignored for far too long. In this series, members of the Great Lakes News Collaborative, Michigan Radio, Bridge Michigan, Great Lakes Now, and Circle of Blue, explore what it might take to preserve and protect this precious resource. This independent journalism is supported by the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation.

Can climate migrants offset Michigan's population woes? Maybe, experts say

Michigan's population has been flat for decades and is expected to begin declining by the year 2045. Some hope for a turnaround is fueled by climate migrants coming north to escape more vulnerable states.
National Park Service
Michigan's population has been flat for decades and is expected to begin declining by the year 2045. Some hope for a turnaround is fueled by climate migrants coming north to escape more vulnerable states.

Farhan Malik loves the Tampa Bay region’s nature and sunshine.

But after several hurricane scares, one too many brutally hot summers, and a job offer at Helen DeVos Children's Hospital in Grand Rapids, he’s packing up and moving to Michigan.

“I had opportunities in a lot of places,” said 39-year-old Malik, who grew up in New Jersey. “My wife and I literally asked ourselves, can we go back to a cold state? And what we factored in was: fresh water, temperate summers.”

As Michigan economic development officials fret over population loss that threatens the state’s future, some see a potential solution in so-called “climigrants” like Malik.

Farhan Malik will soon relocate to Michigan from Florida, a move inspired in part by Michigan's more temperate climate. But experts say Michigan needs more than "climate haven" claims to build a pitch strong enough for new residents.
(Courtesy photo)
Farhan Malik will soon relocate to Michigan from Florida, a move inspired in part by Michigan's more temperate climate. But experts say Michigan needs more than "climate haven" claims to build a pitch strong enough for new residents.

A report last month by the Citizens Research Council of Michigan, a public policy think tank, and Altarum, a Michigan-based health nonprofit, warned that population loss will become a growing problem for Michigan unless state officials find a way to reverse it.

It also identified Michigan’s livable climate as “an opportunity for growth.”

Michigan may be facing hard times now, the theory goes, but if marketed correctly, its abundant water, mild summers and insulation from the most devastating natural disasters offer a competitive edge over regions that are becoming unlivable due to hurricanes, drought, wildfires, heat and sea level rise.

But it’s difficult to predict when, and to what degree, worsening climate peril will produce a wave of climate migrants big enough to sway census trends. And Michigan faces stiff competition from neighboring states that can also tout “climate haven” bona-fides — while also offering better schools and roads.

Fresh water, hurricane-free

For now, Malik is an outlier. Working-age people like him are leaving Michigan in droves – often to more climate vulnerable states like hurricane-battered Florida and parched Arizona.

“The most common reaction I got when I was telling all my friends that I'm moving is, ‘Why?’” Malik said.

Indeed, Florida is one of the fastest-growing states in the nation, along with several Western states that face risks from wildfires, drought and disappearing glaciers.

But climate experts predict that trend will reverse in the coming decades, as the financial toll, psychological trauma and palpable danger from climate hazards begins to outweigh the allure of warm winters, palm trees and low taxes. The regulatory and financial system is already beginning to signal those changes:

  • Arizona announced last week it will stop approving construction permits on new homes in part of the Phoenix area as groundwater supplies dwindle. 
  • State Farm announced in May it won’t sell new property and casualty insurance policies in wildfire-ravaged California, citing “rapidly-growing catastrophe exposure.” 
  • Worsening floods and hurricanes in Florida have prompted multiple major home insurers to exit that state, too. 

“If you can't insure your property because of environmental risks, that's a serious limitation,” said Jeff Andresen, Michigan’s state climatologist and a professor of meteorology and climatology at Michigan State University.
Michigan certainly won’t be untouched by climate change. Our boreal forests could be doomed by warming temperatures, destructive rainstorms are growing more frequent and winter ice cover is dwindling.

But “relative to many other parts of our country,” Andresen said, Michigan “is in a good situation.”

What it has going for it:

  • The Great Lakes, which account for 21 percent of the world’s surface freshwater, and 84 percent in the U.S. That’s not to mention Michigan’s inland waterways and aquifers. 
  • Temperate summers: Sure, Michigan winters can be brutal. But in hotter climates, already-stifling summers will soon be unlivable for billions of people. 
  • Freedom from constant natural disasters: Recent experience with wildfires, tornadoes and floods makes it obvious Michigan isn’t immune. But the risk is low compared to relentlessly rising seas and hurricanes in coastal states, and megafires and megadroughts out West.

It’s anybody’s guess when, or to what extent, those benefits will begin to resonate with significant numbers of people. But Eric Lupher, president of the Citizens Research Council, said Michigan should start marketing itself as a climate haven now.
“Pure Michigan was about, bring your vacation dollars and come for a week or two, but then go home and go on with your life,” Lupher said. “That messaging needs to change.”’

Money first, then people

So far, experts say the first wave climate migration has involved mostly individual and corporate money, not people like Malik.

Climate change is a growing concern for corporations deciding where to make their next big investment, according to a report last year by the global Site Selectors Guild. And climate consultants say they frequently field calls from wealthy people seeking investment advice.

“These are folks who probably have, you know, 10 figures in one of their bank accounts,” said Vivek Shandas, a Portland State University professor of climate adaptation and climate consultant who occasionally fields such calls. “They're not folks who were struggling with just being displaced from a fire or a flood.”

The Michigan Economic Development Corporation has taken note.

A December pitch to potential business investors boasts about the state’s low disaster risk and its plans to be net zero by 2050, calling Michigan “one of the most stable climates in the United States.”

“As extreme weather events unfortunately become more frequent, Michigan’s relatively stable climate and abundant freshwater are becoming more attractive to individuals and companies looking to put roots down in a beautiful environment,” MEDC Chief Executive Officer Quentin L. Messer said in the release. “Michigan is committed to more aggressively presenting its case for being a climate change winner.”

Anecdotal evidence suggests at least some industries are already making moves. They include the vineyard investors who asked Andresen whether they should buy land in Michigan as wildfires and heat imperil better-known wine regions, commodity crop producers who are relocating to the Great Lakes as the Ogallala Aquifer declines in the Great Plains, and wealthy individuals looking to speculatively invest in real estate.

They also include smaller-scale investors like Teresa Roberts of Indiana, who bought a couple of acres in the U.P. as an inheritance for her granddaughter. She expects the land to gain value as disasters tank other real estate markets.

“Where are the next prime properties going to be?” she said. “I don't think it's going to be in Florida.”

And in a worst-case scenario where many other places aren’t safe, she said, her granddaughter could live there.

Climate isn’t everything

But long-term financial investments like Roberts’ won’t help Michigan’s more immediate population woes.

The state’s population is expected to start declining by 2045. And Beth Gibbons, Ann Arbor-based national resilience lead for the consulting firm Farallon Strategies, predicted it could be decades before climate change grows dire enough to force major migration within the U.S.

In the meantime, Gibbons said, Michigan will fare better in its efforts to attract climate-focused newcomers — and businesses to employ them — if it better demonstrates that it’s “able to care for the people who are here already.”

Michigan’s climate, Shandas said, is just one of many selling points the state would need to assemble to make a serious marketing pitch to newcomers. A resilient climate might give Michigan a competitive advantage over Louisiana, for example, but not other Great Lakes states.

To lure residents over those competitors, Shandas said, Michigan would also need superior job opportunities, a high standard of living, low costs, and a more highly-ranked education system.

In her address at the Mackinac Policy Conference last week, Whitmer emphasized a similar message, noting that Michigan is a climate haven but also warning that Michigan’s population goals “cannot be cynically fueled by climigrants.”

"It’s got to be driven by our ability to address global challenges and what we have to offer,” Whitmer said.

Her answer is a new 28-member Growing Michigan Together Council tasked with finding ways to reverse Michigan’s population woes by attracting jobs and workers, investing in infrastructure and improving the education system.

Michigan does have a lower cost-of-living going for it: It is one of the cheapest states to buy property, a fact that appealed to Malik when he chose to move. But compared to several neighboring states, it has underinvested in assets like public infrastructure and education, which matter to people deciding where to live or do business.

Those facts, too, aren’t lost on Malik.

“It seems like the roads are pretty messed up there,” he said. “I’m hoping that it's not as bad as I've been reading…I'm hoping that there's other factors that people are working on in Michigan to make it more attractive. Not only the climate stuff.”

And if not, he can always move.

Kelly House covers Michigan environmental issues for Bridge.
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