How Will Climate Change Effect The Rust Belt? 

New research suggests the region will withstand coming changes in better shape than most.

Photo by Matt Howard on Unsplash

“Climate is redefining every aspect of society, already — and we’re only at the beginning.” So said the climate futurist Alex Steffen recently posted in a lengthy thread on his twitter account. “The question is no longer whether we’re going to act, but when? And to who’s advantage?”

There is new research that suggests the Rust Belt is one of the places that may actually benefit from climate change action in the United States. No one really wins with climate change, of course, but the region could be poised to withstand it better than others.

Coastal cities and the Sun Belt could suffer

A large-scale data analysis and forecasting undertaken by the McHarg Center for Urbanism and Ecology at the University of Pennsylvania has produced a series of maps depicting the potential consequences of climate change across the United States over the coming years and decades. Called The 2100 Project: An Atlas for a Green New Deal, the project is meant to catalyze action before mitigation of climate change effects becomes too little, too late.

One major takeaway from the project is that rising sea levels will put coastal cities under threat of increased flooding and increasingly severe storms and seismic activity. While warming causing an average annual temperature increase approaching 10℉ may also cause large swaths of the Sun Belt to become tortuously hot, experiencing droughts and catastrophic storms of their own.

Graphic by the McHarg Center for Urbanism and Ecology

Where does the Rust Belt stand?

The economic strain of all this could eventually expand into astronomical territory, perhaps leaving entire existing cities in ruins and forcing tens of millions of people to relocate. 

Sarah Holder, writing about the 2100 Project for CityLab, states that “[A]ccording to GDP projections through 2099, more than three-quarters of U.S. counties will be suffering economically because of the damage climate change wreaks; about a quarter will benefit.” 

Those that stand to benefit are in the northern half of the country, including the Pacific Northwest, New England, and the Great Lakes region.

While coastal areas and the Sun Belt stand to incur the most negative effects of climate change, the Rust Belt will likely not go unscathed. As the “Environmental Risks” map above shows, the region could experience increased flooding concerns, particularly in proximity to the Mississippi and Ohio Rivers, and the increased temperatures could pose problems for agriculture and industry.

As the McHarg Center notes in the study, “[A]ll of these environmental risks increase with climate change.”

So while the Rust Belt will certainly be impacted by climate change, the most severe effects will be centered outside the region. This suggests the Rust Belt will withstand climate change in America in better shape than most.

Is the Rust Belt ready?

A new study by scholars at Georgia Tech and USC recently contended that up to 13 million Americans may have to flee coastal cities by the end of the century as a result of rising sea levels.

Using AI technology to forecast migration patterns, the researchers predict a large proportion of those people could head to the Midwest.

“We really believe that dynamics when it’s forced migration, versus business as usual migration, will be different,” USC computer science professor and paper co-author Bistra Dilkina told Adele Peters of Fast Company.

The predicted influx of new residents raises the question of how potential population increases might stress the cities of the Rust Belt. Many of the cities in the region were once booming population centers that have since been hollowed out, so there is plenty of room for in-migration. But years of neglect means ample new investment to repair, rehabilitate, and replace the necessary housing and infrastructure to support a wave of climate migrants would be required.

Cities such as Buffalo, New York and Duluth, Minnesota have already declared themselves climate refuges, hoping to capitalize on these possibilities, but with little in the way of concrete plans to accommodate new population.

“You can’t just declare yourself a climate refuge, you know. You’ve got to work and earn it,” said sustainability expert George Besch in a story that ran in The New York Times in April of last year. “I could declare myself a millionaire, but the bank would not cash my checks accordingly. I would need to earn it.”

Photo by Seth Yeanoplos on Unsplash

Though the researchers involved in these new studies stress that the future cannot be predicted with full accuracy, it seems probable that economic disruption and geographic migration will be a large part of climate change in the United States. 

The models in this research are optimistic, in a relative sense, for the future of the Rust Belt. An opportunity appears to be in the offing for the region, a chance to step up to the plate and provide a home for people in other areas of the country who bear the brunt of climate change.

What the McHarg Center project, and people like Steffen, are quick to point out, though, is that our response as a citizenry and nation is what will ultimately decide the magnitude of climate change effects.

“There are certain general things we’re certain about, but the shape and content of the future is not one of them,” said Billy Fleming, director of the McHarg Center. “We get the future we build for ourselves.”

The question now is whether the cities of the Rust Belt will be up to that challenge.


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