Cincinnati, Ohio: A Climate Haven?
July 23, 2022
From severe heat waves and wildfires to violent flooding and tropical storms, it is no secret that climate change has been waging its world war with ever-increasing intensity. In the U.S., some coastal and Southern states are especially vulnerable.
California, for example, faces threats from both coastal flooding and wildfires, with high wildfire potential days increasing from 120 each year to almost 150 by 2050. Hurricanes are hitting Florida with growing frequency and intensity, and the state is also prone to flooding from heavy rain and rising sea levels. Mississippi and Texas are highly susceptible to extreme heat and coastal flooding.
These disruptive weather events have led climate experts to predict that decades-long patterns of migration out of the Snow and Rust Belts to the Sun Belt may halt, and even reverse in the coming years. As Sun Belt states go from sunny and warm to dangerously volatile, experts anticipate that people will instead flock to areas with more stable climates.
Enter climate havens.
The term — which is almost exclusively used by academics and journalists — refers to a location that is unlikely to be severely affected by climate change in the coming years. These places could be entire states or countries, but they are most often cities whose infrastructure could support a significant population increase in a short amount of time as climate refugees from coastal and Sun Belt states relocate to safer areas en masse.
Climate experts generally name the upper Midwest, the Northeast and some of New England as the most promising sites for climate haven cities.
As average temperatures in less insulated U.S. regions soar, the climate in the Upper Midwest is projected to remain relatively temperate, according to Brent Sohngen, professor of environmental and resource economics at the Ohio State University. The region will be less susceptible to heat waves and the insect-borne diseases that may accompany them, like Zika and malaria. With its proximity to the Great Lakes, the Upper Midwest is also unlikely to experience the fresh water shortages that are becoming increasingly common across the world.
As such, climate experts, real estate developers and journalistic publications alike have taken to uncovering the most promising climate haven locations in the U.S. Many of the cities named — like Duluth, Minnesota or Buffalo, New York — boast of long Great Lakes coastlines and easy freshwater access, but for Cincinnatians, it’s been an intentional push.
Most parts of the Midwest and the Northeast have a relatively low climate risk index, compared with coastal, Southern and central states.
According to Savannah Sullivan, climate policy director at the Cincinnati-based environmental sustainability nonprofit Green Umbrella, their status as a potential climate haven boils down to commitment.
“We have had…both elected public sector staff and partner organizations really acknowledge that [climate change] is…increasingly part of the political world,” she said.
Some say the city experienced its first (albeit small) wave of climate in-migration when approximately 2000 former New Orleans residents fled to Cincinnati after Hurricane Katrina in 2005. Most of these evacuees chose Cincinnati because they had family there, Sullivan said. But the episode catalyzed many city-wide climate and green infrastructure initiatives in the years that followed, like the 2030 District and the Cincinnati Energy Aggregation Program.
The city’s climate resilience agenda was addressed in the 2018 Green Cincinnati Plan, spearheaded by ex-mayor John Cranely in partnership with the Office of Environment and Sustainability and other government, corporate and non-profit organizations. The plan outlines goals and action items for “reducing the risks of climate change, growing green-sector economic opportunity, and improving comfort and quality of life for all citizens.” The next iteration will be published in 2023.
While cities like Duluth and Buffalo have also put forth climate plans, the 2018 Green Cincinnati Plan explores the climate haven concept in greater detail. Section 4 of the plan outlines general recommendations to help the city establish itself as one such refuge, bringing Cincinnati’s one step closer to its overarching goal of climate resiliency.
The plan’s authors propose to “cultivate [Cincinnati’s] reputation as a safe location for risk averse businesses” in hopes of attracting new residents and enterprises from climate-vulnerable areas.
They also suggest adding beds and increasing food reserves in homeless shelters and temporary shelter homes to prepare for a spike in use by climate migrants, stating that FEMA and private insurance companies would be responsible for these disaster-related expenses. A subsection of the plan titled also mentions increasing affordable housing and creating more jobs for current and newly arrived residents who are economically disadvantaged.
Authors calculate that Cincinnati could feasibly absorb 100 new families per year. Housing them would cost around $600,000 annually, but these expenses would likely be reimbursed by FEMA or the prospective residents’ insurance, resulting in a 1:1 cost-benefit ratio for the city.
According to Sohngen, Cincinnati is currently well-positioned to become a climate refuge. Housing stock is relatively cheap and, thanks to the flourishing warehousing and transportation industries in the area, the economy is slowly beginning to grow after decades of post-industrial decline.
But ensuring that housing remains affordable if climate migrants do pour into Cincinnati may be a challenge.
“The drawback of being an appealing city that is currently affordable for folks to move to is that this induces rapid growth, and, therefore, potential for yet another layer of gentrification,” Sullivan said.
Cincinnati may become a popular climate destination precisely because of its cost-effective housing, but a sudden influx of peopleーespecially wealthier onesーcould drive neighborhood values and housing prices up, making parts of the city less accessible for current low-income residents.
“Cincinnati, like every other city in the Midwest, does have equity issues,” Sohngen said. “They’ve got a lot of poor neighborhoods and some of them are getting gentrified, pushing relatively not so well off people into other neighborhoods…All that gets exacerbated if your population is growing.”
Cincinnati is also at risk of localized flooding due to inadequately-sized pipes in certain areas, which could “harm housing, infrastructure, and businesses” according to Sohngen. He said that the city should implement more green infrastructure and water infiltration systems like parks or roadways, but that “it’s hard to say they have to do that for the potential influx of peopleーthey really have to do that no matter what.”
Although these infrastructural challenges have yet to be addressed, Cincinnati has made significant strides in implementing recommendations from the 2018 Green Cincinnati Plan pertaining to financial equity.
“There have been several really successful, equitable programs that lend to the creation of the type of infrastructure that we need to be a climate haven,” Sullivan said. Through the Climate Safe Neighborhoods Project, Green Umbrella and Groundwork Ohio River Valley have encouraged “significantly more robust community engagement that is elevating the voices of historically underserved communities in ways that Cincinnati’s never done before.”
While working at the City of Cincinnati, Sullivan developed a program that helps “community members who might not have had access to key energy efficiency resources to not only draw their bills down, but keep them safe during extreme temperature events”.
To ensure that diverse voices are included in future planning, Sullivan confirmed that a newly created Equity Committee was involved in the plan’s 2023 update.
While some cities are preparing for the possibility of a significant influx of climate migrants, the climate haven scenario is still mostly hypothetical.
Sullivan stated that while “we can track the publications and case studies on environmental migration…the migration itself is very nascent” when it comes to Cincinnati.
But should the time come, Cincinnati is positioning itself to meet the needs of both “those who are seeking climate havens voluntarily, and folks who are…disrupted from sudden onset of disasters without preparation,” Sullivan said. “If we’re not doing it in a welcoming, inclusive way, are we doing it?”