Will Wisconsin Become a Climate Haven?

The 2023 Climate Change Symposium provided an opportunity to learn about the effects of climate change on our natural resources and ecosystems, as well as economic and public policy implications.

Wisconsin as a climate haven was the subject of the 2023 Climate Change Symposium, hosted by the Nelson Institute Center for Climatic Research (CCR) on November 7 at the Wisconsin Institute for Discovery. The symposium provided an opportunity for the community to learn about the effects of climate change on our natural resources and ecosystems, as well as economic and public policy implications. Three expert panelists led an in-depth discussion of the topic.

The first, Steve Vavrus, CCR scientist and co-director, Wisconsin Initiative on Climate Change Impacts (WICCI), set the stage by reminding the more than 80 in-person participants that, while human climate migration is not new in the U.S., he is hearing great interest in how climate change will impact where people live as extreme weather disasters are increasing. 2023 has already set a record for billion-dollar weather and climate disasters in the United States as of October 10.

According to Vavrus, Wisconsin has many benefits as a climate haven. Wisconsin has lots of water and a cool climate relative to the southern states. Wisconsin is also attractive because of some of the conditions it doesn’t have, namely major wildfires, hurricanes, and sea level rise.

However, Wisconsin is not immune to the impacts of climate change. The last two decades were the warmest on record and the last decade was the wettest in Wisconsin. That makes Wisconsin vulnerable to extreme heat, especially in urban areas, and flooding.

We are also not immune to smoke from wildfires, as demonstrated this summer with air quality advisories from Canadian wildfires. According to Vavrus, “All this shows that we do have selling points but also a lot of challenges.”

Are people already migrating to Wisconsin? A look at demographic data from the latest census shows that Wisconsin is losing people due to migration according to Anna Haines, land use and community development professor, UW–Stevens Point and UW–Madison Division of Extension, while places like Texas and Florida are receiving migrants.

In the future, over 13 million people in the U.S. will be in areas prone to sea level rise. Still, surveys show some of the top reasons people move are for family and employment, with climate and natural disasters being low on the list.

Even so, Haines emphasized that local governments are vulnerable if they don’t have plans for either sudden onset disasters, like a hurricane or extreme flood event, or slow onset challenges like sea level rise.

In her reporting, Alexandra Tempus, climate-change journalist and UW alumna, found that most climate migration is internal, within national borders, not across them. Her discussions with experts on migration show that long distances moves are rare and, on average, people relocating after a disaster mostly move within 20 miles of their previous home.

Wisconsin has a history of communities moving collectively out of harm’s way. Her reporting in the Driftless Region of Wisconsin uncovered many examples of community relocations that can serve as a model for local governments dealing with the challenges of climate change.

A lively discussion after the presentations included the human impacts of climate disasters, anecdotal evidence of people buying property in Wisconsin but not moving here yet, relocation pressure from the insurance industry that is leaving some markets due to disaster risk, and how the government can help. Clearly, we are just beginning to understand the implications of climate change on human climate migration, but this symposium was a great start.