• Dan Robinson

Hospitality in a Time of Climate Change

A recent article on the Great Lakes and climate change asked a provocative question: “Water could make the Great Lakes a climate refuge. Are we prepared?” There’s a lot packed into the headline for the article by Keith Schneider... what is meant by “climate refuge”? Who’s the “we” in that headline? What kind of preparation are we talking about? And what role does spirituality play in answering these questions?


Ellison Bay Bluff Park; Door County, WI (Photo by Dan Robinson)


While the human population of the U.S. is growing across the country, on the U.S. side of the Great Lakes, the number of people has grown more slowly than other areas of the nation. And some predictions have our region’s population leveling off around 2040. On the Canadian side of the Lakes, population growth has slowed as well (outside of Toronto).


Could climate change reverse those trends? That’s the basis of Schneider’s article and the research being done by the American Society of Adaptation Professionals, the city of Ann Arbor, the National League of Cities, Florida State University and the state of New York. The project is seeking to develop the first scientific models for anticipating economic and population shifts under changing climate conditions, and the Great Lakes are the initial focus of that work.


Simply put, the Great Lakes region could attract more people moving here because of the abundance of water and the affect all that water has on moderating the climate. Certainly climate change is having and will continue to have a devastating effect on the region, but in comparison to other parts of the country, those effects could be less. “Though rigorous data is not yet available,” Schneider writes, “anecdotal evidence indicates the Great Lakes region is already attracting new residents interested in the region’s comparative climate safety.”


People may feel they need to uproot their lives and move to a place that is more habitable, not unlike what many people did during the Dust Bowl years in the early part of the 20th century. The article cites Matt Hauer, a sociologist at Florida State University, who “concluded in a 2017 study that by the end of this century, sea level rise alone could displace 13 million people, 6 million just in Florida.”


That brings me to the “we” in that article headline. Who is the “we” that needs to prepare for this potential wave of climate refugees? And of course, a “we” suggests a “them.” Who will be coming and who will be already here?


The Great Lakes region has a history of people moving here, sometimes to the devastation of the previous residents. Certainly, the wave of settlers during the early years of European colonization destroyed many Indigenous nations, forced some to move, and still others to survive on a fraction of their original land.


Later groups of immigrants to the region included people from non-European nations, like Mexico and Cambodia. Sometimes integrating these groups into the existing communities has gone smoothly, and other times racism by members of the dominant culture has devastated these immigrants as well.


These stories of people and movement demand that “we” – those of us who are already in the region, and particularly those of us from the dominant culture – take a serious look at how open we are to welcoming new members to our communities.


That brings us to this idea of being “prepared.” Schneider’s article focuses on the policy and infrastructure questions that a possible influx of climate refugees brings. For me, though, the spiritual questions are profound.


How welcoming will we be? What if those who move to the region “don’t look like me”? Will we only welcome people who have the resources to move into wealthier communities, thus exacerbating existing socio-economic gaps?


Of particular interest to our region is the distribution of resources, especially clean, accessible water. In his book The Great Lakes Water Wars, Peter Annin recounts a long series of disputes around water in the Great Lakes Basin. What happens if, for example, the human population grows in communities that are just outside the Basin, like in the area around Chicago and southeastern Wisconsin, where the watershed line is so near the lakeshore?


Behind all those questions are even deeper ones. How will we answer these questions? What criteria will we use to determine our future actions?


Hospitality is a fairly consistent value across religious traditions. In the Judeo-Christian tradition, with which I am most familiar, hospitality is often measured by how we treat the most vulnerable in society: “For the LORD your God is God of gods.. who executes justice for the orphan and the widow, and who loves the strangers, providing them food and clothing. You shall also love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” (Deut. 10:17-19)


And yet, the ecosystems of the Great Lakes, like all ecosystems, have limits. And increasing human populations threaten to break those limits. How do we care for the land and water, the air and other creatures and plants which whom we share this world?


These are all, ultimately, spiritual questions, because how we approach them, and the answers we find acceptable to consider or implement, come down to how we see ourselves in relation to the world around us and in relation to the Divine or Ultimate Truth.


Human populations will continue to grow in the Great Lakes, even if slowly. Climate change will continue to happen. How we address these concerns is a question for today. But the possibility of climate refugees is another reminder of a spiritual truth in our world, including in the Great Lakes ... we’re all in this together.

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