Midwest: Rust Belt No More

What other region would put up with a moniker like “The Rust Belt”?

Would the West Coast be okay with “The Drought Belt”? How about “The Wildfire Belt” for the Mountain states? Or the “Flooded Cities Belt” for the East Coast?

But virtually every news outlet, including local ones, uses “Rust Belt” without a second thought. It’s time for them — and us — to stop.

Climate change is changing the game. Wild fire season, once confined to late summer and early fall, has already begun and not only in the Mountain West. Big fires are sweeping through western Nebraska as I write.

Meanwhile, hurricane season and the storms’ severity, frequency and geographical reach are all expanding. To quote the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions: “It is important to note that while stronger hurricanes are more damaging, there are nearly 50 million homes and at least $1.4 trillion in assets within an eighth of a mile of the coast and a growing amount of property at risk in coastal areas. An important driver of the increased cost of hurricanes is increasing development in coastal areas. U.S. coastal populations grew by nearly 35 million people between 1970 and 2010. As more development occurs in harm’s way — regardless of climate change — the more likely the damage will grow.”

And if you think that’s bad, heat waves are actually the most deadly weather phenomena of all.

Add to all this the natural limitations of water scarcity and it all adds up to one thing: those so called “Rust Belt” states are going to be some of the best places to live over the coming decades as the effects of climate change grow.

To quote the online publication The Balance: “Michigan, Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, and Wisconsin figure to be very desirable in times of extreme climate effects. Besides their general freedom from nasty heat, these areas have the Great Lakes as a water source and one that doesn’t involve tsunamis, hurricanes, giant waves or sea-level-rise. The risk of floods that may exist may come from extensive rainfall. Cities such as Minneapolis, Detroit, and Madison, WI may be popular targets for relocation in the latter quarter of this century.”

Other analysis’ show a swath running from the Arrowhead Region of Minnesota through northern Wisconsin, the U.P., lower Michigan and out to Vermont as being the area most insulated from the worst of climate change.

The only thing I disagree with about that Balance paragraph above is the timing. The advantages of living in the Great Lakes states are going to be apparent long before the end of this century. Here in the north-center part of the country, we’re relatively insulated from the worst ravages of climate change. The wildfires of the West, the hurricanes and coastal flooding of the East Coast and the Gulf, the intense heat of the South (and last summer even the Pacific Northwest) — we’re immune from that stuff. To be sure, we’re not exempt from everything. More intense storms will continue to bring some tornadoes, damaging winds and occasional flooding in greater frequency and amounts than we’ve experienced historically. But compared to the absolute destruction of a wildfire or a hurricane, our problems will be a good deal more manageable.

I’m surprised that there hasn’t been more of an effort, here in the Upper Midwest, to tout the natural climate change advantages of our region. Because here’s the problem. Despite what should be the obvious advantages of the Upper Midwest, we’ve got a lot to overcome. For example, take a look at this video produced by Popular Science a few years ago. It concludes, whimsically, that we should all move to Michigan. But the tone of the whole production is that that’s either ridiculous or to be avoided at all costs. Michigan? I’d rather burn or drown!

For a deeper dive into the cultural resistance to the Midwest check out this article in the website FiveThirtyEight. Here’s their upshot: “The problem is one of both personal preferences and economics. We don’t all like the same weather. We seldom make investment choices on long time scales. We value things about our hometowns, other than whether they’re safe from a wildfire. It’s hard to predict which regions might win climate change when we don’t all agree on what “win” means.”

Which brings us back to this whole “Rust Belt” thing. Our region has a huge and growing natural advantage thanks to climate change and yet, unless we do something to shake off the negative image of the Midwest, people will resist those advantages. They’ll spend billions on flood walls and water projects and taxpayers will spend billions insuring homes in high-risk wildfire and flood zones, even if it’s obvious that the cheaper, more efficient solution is to pick up and come here.

As long as we blithely accept the image of “Rust Belt” we won’t make progress. Let’s object to that damn phrase every time we hear it or see it in print. Say it with me. We’re the Cool Belt.

Welcome to Midwest, a regular Sunday morning feature here at YSDA, where we explore what’s good about the center.


Published by dave cieslewicz

Madison/Upper Peninsula based writer. Mayor of Madison, WI from 2003 to 2011.

8 thoughts on “Midwest: Rust Belt No More

  1. Dave, please don’t advertise that Wisconsin has a quality of life of almost biblical proportions. We are literally the land of milk and honey. We live in a sea of food. Peace reigns in the land, the tribe to the north is friendly, the tribe to the south is dealt with effectively by the Packers. Do you want all those out-of-staters clogging our highways? What about being able to drive 5 minutes to your favorite restaurant, park in front, walk in without a reservation and expect a table? Unlike Chicago where you have to make a reservation two weeks in advance, drive an hour, and pay over $50 to park. No way!

    Tell people about how small children are regularly carted off by polar bears. About men who collapse shoveling snow and aren’t discovered until spring thaws them out in April. Worried about rising sea levels in Florida? Buy a boat, just don’t come here.

    I kid you not, last summer we were enjoying a tasty outdoor fish fry and ran into a couple from Texas who just flew up to avoid the heat. This can’t continue! (I didn’t tell them to keep a sweatshirt in the trunk for when the wind shifts off the lake. Ha! Revenge is mine).


    1. For those who share Mike’s concerns about the hoards, we have two protections against being overrun. Mosquitoes and March. Well, also, Robin Vos, but we promised to stay away from politics on Sundays, so forget I mentioned it.


  2. So why is it even called the “Midwest”. California is “west”, New York is “east”. I grew up in Wyoming, and I always thought we were “Midwest”: not all the way west, but partly. Nevada was west of us, and Nebraska east, but both part of the “West”. Ohio, Michigan, Wisconsin?….nowhere near the west, or even the beginning of the west. They were then, and are now, “Mid country”, or “Mid continent”, or just the “Middle”. But they are not west……it is 2000 miles to the Pacific, and only 1000 to the Atlantic…on the east. Wyoming is 1000 miles to the Pacific….much more “Midwest” than Sheboygan, for cripes sake. This whole “Midwest” thing has been and is a misnomer, and a terrible descriptive of geography. If the “East Coast” and the “West Coast” somehow connote in some minds the places where things happen, let’s at least get to live in the “Middle Coast”, on the Great Lakes and the Mississippi River.


    1. Yep, that’s a problem. In fact, a lot has been written about this. The Midwest is a hard to define entity, even geographically, much less economically, socially, politically or otherwise. The coasts are easily defined by their seashores. The South is pretty well defined by the old Confederacy, although there are some hazy areas. Is Kentucky part of the South? A good book along these lines is American Nations, which I think does a pretty good job of defining regions with disregard to state boundaries and based instead mostly on settlement patterns.


  3. At the risk of overstaying my welcome, may I suggest “Great Lakes States,” or “Fresh Coast,” a term I believe is credited to former Milwaukee mayor Tom Barrett. My favorite grouping is Illinois, Ohio, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Indiana, and Michigan. I suppose you could include Iowa which should really just be part of Minnesota demographically, anyway. But that’s a different subject.

    As for mosquitos and March: Modern (shortsighted) farming practices have greatly reduced the mosquito population in my part of the world, along with bees, although you hear more concern over bees. March and April used to be the slushy, sleety season. Now they’re the mud season. And we’ve only just begun. Our climate in Milwaukee has become more akin to the Chicago of our youth, and will continue to trend middle south which is why we risk being overrun by people migrating north to escape the heat and taking our tables at our favorite restaurants.

    By the way, my brother-in-law just packed up kit and kin and left Southern California, where they otherwise loved living, after being evacuated twice because of wild fires. Fickle winds saved their house both times; they decided not to test fate a third time. So they’ve moved back to Virginia where they lived previously. Climate change migration is a real thing.

    One of the mega trends of our times (to borrow a term from the 80’s) is that many things that used to be considered future concerns are now measurable and perceivable realities. We are truly living in a new world.


  4. While not in agreement with the current climate change hypothesis, I do agree with Mike M above. Let’s let our beautiful land be known to those who will appreciate the whole package, including March and mosquitoes.

    Can’t break away from the coasts? Great, please enjoy them. I prefer the water, the land and the air here in God’s country (or whatever deity you prefer, but in WI, it’s God with a capital G).


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