Phil Hauck, Envision Board Member

Imagine Brown County more than doubling its population within the next 20 years. Is that likely? If so, what trends might cause such an influx of new residents to Northeast Wisconsin?

How about a need for fresh water? Or ongoing climate changes that reduce fresh water supplies in other parts of the country, pushing residents to the Great Lakes region to survive? Based on recent experience, that’s not so far-fetched. Furthermore, based on an extensive study of weather and climate disaster patterns across the U.S., including consideration of their long-range trending, two local thought leaders believe such a population shift is far from fanciful.

Local futurist Oliver Buechse and environmentalist Paul Linzmeyer, co-founders of a nonprofit called “Futures of Choice,” recently shared with the Envision board their view of Brown and surrounding counties just a decade or two from now. Their research corroborates the very things we see on the daily news: increasing number and intensity of hurricanes, floods, mega-droughts, prolonged fires and more, in some cases driving up the cost of living in already-expensive cities.

Indeed, in the Southwest, the lack of water supplied by the Colorado River basin is rapidly undercutting the ability to provide water not only to millions moving there, but to long-time residents who have always called the area home. Gradually, people in these affected areas will become “refugees” to parts of our nation where such climate tragedies are less frequent and less intense.

That means US! (Yes, we have snowstorms, but both our cold temperatures and severe storms are manageable.) It’s been posited for years that the freshwater resource of the Great Lakes will ultimately be a godsend for our nation; now that scenario is becoming part and parcel of the long-term projections of futurists and planners. Buechse and Linzmeyer have conducted extensive research into weather patterns, not only of the U.S. in general, but of Wisconsin in particular and, very specifically, Northeast Wisconsin. Their research supports a number of conclusions that strongly suggest we will see an influx of these climate refugees over the next few decades. Unplanned for, it might cause massive disruption to our infrastructure and our expected level of living comfort.

So, what if we plan for it? The key, according to Buechse and Linzmeyer, is for municipalities, counties – the entire region – to begin now talking together about this trend and how to deal with it. What do we want a metro area to include 25 years from now? How much wilderness do we want to protect with land trusts, and where? How much current agricultural land will be needed to produce food – and how might we make the best use of surplus land? How will we provide affordable housing so workers can live near their work? And what types of work do we want to be doing in Northeast Wisconsin in 2040?

The questions go on and on, each question begetting others. And they’re important questions to ask and consider. The discussions need to start with the shortages and tradeoffs that are very likely to become a reality for our region if we don’t plan ahead for climate refugees. How might we reconcile all the variables so that plans and zoning can be put in place in advance? Or do we leave it up to developers to drive the directions, possibly allowing cost and profit to supersede fundamental human needs? Imagine the kind of conversations we need to have now to ready our part of the Great Lakes region for our grandchildren in the prime of their lives.

Can we afford to close our eyes and assume nothing will change? Buechse and Linzmeyer share the passion for strategic foresight that is fundamental to our organization, Envision Greater Green Bay. Watch for collaboration and rich conversations between the two of us in the future. And please consider joining in these critical discussions.