Preparing the Great Lakes for Climate Migration

Two ASAP Projects Lay the Foundation for Socially Just and Environmentally Responsible Growth 

By Susan S. Ekoh, Adaptation Fellow, American Society of Adaptation Professionals

Over the past two years, ASAP facilitated two projects to advance climate migration practice and research, focused on the Great Lakes Region. One project brought together climatologists, demographers, and housing researchers to accelerate the development of methodologies to assess, predict, and prepare for climate migration. The second project convened conversations with businesses, natural systems managers, local and state government staff, and community & environmental justice organizations to talk about opportunities, challenges, and needs related to climate migration in the Great Lakes. Through these projects, ASAP and our collaborators sought to 1) establish the foundation for socially just and environmentally responsible growth in climate receiving regions and 2) ensure that as the science of climate-informed demography emerges, the methodologies, outputs, and applications become owned and controlled by affected communities.

What is Climate Migration?

With all the buzz about climate migration both inside and outside the adaptation community, let’s take a minute to define what climate migration actually means. Climate migration involves the movement of people in response to experienced or anticipated threats of climate change. Individuals, households, and communities may choose to migrate in response to climate-related effects such as extreme weather events, wildfires, sea-level rise, drought conditions, and others. The recent IPCC report on impacts, adaptation, and vulnerability highlights the choice to migrate voluntarily as an adaptation measure. However, migration may also be involuntary when people are forcefully displaced from their homes after a climate-related event.

How may Climate Migration Affect the Great Lakes Region?

In the United States, extreme weather events, wildfires, and other climate-related events could result in the displacement of millions of US residents. At the same time, the Great Lakes region is recognized as a possible climate migrant-receiving region, due to its relatively milder climate and cooler temperatures, when compared to other parts of the country that are projected to experience extreme climate impacts. Other factors that make the Great Lakes region attractive include – access to fresh water and infrastructure capacity to accommodate an increased population. Given this likelihood, some cities have expressed hope of becoming “climate refuge cities” by attracting climate migrants.

ASAP Climate Migration Projects Support Climate Migration Research and Practice Across the Network.

ASAP’s Climate Migration Methodology Accelerator brought together climatologists, demographers, and housing researchers to accelerate the development of methodologies to assess, predict, and prepare for climate migration. Through the Accelerator, supported by New York State Energy Research and Development Authority (NYSERDA), ASAP hosted monthly learning labs to support selected multidisciplinary teams and other applied researchers, including ASAP members from across North America. These learning labs offered an opportunity for teams to share results and seek feedback across teams and from other participants on the calls. 

Concurrently, ASAP led focus group conversations with stakeholders in the Great Lakes region, with support from the Great Lakes Integrated Sciences and Assessments (GLISA). Intermediary organizations, many of whom are ASAP members, helped us identify participants. Adaptation professionals within and outside the ASAP network have been exposed to the new knowledge and enhanced understanding on climate migration these projects created by participating in outreach opportunities such as the December 2021 Preparing Receiving Communities workshop and media engagement in outlets across the U.S.

ASAP’s Projects Illuminate Push and Pull Factors, Needs, and Challenges of Climate Migration

The Climate Migration Methodology Accelerator and the Climate Migration Stakeholder Conversations projects highlight: 1) the push and pull factors of climate migration and 2) the challenges and needs for climate migration to the Great Lakes region. One Accelerator team – Matt Hauer, BJ Baule & Kim Channell – demonstrated that extreme cold temperatures in the Great Lakes could result in more people staying than migrating out of the Great Lakes. Another team – Ross Plattel and Isaac Gendler – drew from trends in migration due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and examined the readiness of a few cities in New York state to receive climate migrants. Ross and Isaac assessed walkability and transit scores, climate risk factors and haven factors. Based on this analysis, the authors demonstrated that communities with “relatively low climate risks and relatively high local amenities” attracted COVID-related movement in New York State. Hence, they suggest that areas where “local social capital” is improved are likely to attract incoming climate migrants.

Conversely, Kelly Main and Osamu Kumasaka explored staying in-place from the perspective of strandedness. Specifically, in the case of buy-out programs, homeowners are likely to move when affordable housing in less vulnerable areas are available. For households experiencing vulnerabilities tied to income, disability, age, lack of availability of safe and affordable housing may cause them to be stranded in place. Affordable housing is a crucial consideration for climate migration planning. 

Focus group conversations also highlighted the need for affordable housing. Donna Givens, CEO, Detroit Eastside Community Networks, stated that: “housing costs in Detroit have skyrocketed. Especially rentals – we’re not building affordable rental housing for families, so where will they go? There’s a lot of homeless people in the street. If you’re a “destination place” it’s not good for poor people.” This statement reflects the potential challenges of climate migration for communities in the Great Lakes region without adequate planning. 

The focus groups also uncovered several additional issues that adaptation professionals interested in climate migration should consider. For example: the quality and capacity of infrastructure needed to accommodate migrants, the need to facilitate smooth social integration of migrants within welcoming communities, recognize and avoid structural inequalities being perpetuated through population growth in vulnerable communities, and to curb impacts on the natural environment and Great Lakes’ resources.  Furthermore, the focus group conversation that took place with natural systems managers raised a key point on how rural communities may be impacted by climate in-migration. Fred, a natural systems manager shared, 

“It probably will magnify inequities in rural communities where people who grew up and lived there are priced out of the area – this is a trend that is already common in many parts of the country. Big potential for winners and losers and will be troublesome without good policy to try and mitigate that”. 

At the same time, climate migration can yield potential benefits with adequate planning. Some benefits which were highlighted in the focus group conversations include opportunities for investment in infrastructure from population growth for a region that has experienced a population decline and its associated effects and labor opportunities that could contribute to the economic growth of the region.  

What’s Next for ASAP’s Climate Migration Work?

The focus group conversations showed that there is not enough cross-sector conversation and planning on climate migration happening in North America today. Additionally, stakeholders are interested in knowledge sharing opportunities across the board, and opportunities for engagement with affected communities. Further, we have heard from many ASAP members that they need assistance to ensure they’re supporting communities’ needs and choices with respect to climate migration and making sure their climate adaptation practice includes appropriate and beneficial use of migration as an adaptation strategy. To respond, ASAP plans to 1) develop training and resources for practitioners across sectors and, 2) convene and facilitate dialogue between researchers, practitioners, and affected individuals. If you are interested in collaborating with us on our next set of climate migration projects, we’d love to hear from you! Email ASAP Deputy Director Rachel Jacobson. In the meantime, check out all project resources here and continue the climate migration conversation with ASAP’s Climate Migration and Managed Retreat Group!