Climate Migration: A Potential Opportunity or Threat

The global climate is changing.  To see this reality, we need look no further than the fires raging in Australia or the fall 2019 fires that burned in California and Alaska, the 2019 extreme flooding on the Missouri and Mississippi Rivers [1] (and in numerous inland communities), the Tropical Storms and Hurricanes that are increasing in intensity and frequency along our coast lines, or the increases in temperature which are occurring nationwide. These changes in weather and long-term climate are having devastating impacts on our economy, our social systems, our health and wellbeing, and our environment. 

The reality of climate change and its associated impacts is leading many communities to embrace climate action, which includes mitigating (reducing carbon pollution) and adapting (preparing for climate impacts). Traditionally, the first step in local climate action involves the completion of a greenhouse gas emissions inventory to understand the main sources of emissions in a community, as well as the completion of a climate risk and vulnerability assessment, which helps identify areas and people most vulnerable to the impacts associated with a changing climate.

In the City of Ann Arbor, climate planning and action has been underway for over 15 years. Historically, this work has focused on reducing greenhouse gas emissions, with efforts to prepare for changes in local temperature and precipitation becoming more prominent in the last several years. More recently, the City began exploring how the indirect effects of climate change may impact the City, including things such as disruptions in supply chains and climate-related migration. This analysis shed light on the very real possibility of a significant influx of climate-related migrants into the region. And it’s not surprising to see why.

Ann Arbor is a great community with an exceptionally high quality of life. With the University of Michigan, a vibrant business community, local commitments to sustainability, affordable housing, and walkability, exceptional cultural opportunities, an abundance of parks and open space, exceptional healthcare, and high quality public education, Ann Arbor is a highly desirable place to live. Moreover, being nested in the Great Lakes region means that the City is surrounded by the world’s largest source of freshwater: the Great Lakes. Plus, the climate impacts already being experienced in Ann Arbor (and those projected to take place) are not as extreme as those being experienced in other parts of the country: the City isn’t directly impacted by sea level rise, wildfires, crippling extreme heat, vast droughts, or hurricanes. While the region is experiencing increases in temperature and pretty notable increases in precipitation, these impacts are less acute than those being experienced in other parts of the country.

Effectively, the City’s high quality of life combined with our access to freshwater and relatively moderate climate-related impacts makes us a potential receiving community for climate-related migrants. There is a catch, however. The City’s current infrastructure – social and physical – is not prepared for a significant influx of individuals. But it could be.

That’s why the City applied for a grant through the National League of Cities (NLC) to explore what climate-related migration could look like in the Ann Arbor area and to create a methodology that others can use to integrate climate change and climate-related migration into population and demographic modeling.

More specifically, the NLC Resilience Grant allowed the City to start working with Dr. Matt Hauer from Florida State University. Dr. Hauer is a demographer that studies how sea level rise could reshape the distribution of the U.S. population. His analysis to-date has found that, through the influence of just sea level rise and associated flooding, by the end of the century, there could be as many as 45 million people living in neighborhoods that flood at least once per year; and that’s with just 3 feet of sea level rise. Climate scientists are now rallying behind projections closer to 6-6.5 feet of sea level rise by the end of the century!

Since Dr. Hauer’s first analysis looked at the end of century sea level rise projections of 3 feet, let’s stick with that for a minute. Using 3 feet of sea level rise and IRS migration information, Dr. Hauer then projected where individuals experiencing sea level rise and associated flooding might move. Not surprisingly, nearly all will be moving further inland, ideally to places where they have kin networks or previous associations. But some are likely coming to Michigan. In fact, his analysis found that at least 50,000 of them are projected to head to southeastern Michigan. 

And remember, this is just projected population shifts from a modest amount of sea level rise in the U.S. It doesn’t take into consideration population changes from those fleeing from drought, wildlife, extreme heat, inland flooding, hurricanes, disease, or other climate-related impacts, nor does it take into consideration international migration or more likely sea level rise projections. These projections also don’t reflect potential population momentum associated with other processes that explain why people move.

Our work to-date with Dr. Hauer has been extremely enlightening. Yet we still have a long way to go. We are just at the beginning of understanding what climate-related migration might mean for our City and region. We are, however, committed to working directly with Dr. Hauer to create a methodology that allows our region, and all others in the U.S., to understand what climate change might mean for regional demographic shifts. And we are committed to integrating climate-based migration into the planning and program design the City is currently undertaking.

“Integrating climate-related demographic shifts into our work is essential – because if we don’t, we risk having communities that are prepared for the past but not the future.”

We realize that climate change is not a distant problem. It is here and it is already causing significant impacts in communities across the world. It is imperative that we continue doing everything we can to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and try to avoid as much future change as possible. It is also imperative that we immediately begin preparing our communities for the existing impacts of climate as well as those that are inevitable. Integrating climate-related demographic shifts into this work is essential – because if we don’t, we risk having communities that are prepared for the past but not the future. That is why Ann Arbor is committed to not only understanding what climate change could mean for regional demographic shifts, but to preparing for those changes to ensure we are a welcoming community for all.


1. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s 2010-2019: A landmark decade of U.S. billion-dollar weather and climate disasters.