Winds of Change? Exploring Climate Change-Driven Migration and Related Impacts in the Pacific Northwest

Lara Whitely Binder and Jason R. Jurjevich
Portland State University
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In recent years, speculation by the media, bloggers, and the public about the potential for large numbers of “climate refugees” coming to the Pacific Northwest has led to a growing number of questions about the potential for climate change-driven migration to the Northwest and whether long-term planning decisions related to land use, transportation, utilities, and other public services need to account for higher population levels. Recognizing the need for expert-based guidance on the issue, Portland State University, the University of Washington Climate Impacts Group, and 15 other public agencies and communities in Washington and Oregon convened a first-of-its-kind symposium on June 24, 2016, to discuss whether the Pacific Northwest should be planning for more growth as a result of climate change, and if so, to outline the appropriate steps for producing population forecasts informed by climate change-driven migration. “The Winds of Change? Exploring Climate Change-driven Migration and Related Impacts in the Pacific Northwest” convened experts in climate science, population dynamics, and public sector management, as well as members of the media, the non-profit sector, and the public, for a day of presentations and discussion. The morning public plenary session provided an overview of what we currently know about migration trends, including the role of climate and age structure in influencing past and current migration patterns, and perspectives on how we might move forward on developing a better understanding of the intersection between climate change and population migration issues in the Northwest. The symposium’s afternoon work session built on the morning public plenary to discuss the specific information and research needed to help answer questions about the potential for climate change-driven migration to Washington and Oregon. Topics included whether there is a need to develop a “climate migration factor” for current demographic projections, how demographers and practitioners deal with or think about uncertainties embedded in current demographic projections, and priority research topics for improving the region’s understanding of climate change-driven migration and directions for future planning. Discussions at the symposium clearly indicated a desire and a need among public sector decision makers to better understand if and how climate change-driven migration may affect existing assumptions about population growth in the region. However, most participants felt it would be premature to make changes to current population forecasting models. Instead, demographers, researchers, and decision makers should work on identifying the additional data, information, methodologies, and modeling needed to systematically assess the question of climate change-driven migration. Together, these findings underscore the importance of expanding research and information around climate change-driven migration in the Northwest.