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Analyzing climate migration with the Mitchell Center

On Sept. 11, Vanessa Levesque, assistant professor in the department of environmental science at the University of Southern Maine, hosted a talk titled “Vacationland or Climate Migrationland?” The talk covered the concept of climate migration, the implications of climate migration in Maine and how we as a society can prepare for climate migration. 

Levesque got her Ph.D. at the University of Maine in ecology and environmental sciences. She is a social scientist interested in community and economic development as well as environmental protection. Levesque also focuses on strengthening the resilience of rural communities in the face of the pandemic, climate change and several other challenges. 

“Migration is not a new phenomenon. People have been moving away from the place they love, or don’t, to new homes with hopes for a fresh start for as long as we’ve been on earth. Further, these migrations have often disadvantaged Indigenous, Black and low income people,” Levesque said. 

According to Levesque, migration in the past has mostly been due to economic, social and environmental factors. Levesque believes that climate change will soon become a large driving force in migration and that Maine will soon see the effects. Levesque bases her conclusion largely on the fact that during the pandemic an estimated 34,200 people migrated to Maine from July 2020 to July 2022 (U.S. Census).   

There is currently no legal basis for the definition of a climate migrant or climate refugee, according to Levesque. This makes it very difficult to figure out the numbers for current or predicted future climate migrants.  

“Rather than attempt to identify who is or is not a climate migrant or how many exactly there are, researchers might instead focus on policy and humanitarian responses for both those who move due to climate stressors and those who can’t,” Levesque said. 

The locations that climate migrants go to after leaving their home are referred to as “receiving communities.” According to Levesque, there has been very minimal research on the impacts of climate migrants on these “receiving communities” in terms of their infrastructure, social cohesion and economic well-being. Levesque believes those migrating to Maine will do so ad hoc rather than planned and spread out over time. 

Furthermore, Levesque points out that how a receiving community fairs is also determined by their pre-existing socioeconomic situation, their own climate change impacts, and the migration-related policies they create. Receiving communities can also potentially benefit from the economic, social and cultural contributions that new residents bring. Levesque says that rural Maine communities that experience “brain drain” from young people leaving will benefit from the arrival of migrants as they can offer the community a chance to jumpstart revitalization of the area. 

While there are potential benefits from climate migrants moving to Maine, it is also noted that the affordable housing issues that are already impacting many communities in Maine could worsen with an influx of new residents. 

“By proactively planning, they [Maine communities] can take actions now rather than reacting to what happens.” Levesque says.

Levesque hopes that communities will decide how they want to position themselves now to prepare for climate migrants. She notes that different types of communities, whether rural or those closer to the coast, will have different experiences with climate change themselves. A coastal town might also be affected by climate change and therefore less people will migrate there. Levesque also notes that inclusive engagement and including current residents in the discussion and preparation for climate migrants will also be important in creating a good receiving community. 

The Senator George J. Mitchell Center for Sustainability Solutions holds weekly meetings every Tuesday at 3 p.m. on various climate change and sustainability topics. The talks are hosted in 107 Norman Smith Hall or online via Zoom. These talks can also be found on the Mitchell Center for Sustainability Solutions YouTube channel.

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