Adapting to Climate Change Through Migration

by Becky Strong

In 2006, Robert McLeman and Barry Smit from the Department of Geography at the University of Guelph wrote an article investigating migration as a possible adaptation to climate change, presenting conceptual models, and discussing the migration patterns of people from Eastern Oklahoma in the 1930s. Citing sociology, geography, and other social science sources. They examined theories of human migration behavior and analyzed concepts such as vulnerability, risk exposure, and adaptive capacity all theories developed within the climate change research community. While there is notable historical evidence linking human migration and climate change, it is not considered an automatic response and is influenced by many different factors. This notion can be traced back to Hippocrates and Aristotle who believed that humans determined the habitability of an area based on the characteristics of the natural environment and that they were shaped by these characteristics. One of the best examples of human migration in relation to climate change to be studied can be seen in the mass migration from an unfavorable climate for crops which led to severe economic recession in Oklahoma in the 1930s. There has also been research in Africa which shows families migrating during times of drought after other measures have failed. The initial model developed by McLeman and Smit shows how a community might respond to climate change, showing that if the community cannot find another way to adapt, they will migrate to a more favorable area. Households become vulnerable and turn to migration as a way to cope with the changed environment. While migration can be a useful solution, it is not the only option and not the automatic response of communities. Adaptation can occur in multiple other ways such as rationing food and selling personal possessions, but once these options are exhausted migration often seems like the best or only solution. However, people cannot simply migrate to wherever they please, so another model of migration in response to climate change was created, this time reflecting household capital. Depending on the circumstances of the household, migration might only be possible to certain areas, or not possible at all. This article shows how migration has been historically used as a way to adapt to climate change, and that it could be a proper solution to climate change in the future.


McLeman, R., Smit, B., 2006. Migration as an adaptation to climate change. Climatic Change 76, 31-53.



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