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The US National League of Cities Calls for Community Leaders to Prepare for Climate Migration

A report by the National League of Cities (NLC) and Buy-In Community Planning in the United States presses forward a local agenda for climate migration, illuminating the key role of cities in mitigating the likelihood and effects of displacement under climate change – and the opportunities this presents.

In this blog post, we discuss the main findings of the report, including the main factors contributing to climate migration risk in the US; a typology of city-climate migration interactions; and the key emerging recommendations for local leaders from the perspective of the CDPI. This blog is part 1 of a 2-part series on the report.


Blog Summary:

  • Looking to ‘demystify’ climate migration for local governments, the authors propose a framework of three types of city-climate migration interactions in the form of vulnerable cities, recipient cities, and destination cities, and outline how these will differentially feel the effects of climate migration and should prepare accordingly

  • Using case studies, the report outlines a set of recommendations for each ‘city-type’ focused on planning, funding, leadership, and governance

  • The findings and recommendations of the NLC report aligns with Climate Displacement Planning Initiative’s core principles and calls-to-action


The National League of Cities (NLC), an advocacy organization representing nearly 20,000 cities, towns and villages and 49 state municipal leagues, in conjunction with Buy-In Community Planning, released The Next American Migration: What Cities Should Know About Climate Change and Populations on the Move in April, 2022.

With a focus on internal displacement within the United States, the report reflects on how “America’s towns and cities are already experiencing both climate impacts and subsequent migrations… [but] might not have recognised them”. According to predictions by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), 15 million homes in the United States currently face flood threats, with the suggestion that by 2100 over 13 million Americans living on the coast could be displaced inland.

Climate Migration Risk Factors

This diagram shows the main climate migration risk factors outlined in the NLC report and discussed below. The decision to move, or not to move, is always multifaceted and it is difficult to pinpoint the role of any one factor - especially given the balance of each differs between individuals and contexts.

As the report highlights, the causes of climate migration are interlocking and are likely to interact with individual circumstances and decision-making. There is no one formula for a climate displacement event, and trying to identify what ‘counts’ as climate migration is a very slippery slope. However, the report does highlight 4 key factors that come together with individual decision-making which may increase the likelihood of displacement: geographical risk, socio-economic vulnerability, mitigation and (mal)adaptation through city planning and investment, and the national political context.

Regional climate risks influence the source and direction of climate migration. In the case of the US, the number of people living in high(er) risk areas for climate-change impacts is actually growing, as events like flooding and extreme heat spread and increase in severity, and as Americans decide to move to areas of the country that are most exposed to this risk. For example, from 1990 to 2010, there was a 41% increase in the number of new homes in the wildland-urban interface at risk of climate impacts such as wildfires.

Socio-economic vulnerabilities like low income and precarious housing mean that these climate impacts will affect residents in the region in different ways, as some individuals have the capital and capacity to adapt (for example, to temporarily evacuate and then rebuild their home) and others do not. This is also true for regional infrastructure and investment as cities with the political and economic capital to plan for climate events are more likely to diminish the effect of these on their populations. This kind of preparation could take the shape of implementing emergency plans or building resilient infrastructure and will be influenced by national agendas and financing availability.

National policies will play a role in shaping where people move to, who are displaced, and who are able/forced to remain in higher-risk areas. Policies such as federal insurance in the form of the National Flood Insurance Policy (NFIP) mean that, in states like Florida and New Jersey where coastal hazards are unavoidable, insurance rates may make homeownership prohibitive for lower- and middle-income residents, pushing them to relocate while wealthier residents continue to retrofit and inhabit their homes.

“Shot from the top of the Hotel Monteleone at Sunset in New Orleans, looking towards Bourbon Street in the French Quarters.” New Orleans is often cited as the location of America’s first ‘climate refugees’ following the destruction and displacement caused by Hurricane Katrina (Scott Webb on Unsplash)

The Cities’ Framework

The report puts forward a novel framework of three types of cities in terms of how they may interact with and be transformed by climate migration caused by these factors. These are: vulnerable cities, recipient cities, and destination cities. Cities are not fixed within one category and are likely to crosscut and shapeshift across these three types.

Vulnerable cities are characterized as high-hazard areas that also lack the financial resources to adapt to climate impacts and are therefore likely to see out-migration of residents in the near to mid-term future.

Recipient cities, located geographically close to these vulnerable cities but with additional in-built adaptive capacity, are likely to find themselves hosting large numbers of temporarily displaced regional or in-state residents. These, often small or mid-sized cities, will face their own stressors, not limited to climate-related or affordability concerns.

Destination cities will be refugees for climate migrants. These cities have in-built resilience to urban challenges, including offerings such as strong anchor institutions (e.g. universities, hospitals), high-quality amenities, a sizable and affordable housing stock, and urban greening programs. The authors of the report suggest that these cities may in fact be ‘legacy’ cities, such as Detroit, that have faced significant post-industrial decline. By reviving outdated infrastructure and housing stock, they hold as-yet untapped potential for rehoming and refuge. For example, Cincinnati, Ohio, has been investing in sustainability, climate resilience, and racial equity, and may prove to be a safe haven for future climate migrations.

Outlining this typology of cities is the critical intervention of the report. It acts as a starting point for city planners, elected leaders, and other stakeholders to consider where they fit into the climate-migration nexus and directs planners and policymakers to the kinds of planning interventions they may need to consider to prepare for displacement events.

"Across the country, we need to be realistic about what the consequences of the climate crisis look like in our communities.... [and] ensure that our cities are future-ready, equitable, and resilient places to live – now, and for many decades to come”

- Kelly Leilani Main, Report co-author and Co-founder and Executive Director of Buy-In Community Planning.

Recommendations for City Stakeholders

The report closes with a set of bespoke planning, funding, and leadership/governance recommendations for city leaders. Alongside these recommendations, the report emphasizes the opportunity to leverage the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) and Bipartisan Infrastructure Law (BIL) to carry out national infrastructure improvements to water and transportation systems, invest in key local assets and amenities, and protect affordable housing availability.

Where does the Climate Displacement Planning Initiative (CDPI) come in?

The CDPI recognises that climate displacement and migration in North America is likely to be an issue of internal displacement and to involve a wide-ranging set of causes and effects, calling for "residents, community leaders and other key community stakeholders to discuss the risks and subsequent adaptation responses" to climate migration. This report bolsters the work of the CDPI by highlighting the wider range of factors and stakeholders involved in climate migration beyond national policy and global immigration flows.

Building upon the report’s recommendations, the CDPI urges Canadian communities and cities to invest in:

  1. Climate action planning and decarbonization as a necessary preventative measure against climate disasters

  2. Resilience planning and risk management, including research to evaluate drivers of risk (hazards, exposure, and social vulnerability), as well as the capacity for adaptation and potential technologies for infrastructure, cultural assets and city services

  3. Poverty alleviation to address social vulnerabilities of less mobile, privileged populations

  4. Policies and funding mechanisms that enable safe, voluntary migration and relocation or support those who prefer to stay rather than relocate

  5. Sound data collection practices to better inform decisions on human migration and resilience interventions

Written by Halina Rachelson and Tiger Hills, with editorial support from Anna Marandi and George Benson.

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