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The development of affordable housing stock and denser, walkable communities could help states like Maine prepare for migrants looking to move to more climate resilient areas.
Still, despite being at some risk of flooding, Maine’s northern position may initially provide more insulation from the effects of climate change than other places around the country and world, some of which are facing issues with their water supply or widespread fire and storm damage.
Those geographic advantages mean Maine could potentially see significant climate migration to the state as people come here to escape more severe environmental issues, experts say. Given that, advocates believe the state must begin properly preparing—with a particular focus on increasing the availability of dense and affordable housing close to service centers.
“We do know that we are really unprepared for a large amount of growth in the state,” said Kristina Egan, executive director of the Greater Portland Council of Governments.
Egan made those comments during a panel last month put together by Maine Climate Action Now and the Maine Immigrants’ Rights Coalition during which participants discussed the issue of climate migration, what needs to be done to prepare for that possibility and which groups will be most impacted by rising temperatures and increasingly extreme weather events.
Much is still unknown about the degree to which Maine may experience an in-migration due to climate change. While the Office of the State Economist has projected that Maine’s population will increase 2.6% from 2020 to 2030, that estimate does not explicitly take into consideration potential impacts such as changing environmental conditions that could lead to climate migration. In an email, a spokesperson for the Department of Administrative and Financial Services said as more studies about climate migration are done, the Office of the State Economist will “be able to do more research and analysis specific to Maine” about the issue.
But given the likelihood that the climate crisis will continue to escalate, researchers such as Vanessa Levesque, a professor at the University of Southern Maine who gave a presentation on climate migration last month, believe that preparation should get underway even as studies about the subject continue.
“The reason I say that is if we wait for perfect data, we’ll never move forward on things,” Levesque said.
During the panel, Egan noted that the COVID-19 pandemic—during which many people came to Maine—provides an example of the pitfalls of not being adequately prepared for in-migration. That population growth contributed to increased housing prices, an issue that has only continued to escalate, leading to some people having difficulty accessing short and long-term shelter.
If climate migration to Maine becomes significant, Egan said the housing crisis would likely only become more severe. As a result, she said the state must invest in creating more units and focus particularly on housing that is affordable to lower and middle income people. Egan noted that in order to keep up with demand while factoring in a small amount of projected growth, 24,000 new homes need to be built by 2030 in the greater Portland area alone.
“If we were to get a large amount of growth suddenly then we are really going to be caught quite flat-footed,” she said.
If we were to get a large amount of growth suddenly then we are really going to be caught quite flat-footed.
– Kristina Egan, Greater Portland Council of Governments
Along with housing, investments in public transportation and other climate preparedness infrastructure are crucial aspects of getting ready for potential migration to Maine, Egan said.
In addition, David Reidmiller, director of the Climate Center within the Gulf of Maine Research Institute, said the state needs to start preparing for other downstream impacts of climate migration. For example, ensuring that schools have the resources to handle a possible influx of students and crucial municipal services like garbage, sewer and emergency systems can continue to function properly are essential pieces to the puzzle, he said.
‘Smart Growth’ and Protecting Vulnerable Populations Is Key to Planning
During last month’s panel, other participants spoke about the need to prepare for climate migration. Crystal Cron, executive director of the Latino and Indigenous-led nonprofit Presente Maine, said ensuring the state has a plan specifically for immigrants coming from other places—whether because of climate change or other factors—is crucial.
Asylum-seekers and refugees have been arriving in Maine in greater numbers in recent years, increasing the state’s cultural and economic diversity but also exposing the seriousness of the housing crisis. That trend could continue partially as a result of climate change, as research has shown that people in developing countries are more vulnerable to the impacts of global temperature increases despite contributing the least to the creation of the problem.
In her comments, Cron emphasized that while developing housing is important, it must not come at the expense of land used by Indigenous or immigrant groups.
Matt Cannon, state conservation and energy director for the Sierra Club Maine, also said the state must engage in development in a careful and deliberate way.
“We need way more housing, including short-term emergency shelters for migrants and folks who are born here,” he said. “But I’d like to really focus on how we can prevent sprawl, protect our resources, ensure livable wages and a community that coexists.”
For Cannon, that means pursuing what he called smart growth, which would feature denser downtowns and more connected communities. He said making communities in Maine more walkable, bikeable and accessible via public transportation is the most climate-friendly way to adequately prepare for the possibility of people coming to the state in search of a livable environment.
Still, Levesque said it’s important to keep in mind that how Maine communities prepare for climate migration will change based on the region. With the risk of flooding, some areas on the coast may see people leaving for other parts of Maine that don’t face that danger to the same degree, she said, impacting how certain places do their planning.
At the state level, Judith East, co-chair of the community resilience working group of the Maine Climate Council, said officials are looking to continue studying what climate migration will look like and how to track it, as she noted that the exact reasons people move are often complex and multifaceted.
When it comes to planning, growing Maine’s affordable housing stock and focusing on building in the right places will be key aspects of preparing for changes to demographics and the environment whether or not the state sees significant climate migration, East said.
The Maine Climate Council is now beginning the process of revising its action plan, with an updated policy due to the legislature by December 2024, and East said the resilience working group will soon be meeting to develop its recommendations to submit to the Climate Council by June of next year.
She said the potential for climate migration to Maine will likely come up in those conversations, but not as the primary topic of the discussions.
“Climate migration is more of a context within which we’re operating than it is a direct focus of the working group,” she said.
Overall, Reidmiller said preparation for climate migration in Maine is very much in its nascent stage. Still, he said conversations among state leaders, municipal planners, nonprofit groups, and housing and climate experts are underway, citing a workshop earlier this year that brought together researchers and officials from Maine and New Hampshire to discuss the topic.
“That is the first step,” Reidmiller said of those types of conversations, “and the hope is we can make adequate progress before it becomes an urgent and imminent kind of issue. And I think that’s exactly what we’re trying to do.”