Student Series No. 1

In the spring of 2013, a graduate class was tasked with creating projects that addressed an issue within the scope of the governance of migration. Although purely hypothetical, this exercise stimulated discussion about the practical challenges that come when studying migration. One group proposed a study that would use a survey to examine the relationship between climate change and migration, which follows below:


Changes in the climate have had increasingly severe impacts on local subsistence populations in Central American countries. Between 1992 and 2011, the countries in the region were among the most affected by climate change (Harmeling and Eckstein, 2012), and experienced large scale outmigration to other countries in the region such as Mexico and the U.S. (Rosenblum and Brick, 2011). International migration is often, and almost certainly correctly, partially attributed to changes in local climate variations. But identifying climate change as a cause of migration has not been met with the requisite empirical evidence typified by other flows of migration, bringing this attribution into question. Indeed, climate-related factors remain difficult to separate from existing economic, social, and political factors (Black et al., 2011). Yet the environment and climate have had significant effects on migrants’ lives in recent decades, and will continue to do so in the future with an increasingly unpredictable global climate. In response to appeals for more robust empirical research (Bilsborrow and Henry, 2012), this project will to undertake a quantitative and qualitative research study in the Western Guatemalan province of Huehuetenango to determine how local respondents weigh factors of a changing climate and variations in climatic events against decisions to migrate, a survey will be administered and results compiled.

Project framework

The project is intended to establish an empirical linkage between climate change and migration in a local context in order to develop lessons for broader contexts. The project will administer a short survey to respondents in the province of Huehuetenango. The survey consists of three sets of questions; the first set of questions are adaptable to a variety of contexts; the second set are locally-tailored, and related to perceptions of climate variation and land use in the area; and the third set relate to local populations’ experiences with migration. The survey will be used to gauge the relationship between climate change and migration in a finite space

We will travel to Huehuetenango and administer the survey in collaboration with local organizations interested in the project over the course of 1 or 2 months. After completing the surveys, we will return to Canada and analyze the data in order to create reports based on our findings. These reports will be distributed to the various international donors of the project. The Guatemalan government and local community groups within Huehuetenango will also receive reports aimed at establishing their potential role in facilitating migration in the event of slow and fast onset climate change and in fostering greater opportunities for local people to be more informed on these issues. Further, we will communicate with the local organizations to inform communities of the results of the project. Multiple media platforms would be used for different purposes depending on the audience and a regularly updated blog will narrate the projects operation.

Project importance

As discussed, the many difficulties of attributing migration patterns directly to climate change preclude effective policy decisions regarding the best ways to address climate-related movement. This project is intended to empirically test a program at a small scale that can be scaled out to other contexts, and up to a global context. It would provide geographically discrete empirical data that would illustrate one group’s experience within the larger discourse. Further, there is a great deal of disparity in a region’s resilience to climate change; vulnerable populations often lack the resources to migrate, and receive no government support to do so. They lack the knowledge of likely climatic changes in order to make a decision on whether or not to adapt to, or migrate from, an affected area. This project will help to reduce some of this asymmetry. International organizations could better target programs, governments would have information about their service effectiveness and coverage and local populations would have a greater sense of where they fit.

Impact on wider discourse

If successful, this pilot project in Huehuetenango Department could be adapted to other areas around the globe, simply by altering some of the questions in the survey. The desired outcome is that collected data and stories illustrate how climate change affects migration more clearly. In Huehuetenango, that would mean identifying -or not – climate change as a significant factor. It would also mean gauging resident’s perceptions of climate change. At a larger scale, we expect this project to empirically confirm the dominant arguments in the climate change-related migration discourse. The grandiose goal of this project, far beyond any expected operational outcomes, is that our project be only the first in what would become a replicated occurrence across the globe. We hope that donors, governments and scholars see the value in our work. Further, we expect this project to change, adapt, expand and be improved upon as these and other organizations and individual recognize the value in the work.


Works Cited

  1. Bilsborrow, Richard E. and Sabine J.F. Henry. (2012). “The use of survey daqta to study migration-environment relationships in  developing countries: alternative approaches to data collection.” Populations and Environment, Vol. 34: 113-141.
  2. Black, Richard, W. Neil Adger, Nigel W. Arnell, Stefan Dercon, Andrew Geddes, David S.G. Thomas. (2011). “The effect of environmental change on human migration.” Global Environmental Change, Vol. 21S: S3-S11.
  3. Harmeling, Sven and David Eckstein. (2012). Global Climate Risks 2013: Who suffers most from extreme weather events? Weather-related loss events in 2011 and 1992 – 2011. Bonn: Germanwatch.
  4. Rosenblum, Marc R. and Kate Brick. (2011). US Immigration Policy and Mexican/Central American Migration Flows: Then and Now. Washington, DC: Migration Policy Institute.

* Written by Gabriel Williams & Will Grass, 2013


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