MASSACHUSETTS IS ALREADY struggling to keep pace with emergency housing needs for migrants, many fleeing unsafe political conditions in other countries. A new report from the state’s climate chief warns that the Commonwealth also needs to prepare to receive climate migrants and refugees from inside and outside of the US as global weather conditions become more unstable.
The report, released Wednesday by Climate Chief Melissa Hoffer, recommends a slew of policy and infrastructural changes to address the climate crisis in Massachusetts. Many build on findings from the 2022 Massachusetts Statewide Climate Change Assessment and the ResilientMass State Hazard Mitigation and Climate Adaptation Plan.
These earlier assessments identify “climate-driven in-migration from other regions of the United States as well as migration from other areas of the world to the Northeast as an urgent concern with a major level of consequence,” Hoffer writes.
The Northeast is projected to receive significant migration from people fleeing areas impacted by severe heat waves, drought, storms, crop loss, water scarcity, and other impacts of climate change, the report states.
At the same time, the report notes, “the climate in Massachusetts and New England is already changing.” Coastal communities within the state are bracing for sea level rise and worsening storm conditions as the years go on. As some communities consider the prospect of managed retreat from their coastlines, experts warn that a lack of strong state regional planning could complicate internal migration from coastal municipalities.
The delicate inland ecosystem can face a domino effect prompted by migration patterns, the 2022 assessment notes. For instance, migration away from coastlines could require new inland development, which could impact the health and scale of state forests.
These climate-based migration pressures mean the state and its health and environmental agencies “should begin planning now—and partner with municipalities—to prepare to receive this migration,” Hoffer wrote. That means planning for costs to provide additional services and additional demands for housing related to migration, while anticipating that broader environmental changes can lead to physical and mental health declines and risk state assets like critical health care infrastructure.
Migration prompted by the climate, according to the 2022 assessment, is generally more abrupt than “routine” changes in migration due to factors like economic development or decline.
As with much discussion of migration to Massachusetts – which has come up in the context of education policies to support undocumented students as well as the current influx of out-of-state migrants – the new report notes that the Bay State may view the migration as a boost if it can plan for the growth.
“There are also economic development opportunities as this migration may help reverse trends in regional population decline,” Hoffer wrote.
But comprehensive planning for these population trends is non-negotiable, as large numbers of people suddenly displaced can overwhelm municipalities at the front line of unexpected migration, whether they are climate refugees or the current wave of migrants needing emergency shelter.
“Extreme weather events in other locations can cause immediate and crisis-level impacts on cities and towns in the Commonwealth as Holyoke experienced when families fleeing the devastating impacts of Hurricane Maria on Puerto Rico sought refuge there,” Hoffer writes. “Beginning the process of planning now will help communities to prepare and build the human capacity to respond with skill and compassion to these events, which will become more common in the coming decades.”