April 21, 2017

MUSA Earth Day 2017: Urbanization, Migration, and Climate Change: Lessons from a Spatial Perspective

past event


On April 21st, Penn IUR and MUSA held their annual Earth Day event to discuss the role of spatial analysis in understanding climate change related migration. The day’s speaker, Deborah Balk, Associate Director of the CUNY Institute for Demographic Research, examined how the integration of earth and social science data can address questions of urbanization, migration and population distribution with respect to climate change. By understanding the limits of current data collection and analysis methods, we can craft new solutions for mitigating and adapting to the effects of climate change.

Daniel Agbiboa, Postdoctoral Research Fellow at Perry World House, welcomed Balk and the audience, stressing the importance of spatial analytics in an increasingly globalized world. Building off the discussion at the day’s Perry World Houses’ Global Shifts Conference, Balk echoed the calls of Former Ambassador to the United Nations and Conference Keynote Samantha Power that the U.S. and countries around the world will need to look outside the federal government for leadership on climate change.

Estimating urbanization trends is difficult and there are still key gaps in our understanding of urbanization. First, researchers know that estimations of the current urban population are likely inaccurate, making it difficult to project future population. Additionally, the causes of growth and an understanding of where growth will occur are hard to predict because current projection data is a-spatial. These gaps, combined with an incomplete understanding of long-term climate change impacts, make it challenging to forecast what areas of a city and what populations are at risk of climate change threats. To address these gaps, a new approach to analyzing urbanization data needs to systematically combine demographic data and satellite or other spatial data.

Further little is understood about in-country migration. Migration data tends to be aggregated at the national level, making it difficult to understand where people are moving within a country and why. Migration can be a climate change adaptation strategy, so understanding current trends can be critical in crafting regional strategies for the future. Balk advocated for the use of new data collection and analysis traditions that are city-specific. New methods should use a time series approach that combines demographics, ecological data, and migration data to build a more complete picture.

Stressing why a better understanding of these trends is crucial, Balk argued that city growth matters for climate change and exposure and vulnerability to climate change effects will not be felt uniformly across cities. Post 2050 the greatest risks to cities will be climate change related. This new approach, if combined with water data for example, could enable cities to understand where there may be water shortage risks.

Balk concluded by noting that data and methods tradition cannot be transformed overnight, but by better understanding current trends and improving forecasts for the future, urbanization and migration can become opportunities as much as they are challenges for mitigating and adapting to climate change. The event concluded with wide-ranging questions from the audience on methods for tracking informal migration, whether a lack of job opportunities has been identified in certain reasons as a cause of migration, and economists’ understanding of the nexus of migration, urbanization, and climate change. 

This event is part of the Perry World House Global Shifts Conference on the same day. For more information, please visit Perry World House’s website.


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