The Future of Climate Migration in Maine

Lighthouse on the Maine coast at sunsetBy Sarah Delmonte

On September 11, 2023, Vanessa Levesque gave a talk at the Mitchell Center as part of the Sustainability Talks series. “Vacationland or Climate Migrationland?” provided information about climate change as a potential driver of migration and what that might mean for Maine communities.

Levesque is an assistant professor at the University of Southern Maine and a Mitchell Center faculty fellow. Her work focuses on rural community resilience and decision-making around environmental, social and economic issues.

“Despite my good old French-Canadian last name,” Levesque said at the beginning of her talk, “I am not a Mainer. My paternal grandmother was from Thetford Mines, Quebec and my grandparents were part of an extended migration of French-Canadians to Connecticut.”

Levesque purposefully began with a story of her family to highlight how migration is hardly a new concept.

“People have been moving away from the places they love (or don’t) to new homes with hopes for a fresh start for as long as we’ve been on Earth,” she stated. “Further, these past migrations have often disadvantaged Indigenous, Black, and low-income people.”

The Climate Migration Phenomenon

Climate migration is defined as the movement of people related to the shift in environment due to climate change. Levesque introduced two different types of environmental changes that could result in climate migration: rapid onset and slow onset. Rapid onset changes often happen immediately and occur with little warning, such as following hurricanes, forest fires, and tornadoes.

“There tends to be a fairly direct link between rapid onset extreme weather events and the displacement of people, and these migrants tend to stay closer to the places they left behind,” said Levesque.

Slow onset environmental changes are more difficult to detect as primary reasons for migration. These may come in the form of droughts and sea level rise, which can occur over the span of many years.

Levesque also pointed out that migration occurs at different levels. While migration does occur internationally, migration also happens within state lines, regions, or towns.

“Currently, it is thought that most climate migrants are moving internally. Some suggest that is going to change as climate change intensifies, but we just don’t have the data yet to say if that’s the case.”


Levesque considered multiple reasons for migration, such as social and economic push and pull factors. Push factors are defined as motivations to leave a community whereas pull factors are characteristics of locations that motivate people to move there. These factors are split into three separate categories: economic, social, and environmental.

Economic factors include job opportunities and cost of living. Social factors could be conflicts, discrimination, or improvements in quality of life and closeness to families. Environmental factors relate to changes in the physical area that motivate migration such as natural disasters, sea level rise, and others.

Levesque explained that migration often occurs due to a combination of these factors rather than one primary reason. Additionally, people have different tolerance thresholds for environmental risks in the areas they live in, which may be tied to their social and economic situations.

“In sum, we know the basic drivers of human migration, but in terms of the impact of climate change, there is still a lot to understand about if and how different combinations of climate related factors contribute to movement decisions.”

The Data

In terms of the number of climate migrants globally, Levesque states that no definite statistic can be found.

The data that we have for the U.S. comes mostly in the form of migration models. Some models are created by collecting population density data and analyzing potential migration after the effects of natural disasters. However, there are fewer models that showcase migration due to slow onset changes and these models are also affected by economic and social factors. According to Levesque, significant research is needed to determine the number of migrants in the U.S. in which climate change is driving factor.

On the topic of climate migrants entering Maine, Levesque reported uncertainty in how many there are.

A Collaborative Convening

Levesque and others established the Northeast Safe and Thriving (NEST) project in response to the lack of information about climate migration. They held a convening in May 2023 that included 75 stakeholders from Maine and New Hampshire. Discussions focused on the movement of migrants within and around the two states and the effects it might have on local communities in the future. Following the conference, the NEST team developed a stakeholder network that will contribute to future research and funding on climate migration.

“It will be imperative to work with communities to identify the most important data gaps and maintain networks like the NEST project so that these data gaps can be funneled to the organizations and researchers that can help address them.”

For the Future

According to Levesque, relationships and collaboration between regions and state governments are crucial for communities responding to climate migration.

“People have already started moving away from areas in the U.S. that are highly impacted by climate change and some of them have likely moved to Maine. How many, and the degree to which this will continue is unknown. What Maine towns and cities do today will influence the degree to which they pull in new climate migrants in the coming decades.”


Sarah Delmonte is a Communications Intern with the Mitchell Center. Sarah is a senior undergraduate student majoring in English with a minor in Journalism.