Climate change is likely to be one of the key challenges facing humankind over the coming century (or more). We are likely facing increases in mean temperature, desertification, rising sea levels, and increasing frequency and intensity of extreme weather. But how big is the impact likely to be on a country like New Zealand, anyway?
In a new working paper, I evaluate the impact of climate change on internal migration in New Zealand, and what that means for the future spatial distribution of population. That is, which regions are likely to gain population from climate change, and which will lose population? I make use of a gravity modelling framework (which I have written about before). Essentially, a gravity model suggests that the migration flow between two regions is positively related to the population of the origin and the population of the destination, and negatively related to the distance between the two places. I tried out a bunch of climate variables from NIWA to find those that appeared to have the biggest impact on internal migration, using data on inter-regional migration from the last four Censuses (1991-2013).
Three climate variables are found to have statistically significant associations with internal migration: (1) mean sea level pressure in the destination; (2) surface radiation in the origin; and (3) wind speed at ten metres at the destination. The sign of the effects suggest that migrants attracted to areas with more settled weather (higher mean sea level pressure); migrants are less likely to move away from areas with more sunlight hours (but interestingly, don't move towards those areas); and migrants prefer to avoid moving to areas that are windier.
I then embedded the gravity model within a cohort-component population projection model, which is something that Jacques Poot and I have been working on for a number of years. I used the projections model to evaluate the effect of different climate change scenarios on regional populations out to a horizon of 2100.
Including the three climate variables in the population projection model makes a small difference to the regional population distribution. The inclusion of climate variables increases the projected populations of Northland, Bay of Plenty, Gisborne, Hawke’s Bay, Taranaki, and Nelson. The overall impact is quite small, as you can see from the diagram below for Northland. The orange line tracks the projected population of Northland excluding any impact of climate, while the grey line includes the impact of climate. Bear in mind that Northland shows the biggest effects in relative terms - the effects on other regions are smaller.
I also looked at the effect of different climate change scenarios, and the difference between different climate scenarios is negligible. The diagram below shows the projections under different climate scenarios for the Southland region. As you can see, there is little difference between them (and that result is similar for other regions as well).
Overall, the results suggest that, while statistically significant, climate change will have a negligible effect on the population distribution of New Zealand at the regional level. This is not to say that climate change will not have important and substantial effects at very localised levels, as a result of sea level rise, for instance. However, most if not all of the displacement of people will be within regions. For example, maybe those displaced by sea level rise simply move a little further inland, or we build walls to keep the sea at bay.
Read the full working paper here.