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Recent social science advances in understanding the consequences of climate change on human populations, increasingly points to significant temporal and spatial heterogeneity in exposure to climate-related events and variable economic, social, and demographic responses.  This variability presents challenges for assessing and anticipating climate-related population impacts. In an effort to overcome these challenges, we generate panel data for U.S. counties for every year between 1970-2018, including annual measures of population size, population change, population density, county and state identifiers, economic productivity, and exposure to hurricanes and tropical storms (including measures of economic loss). These data are part of a larger study that includes numerous measures of climate-related weather disasters and their impact on all U.S. counties.  We prospectively examine how variably damaging hurricanes impact population through estimating a difference-in-difference regression model.  Our initial results indicate that the experience of a first-time, top decile damaging hurricane does lead to declining subsequent population growth.  A second hurricane of similar magnitude has less of an impact than the first.  However, spatial heterogeneity also affects the population response.  Coastal counties are less responsive to extreme hurricane events than are inland counties.  Finally, our difference-in-difference approach also allows us to see which hurricanes contribute the most towards the average impacts of hurricanes on population change.   In that analyses, we observe quite variable impacts.  We conclude that drawing major conclusions about climate refugees is perhaps still premature and that more needs to be done to investigate the economic, geophysical, and cultural mechanisms that might accelerate or slow population change in response to climate-related extreme events.


Sara Curran is Professor of Sociology, International Studies, and Public Policy at the University of Washington.  She is the Director of the UW’s Center for Studies in Demography and Ecology and the Editor-in-Chief of Demography. She researches gender, migration, and environment in many contexts around the globe. Current projects include: 1) social change and migration dynamics, 2) climate change, natural disasters, and population change, 3) several projects related to applied research and training, and 4) global studies research.