Climate Change and Pollution Affect How Communities Plan, Adapt, and Mitigate Risk

Environmental forces like wildfire, extreme heat, and pollution can have profound effects on our health, jobs, and decisions on where to live.

Wildfire. Drought. Lead Exposure. Oil spill.

Environmental events and changes can have profound effects on our health and jobs and help shape our decisions on where we live.

A new, special issue of the journal, Population and Environment, explores the ways that environmental forces shape people’s lives and behaviors, and identifies policy approaches community leaders can use to plan, adapt, and mitigate risks in specific settings worldwide.

The featured studies draw on the expanding availability of environmental data, which reflects growing interest in the human implications of climate change and the increasing frequency of extreme weather events, report Katherine Curtis, Marcy Carlson, and Malia Jones of the University of Wisconsin-Madison, editors of this special issue.

Much of the research in this journal issue grapples with the impact of dynamic forces in the natural environment on child health and migration:

  • U.S. children exposed to air pollution and household lead face a higher risk of incarceration and lower incomes in adulthood.1 The study also linked high levels of air pollution—disproportionately found in Black and Latino neighborhoods—to a greater likelihood of teen childbearing. White children were much less likely to be exposed to either air pollution or household lead, suggesting that efforts to clean up neighborhood toxins could increase social mobility and decrease inequality. Policy Summary.
  • Children whose families lost income or jobs related to the BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill were more likely to have persistent health problems.2 Children affected by the oil spill had poorer health compared with their peers, whether they had physical contact with toxins or their household lost jobs or income because of the disaster. While the effects of physical exposure to the oil spill dissipated over time, the effects of related job or income loss persisted. These findings underscore the need for policies and programming that better support the long-term health of children who have experienced a disaster. Policy Summary.
  • Climate change-related declines in water availability impact child health and growth in West Africa’s Sahel region.3 Child health and growth suffer in Burkina Faso, Mali, and Senegal when the quality and quantity of surface water (waterholes) declines, analysis shows. These countries are already experiencing chronic food insecurity and childhood malnutrition, and their rapidly growing populations are dependent on livestock and crops in a region predicted to experience hotter and drier conditions. Research results highlight the potential importance of monitoring waterholes and ensuring clean drinking water is available locally for the health of people—especially children—and livestock. Policy Summary.
  • Better rainfall linked to more time farming and less time breastfeeding among Ethiopian mothers.4 More favorable rainfall conditions for crop production may impact mothers’ time use, possibly reducing the time they have available to breastfeed their babies, the study finds. This information can help policymakers develop targeted interventions that reflect the dynamic needs of farming households, such as suppling technologies that make planting and harvesting more efficient. Policy Summary.
  • Climate change-induced extreme heat and wildfire dampen migration in U.S. regions high in natural amenities.5Rural counties with outdoor recreation and environmental features such as ample sunshine, dramatic topography, warm and dry climates, and forests are most affected by these migration shifts, researchers find. Policymakers and planners have relied on migration models that predict more people moving to U.S. counties rich in amenities, but climate change is likely to alter migration trends, impacting economic development. Policy Summary.
  • Repeated droughts in rural Thailand and Vietnam trap poorer households, reducing migration.6 Both household assets and consumption shrink in rural areas that have experienced two years of drought, analysis shows. Particularly among poorer households, this decrease creates an obstacle to those who would migrate for income-earning opportunities. As extreme weather events like drought become more frequent and severe, the need for safety nets and social protection programs, such as cash transfer and insurance programs, becomes crucial, especially when targeted to poorer households. Policy Summary.

Extreme Weather Hits Under-Resourced People Hardest; Research to Support Climate Adaptation Crucial

“Environmental shocks and stressors expose and often exacerbate existing inequalities, taking the greatest toll on the most disadvantaged people,” note Curtis, Carlson, and Jones. They point to the tsunami in Southeast Asia (2004) and Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans (2005) as examples.

The resources and infrastructure needed to plan and adapt to climate events are unevenly distributed around the globe, underscoring the importance of linking scholars with policymakers, they argue.

Recent technological advancements mean that the data and tools needed to identify ways to mitigate climate-related risks are available, notes Barbara Entwisle of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in a piece in the special issue.7 Demographers are poised to “contribute significantly to a larger and deeper understanding of environmental change and its consequences, locally, regionally, and globally,” she writes.

But as researchers work with data linked to specific geographic locations, they must strike a balance between privacy and accuracy so that confidentiality is not breached, Lori Hunter of the University of Colorado, Boulder and colleagues assert in another article in the journal.8 The authors compare unaltered data from surveys and vegetation information from rural South Africa with similar data generated by a series of geomasking techniques designed to reduce the likelihood that individual respondents can be identified. They find that geomasking approaches that use buffers and account for population density produce the most accurate results. But they also show that higher levels of accuracy increase the likelihood that potential respondents can be identified.

Yet the challenges of this research should not be an obstacle, argue Curtis, Carlson, and Jones. “Environmental change is happening. Environmental events are occurring,” they write. “These environmental forces have demonstrable consequences for human lives and livelihoods and, by extension, for the welfare” of the entire human family.

The special issue of Population and Environment is based on a conference supported by the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD) (Grant HD 096853).


  1. Robert Manduca and Robert J. Sampson, “Childhood Exposure to Polluted Neighborhood Environments and Intergenerational Income Mobility, Teenage Birth, and Incarceration in the USA,” Population and Environment 42, no. 4 (2021).
  2. Tim Slack et al., “Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill Exposure and Child Health: A Longitudinal Analysis,” Population and Environment 42, no. 4 (2021).
  3. Kathryn Grace and Frank Davenport, “Climate Variability and Health in Extremely Vulnerable Communities: Investigating Variations in Surface Water Conditions and Food Security in the West African Sahel,” Population and Environment 42, no. 4 (2021).
  4. Heather Randell, Kathryn Grace, and Maryia Bakhtsiyarava, “Climatic Conditions and Infant Care: Implications for Child Nutrition in Rural Ethiopia,” Population and Environment 42, no. 4 (2021).
  5. Richelle L. Winkler and Mark D. Rouleau “Amenities or Disamenities? Estimating the Impacts of Extreme Heat and Wildfire on Domestic US Migration,” Population and Environment 42, no. 4 (2021).
  6. Esteban J. Quiñones, Sabine Leibenehm, and Rasadhika Sharma, “Left Home High and Dry–Reduced Migration in Response to Repeated Droughts in Thailand and Vietnam,” Population and Environment 42, no. 4 (2021).
  7. Barbara Entwisle, “Population Responses to Environmental Change: Looking Back, Looking Forward,” Population and Environment 42, no. 4 (2021).
  8. Lori Hunter et al., “Working Toward Effective Anonymization for Surveillance Data: Innovation at South Africa’s Agincourt Health and Demographic Surveillance Site, Population and Environment 42, no. 4 (2021).