Lesson Plans

Why People Move: How Data Predicts the Great Climate Migration

ALTA VERAPAZ, GUATEMALA. Carlos Tiul, an Indigenous farmer whose maize crop has failed, with his children. Image by Meridith Kohut. Guatemala, 2020.

ALTA VERAPAZ, GUATEMALA. Carlos Tiul, an Indigenous farmer whose maize crop has failed, with his children. Image by Meridith Kohut. Guatemala, 2020.


Students will be able to...

  • Understand how data analysis can be a tool for journalists to report under-reported stories
  • Analyze the relationship between climate change and migration
  • Evaluate the reporting’s prediction that climate change will cause unprecedented levels of human migration


1. Look at the photographs in this document. After examining them, write down your best guesses: What do you think the article that they accompany is about?

2. The article is in part about migration, and the people depicted in the photos are migrants. What have you heard on the news about migrants? Where do migrants featured in the news often come from, and what makes them leave their home countries?

3. The other photos you viewed are of crops that failed as a result of changing weather patterns caused by climate change. What are other effects of climate change that you have heard about? Make a list.

4. The article investigates the relationship between climate change and migration.

  • Based on the images that you saw, what might the relationship between climate change and migration be?
  • In the article, you will read about how researchers believe that climate change will cause unprecedented levels of international migration. Why could this be? Make a list of possibilities.

5. For this story, The New York Times Magazine and ProPublica, with the support of the Pulitzer Center, predicted how many people will leave their homes as a result of climate change and its effects. Before you read about how they did it, make a prediction yourself: 

  • How did they do it?
  • What tools did they use?
  • What is difficult about trying to make that kind of prediction?

Introducing the Lesson:

In this lesson, we will read, analyze, and discuss several sections of a New York Times Magazine article written by Abrahm Lustgarten with support from the Pulitzer Center. Titled “The Great Climate Migration,” the reporting is an extensive data-driven investigation into the effects, both documented and predicted, of climate change on international migration patterns. 

From Guatemala to the Sahel to the Mekong Delta to the Indian subcontinent, this reporting models different scenarios accounting for how the governments of the world may react to unprecedented international displacement. In each scenario, it becomes clear that the world is likely to face a “vast remapping of the world’s populations.” In exploring this reporting, students will evaluate the value of data modelling in journalism and analyze the effects that different policies will have on the great climate migration.

Some useful vocabulary for this lesson:

  • Semiarid
  • Precision  
  • Destabilizing
  • Backlash
  • Unabated
  • Notorious
  • Gravity model 
  • Hyperlocal 
  • Exacerbate
  • Stepwise migration

Comprehension Questions:

Individually, read the excerpts of the article that follow. After each one, answer the associated questions and then compare your answers with the rest of the class before moving on.

Read Part 1 here. Then, respond to the following questions:

  1. What is the weather pattern causing crops to fail in Alta Verapaz (El Niño)? 
  2. What effects will this weather pattern have on the people who live in the region?
  3. What are the main factors compelling Guatemalans in Alta Verapaz to flee?
  4. Lustgarten writes that “hundreds of millions of people from Central America to Sudan to the Mekong Delta will be forced to choose between flight or death.” What do those three places have in common? If you’re not sure, look them up on a globe.

Read Part 2 here. Then, respond to the following questions:

  1. According to the article, what are the implications of global warming in terms of the “narrow range of temperatures” in which humans have thrived?
  2. What are examples of benefits migrants bring to the places they go?
  3. What led The New York Times Magazine, ProPublica, and the Pulitzer Center to “model, for the first time, how people will move across borders”?
  4. What does the model predict?
  5. In what ways is the model sensitive to political decisions made about climate change and migration policies? Provide an example.
  6. What does Lustgarten say is “potentially valuable to policymakers” about the model?

Read Part 3 here. Then, respond to the following questions:

  1. Why is the statistical relationship between census data and crop yields and historical weather patterns useful for predicting climate-related migration?
  2. What did Oppenheimer and Kreuger find in their 2010 study of Mexican migration?
  3. What reservations did their critics have over their methods and results?
  4. What negative effects of climate change have people in the Sahel and in South Asia already experienced?
  5. According to the article, why was it more useful to model migration across a population on average, rather than focusing on individuals?
  6. The model incorporates five different scenarios. What is an example of a factor informing the different scenarios?

Read Part 4 here. Then, respond to the following questions:

  1. Why did Cortez leave her home in El Paste?
  2. What is the relationship between climate change and urbanization? Think of Cortez’s story.
  3. How can urbanization cause “severe strains on society”?
  4. According to the model, what would be the effect of countries like the United States “investing in climate mitigation efforts at home but also hardening their borders" on situations further south in Central America?

Discussion Questions:

Discuss the following questions with the rest of the class, or write down your answers on a separate sheet of paper:

1. Critics of Oppenheimer and Kreuger’s work argue that “scientists shouldn’t traffic in predictions.” Do you agree or disagree? Explain your answer.

  • This reporting is an example of data journalism, or reporting that uses data to investigate issues. Specifically, this reporting uses data to make predictions about climate-related migration.  Think about your answer above. should journalists “traffic in predictions”? Why or why not?

2. Lustgarten states that “The United Nations and others warn that in the worst case, the governments of the nations most affected by climate change could topple as whole regions devolve into war.” How might this happen?

3. Early on, the reporting argues that “the coronavirus pandemic has offered a test run on whether humanity has the capacity to avert a predictable—and predicted—catastrophe.”

  • Do you agree with this characterization of the pandemic?
  • Do you, like the authors, think that the world’s experience with COVID-19  can inform how it will respond to the climate crisis? Explain your answer.

4. The people who are discussed in this reporting are legally considered migrants, not refugees. Do you think that people fleeing climate change should be considered refugees? Why or why not?

5. The report has shown that an unprecedented number of people are likely to flee north to countries in Europe or North America due to climate change. Given that those two areas contribute to 35% of global emissions alone, do you think that they have an obligation to accept people fleeing the effects of climate change? Explain your answer.

Extension Activities:

Option 1: Visualize the Reporting

Thus far, you’ve read most of the full-length article (found in its entirety here). The rest of it follows the trajectory that migrants forced to leave due to climate change may take from rural Central America through Mexico and into the United States and examines how different policies may impact the thousands of people projected to make that trip in the future. 

Read the final sections of the reporting and then visualize what you read either virtually using Google Tours or a physical map. Using the reporting, plot the migrants’ path towards the United States and write, in your own words, what obstacles and complications they will face given the immigration policies chosen by both the United States and Mexico.

Option 2: Explore further

In this reporting, we have seen how climate change can intersect with other issues like migration. Briefly, the reporting showed that climate change contributed to civil war and unemployment: “Drought helped push many Syrians into cities before the war, worsening tensions and leading to rising discontent; crop losses led to unemployment that stoked Arab Spring uprisings in Egypt and Libya.”

Now, explore how climate change can intersect with an array of issues as documented in other Pulitzer Center-supported reporting. Select one of the issues listed below, or an issue of your own choosing (more suggestions here), and read current reporting on how it intersects with climate and the environment. Then, write an essay or prepare a presentation for your classmates on how climate change intersects with the issue of your choice.

Option 3: Data journalism project

The model explored in this reporting is an important step toward understanding the relationship between climate change and migration, as well as how we can anticipate future climate-related migration patterns. In it, the authors focused largely on Central America, but mentioned similar effects possibly playing out in the Sahel, South Asia, and the Mekong Delta. 

Much more research can be done on this topic, so undertake a data journalism project of your own. Using Google Sheets, Microsoft Excel, or other statistical software like R or STATA, use simple statistical methods like linear regression or more advanced ones to analyze data related to climate change and migration or another topic of interest to you. For more information on how the authors created their model, find a detailed methodology explanation here.

To get you started, worldwide and country-specific data on economic, climate, and other indicators can be found at the following sources: 

Once you’ve conducted your analysis, present your findings in a research paper, presentation, or visualization project.


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