Imagine this scenario. You are a farmer, and for five straight years, the sun hasn’t been kind to your crops. Farming is your only source of income, so what do you do?
At the mercy of the weather, you do what common sense dictates: leave for greener pastures. This is what we call climate migration.
What is Climate Migration? A full definition with examples
Climate migration is the process of temporarily or permanently leaving one’s home because of climate stressors, which include heavy flooding, sea-level rise, heat waves, or changing rainfall.
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These stressors put pressure on people to seek more ideal places within a state or across an international border, while consequently leaving their livelihoods behind.
Climate migration statistics do not lie. In 2017, over 68.5 million people migrated due to unfavorable climates.
In 2018, the World Bank estimated that over 143 million people will forcibly migrate by 2050 from Latin America, Southeast Asia, and Saharan Africa.
This brings to light a couple of important questions: Who is most affected by climate migration? What are the warning signs? Finally, what has spurred climate migration to happen, and is there anything we can do to curb it?
Most of the media attention on climate change human migration focuses on when it occurs across borders, but most migrants and climate refugees relocate within their own countries.
If you’re wondering how climate migration will reshape America, here’s everything you need to know.
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What causes climate migration?
There are two types of disasters that may cause climate migration: sudden-onset disasters and slow-onset disasters.
Sudden-onset disasters include sudden catastrophes including wildfires, hurricanes, and floods. These can force people to migrate. When sudden-onset disasters happen, people typically migrate to their own country often temporarily.
This happens more often than you’d expect. In 2019, for example, over 23.9 million of the 24.9 million who were displaced because of disasters did so because of weather events. As the climate crisis continues to worsen, we can only expect this number to go up.
Most vulnerable to sudden-onset displacement are regions that are prone to natural disasters, including Southeast, South, and East Asia, and Sub-Saharan Africa. Of the 5.1 million internally displaced persons at the end of 2019, 12 percent of those were from India.
Slow on-set disasters
Slow on-set disasters, on the other hand, are disasters that develop slowly and are not caused by a single, distinct event. Events like drought, sea-level rise and bad agricultural conditions are types of slow-onset disasters. A majority of these incidents cause cross-border movement that is permanent.
According to a World Bank Report that examined internal climate displacement, if the heat continues to rise, over 140 million people in South Asia, Sub-Sharan Africa, and Latin America could be displaced internally by 2050 due to slow-onset disasters related to climate change.
As of 2021, only 1% of the world is tolerable due to heat. This is projected to worsen in 2070 when extremely hot zones could make up nearly 20% of the land, causing about a third of humanity to live in undesirable conditions. Each rise in the degree of temperature will cause around one billion people to move away from the hospitable zone.
According to the United Nations, we are on course for a 3C hotter world. With projections pointing to an increase of 3.2C by 2100, the map of the world will be redrawn.
Even if global warming eventually slows down, a number of cities around the world will eventually be underwater once we reach a temperature rise of 3C.
This includes Osaka, Japan (5.2 million affected), Alexandria, Egypt (3 million people affected), Rio de Janeiro, Brazil (1.8 million affected), Shanghai, China (17.5 million people affected), and Miami, US (2.7 million affected).
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Who is most likely to be affected?
Experts have long wondered about climate change migration and displacement and who will be affected. Some countries are more vulnerable to migration due to extreme weather events than others.
Those with vulnerable geographies, low adaptive capacities, and fragile ecosystems are more likely to get displaced. It is often the poorest who do not have the financial capacity to leave their homes and livelihood.
Undeveloped regions are also more vulnerable. Those from rural areas with livelihoods that hinge on climate-sensitive sectors, such as fishing and agriculture, are also more likely to migrate during climate-related changes. Though less likely, people from urban areas also migrate as sea-level rise can affect coastal areas.
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The complexity of climate change migration
Climate migration is a complicated phenomenon. In a study called Climate Change Environmental Degradation and Migration, K.Warner stated that when people are faced with severe environmental degradation, they have three choices: stay and adapt, stay and accept a lower quality of life, or leave the affected area.
Their choice is influenced by a wide variety of factors, including socio-economic and political conditions.
When people leave their homes, it’s far more likely that a slew of factors, not just climate change or natural disasters, caused them to do so. A huge web of contributing factors such as lack of jobs, poverty, agricultural collapse, violence, and discrimination often play a part as well.
For example, although severe drought played an impact on the Syrian refugee crisis in 2011, it can’t all be attributed to why most were pushed to flee. There was also political unrest, which caused over 5 million Syrian refugees to migrate.
A person’s personal circumstances also play a part in convincing them to stay, leave temporarily, or leave for good. Poverty, for example, could leave a population without resources to leave.
A study conducted on internal displacement in Bangladesh discovered that flooding did not permanently displace people. This most likely occurs in freshwater flooding, which is beneficial for the soil. Once the flooding has subsided, the people who left will most likely return to take advantage of the newly fertile soil for more productive crops.
Flooding, however, also has permanent impacts on migration. The same Bangladesh study discovered that regions impacted by saltwater flooding have populations that migrated permanently, as ocean flooding causes damaging effects to the soil which can impact farming.
Heat and drought, however, are the two elements that have major impacts on international migration. A 2014 study on rural Pakistan found that heat stress, when compared to flooding, is more likely to convince people to leave their homes.
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The consequences of climate migration
More than 24 million people around the world were displaced by climate-related events in 2019. Those who are internally displaced face many of the same problems as those who choose to cross borders, including loss of education, work, housing, social life, healthcare, and security.
Environmental migrants leaving for other countries face the same challenges as other types of migrants. Those leaving Central America to stay in the U.S. travel dangerously as they cram into freight trains and face potential violence from immigration officials or the police.
Once in the U.S., migrants struggle to find a livelihood while encountering cultural and language barriers. Should they find a job, the jobs they do find are often low-paying and menial, regardless of their skillset.
As of 2019, the countries with the highest number of internally displaced people were India, Afghanistan, Ethiopia, the Philippines, and Sudan. Environmental migrants tend to end up in poor and developing countries where finding livelihood is a massive problem.
There is a depressing effect on the wages of unskilled workers in poor countries that receive large numbers of migrants.
Contrary to popular belief, advanced countries that accept migrants will not experience job losses or falling wages or cause a burden on the public purse. In most cases, migrants in advanced countries are willing to work and are likely to cause a proportionate expansion of output and investment while accelerating the economy’s long-term growth rate.
While environmental migrants affect their host countries in many ways, they are also dangerously at risk. The resulting economic difficulty, lack of protection, and absence of emotional support leave many environmental migrants to be desperate, defenseless, and at risk of being exploited.
As ‘stateless’ persons without any form of governmental protection, traditional justice systems cannot help them, leaving them without support, legal aid, representation, or defense.
The difference between a climate migrant and a climate refugee
The term ‘climate migrant’ is more often used than ‘climate refugee’ when referring to people who are displaced due to slow-onset or sudden-onset climate destruction. Environmental migrants are not refugees (more on this below), and they are not offered the protections accorded to the latter.
This has led many people to discuss the importance of creating a ‘climate refugees’ category as no legal status of this kind exists.
According to the 1951 Refugee Convention, refugee protection is only offered to “people outside their country of nationality or habitual residence and who have a well-founded fear of being persecuted because of their race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, and are unable or unwilling to seek protection from their home countries.”
This definition does not protect climate migrants – those who flee their homes due to natural disasters.
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Should environmental migrants be conferred refugee status?
Climate migrants are just as vulnerable as refugees fleeing from political violence or persecution, so why aren’t they included under refugee protection?
Experts on refugees and migration have reservations about extending refugee protection to climate migrants. One such expert, Dina Ionesco, believes that adding a ‘climate refugee’ status might not be the best strategy.
Migrants are more likely to relocate internally due to the legal difficulties of crossing national borders, but this is not always the case.
A model showed that migrants will first move to cities within their country when climate change impacts rural life but will start to move to other cities, or even across national borders, once they become overcrowded.
Dina argues that since a majority of it is internal climate migration, this would fail to protect a majority of climate migrants as refugee status is conferred only to individuals who are outside their country of origin. She also believes that creating a special refugee status for those forcefully displaced by climate change may be counterproductive.
In other words, it could lead to the exclusion of those who require protection who might have challenges proving a link to environmental factors.
Others, however, believe that a legal definition like a “climate refugee” would offer climate migrants equal protection as climate refugees. This includes being able to apply for asylum and not be sent back home to their country, and also gain the freedom to choose where they want to live within a country.
Instead of being deported, asylum seekers are detained and the asylum status extended to family members. This allows all family members to immigrate to a new country under the definition of climate-related migration.
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What can we do about climate change and environmental migration?
According to the World Bank, if we act soon enough, we can reduce the number of climate migrants because of the climate crisis by as much as 80%.
Here’s what we can do to reduce environmental migrants and/or ease their plight for human mobility.
1. Reduce greenhouse gasses
Greenhouse gasses are the largest catalyst for climate change, so cutting them is the most obvious solution.
If we find ways to reduce greenhouse gasses now, we can reduce the number of climate migrants every year. With lower greenhouse gasses, hurricanes and heatwaves will be less severe as we slow down the rising sea levels.
2. Focus on research
More investment is needed to determine how climate change can impact migration. With knowledge about where climate impacts are bound to strike, governments will be able to predict the next migration hotspot, and in effect, more efficiently serve potential climate migrants.
3. Draft better policies
It is essential that the national government take into consideration environmental migration in their developmental planning, while also implementing policies that solve migration and offer security to climate migrants.
The UN Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement may be expanded, as it only covers displacement due to sudden-onset disasters and not slow-onset disasters.
In thinking about possible solutions to the environmental migration crisis, adaptation assistance is also something to consider.
While cutting fossil fuels and greenhouse gas emissions is the best approach to solving the problem, even if we cut down greenhouse gasses in line with the recommendations from international bodies, we’ve already locked in a certain amount of adverse consequences from the climate crisis.
Do note that the nations that generate many cross-border migrants are those that are least responsible for the climate crisis.
This means that countries that play a bigger part in climate change have a moral obligation to offer adaptation assistance to people who are forced to leave their homes.
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4. Enable free movement between states
In the Caribbean, the Free Movement Agreements allow displaced people to move to other islands without the need for work permits and travel documents.
They were granted indefinite stays and were assisted with resettlement.
A Western Hemisphere regional compact on permanent displacement may also help in expanding the status and protection of climate migrants who have been permanently displaced across international borders.
5. Assist in relocation
Communities and villages with life-threatening climate change impacts must be relocated. Vanuatu in the Pacific Islands, for example, has already developed operating procedures and safeguards for an efficient relocation.
This includes financial assistance and technical expertise.
6. Prepare for the unforeseen
Cities more vulnerable to the influx of climate migrants must be equipped to better handle them, through investments in sanitation, infrastructure, education, job opportunities, and health services.
There must also be a system of proof and criteria to determine if an individual has a credible claim of being harmed by climate-related disasters. This is necessary for the application of rules and laws.
7. Pay climate reparations
As mentioned, the largest emitters of greenhouse gasses are responsible for the climate impacts affecting countries that have contributed very little to climate change. Wealthy countries that spurred the climate problem have an ethical responsibility to provide assistance.
With an environmental migration crisis looming over us, more and more conversations are happening around this issue. The Human Rights Committee in January 2020 developed a rule that prohibits countries from deporting people who face climate-change-induced conditions that violate their right to life.
Historically, this is the first ruling by a UN Human Rights Treaty body that dealt with a complaint of an individual seeking asylum from the impacts of climate change.
This could hopefully set the standard for future climate-change-related asylum claims.
8. Impact Investing
Quite a few impact investors are already trying to unleash the economic potential of refugees through refugee investing – the deployment of capital toward refugees and the communities hosting them. There are three leading organizations that focus on impact investing in refugees.
This includes the Refugee Investment Network, Epimonia, and the Kiva Refugee Investment Fund. By providing loans, professional mentorship, and scholarship aid, among others, these organizations address the needs of mass migration as a result of environmental factors.