How world can prepare for climate-fueled migration
Events in the last few weeks have highlighted the immediacy of climate change impacts around the world: Extreme heatwaves and historic wildfires in the US, dangerous heatwaves in the Middle East, and deadly floods in Europe, India and China. This summer of extremes is prompting renewed focus on the immediate and future consequences of climate change, including human migration.
Millions of people every year already migrate in response to environmental stress. In recent years, environmental factors have helped spur migration in places as diverse as Syria, India, Bangladesh, the Sahel region of Africa, and the US states of Louisiana and Alaska. Climate change is a major contributing factor, as it increases the frequency and severity of natural disasters and causes long-term changes, such as sea rise and desertification. Quantifying the number of people who migrate in response to environmental factors is difficult because environmental concerns are usually only one of several drivers of migration. As Andrew Harper, the UN Refugee Agency’s climate adviser, recently said, climate change is a “vulnerability amplifier.”
With millions already moving, it is clear that climate change will contribute to major migration movements in the future. Many experts are predicting that climate change will drive the greatest migration movement in human history.
Most of that migration is likely to happen within countries. Studies on migration related to environmental factors suggest that people often cannot or do not want to move far. Their preference is to move somewhere nearby that seems less prone to flooding, storms or other threats. Moving within one’s own country is usually easier than crossing borders. However, though a minority of overall migrants, there will also be those who cross borders in search of safety.
Migration fueled by climate change is likely to intensify the trend of urbanization. For example, as farmers find their crops failing, they often seek work in cities. People often believe that a city will offer better protection and more resources. Migration to cities, partly in response to environmental factors, is already occurring in places such as South Asia and the Middle East. At the same time, many cities, especially those near coasts or in arid areas, will face growing climate threats.
People will move in response to one or more sudden onset events and to longer-term changes, and these factors will help shape migration movements. People often move in response to immediate disasters, such as a severe storm or flood. Typically, many of those people return to rebuild. However, not everyone returns, especially if there is a fear of future disasters. Longer-term factors, such as sea level rise and desertification, tend to lead to a slower trickle of migration as people give up on their farms and homes and move away; this migration is slower but less reversible.
Many experts are predicting that climate change will drive the greatest migration movement in human history.
Kerry Boyd Anderson
Climate-fueled migration is likely to affect the entire world, and it already exists in limited ways in some developed countries. However, some parts of the world are particularly vulnerable. All of Africa is vulnerable, especially the Sahel. South Asia, the Middle East and the arid region running from Central America into South America are also likely to see major population shifts as climate change impacts increase.
If there is a global failure to take proactive action to prepare, then large-scale migration movements stemming from desperation will have widespread negative impacts. Climate-fueled migration is likely to intensify food production failures, poverty, pressures on urban infrastructure, ethnic and racial inequalities, social and political instability, and conflict. The scale of human suffering, as families and communities are uprooted and divided, will be immense.
Fortunately, if leaders act on global, national and local levels now, it is possible to mitigate these negative effects and even find ways for migrants’ skills and energy to benefit host societies.
The first step is building resilience in vulnerable communities, helping them adapt to a changing climate in ways that might help them to stay in their homes and communities. Solutions will vary, but warning systems, storm shelters and resilient infrastructure and housing are some tools.
Accepting the reality that many people will have to move and finding ways to proactively manage migration is essential. Government buyout programs and assistance can help those living in vulnerable areas to move. Governments can plan now to develop opportunities in smaller cities and encourage people to migrate to more manageable urban areas rather than overwhelmed megacities. Another idea is to create climate havens: Cities in areas that are less vulnerable to climate change and have the room and resources to grow and welcome migrants. Potential climate havens should plan now to upgrade infrastructure, consider how they would expand housing and services, and develop integration plans to support current and future residents. Large cities should also plan for resilient infrastructure to support both existing and growing populations in the face of climate change.
While most climate-fueled migration will occur within countries, the international community should prepare now for an increase in cross-border movements. One important effort is the UN’s Global Compact for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration.
The most fundamental solution is to address the root causes of climate change. While climate-induced migration will increase, the scale of future migration will depend on the scale of climate change. If all countries act to reduce their carbon dioxide emissions, it is still possible to avoid the worst-case scenarios for climate change and related migration. Countries will have a major opportunity to act at the UN climate change conference in Glasgow this fall.
- Kerry Boyd Anderson is a writer and political risk consultant with more than 16 years’ experience as a professional analyst of international security issues and Middle East political and business risk. Twitter: @KBAresearch