Hi internet friends! Today I thought I could summarize the current understanding of an emerging topic in the climate advocacy sphere: the concept of climate refugees and climate migration. These terms and concepts are rather new and not yet official, and we are going to discuss what they mean, and why they may be important to pay attention to moving forward.
Before I dive into the post, I just wanted to acknowledge I’ve been taking a bit of a breather with blogging/content creation and social media in general. I haven’t stopped blogging completely or taken a real break, but I’ve slowed down the posting schedule and have basically not used most social media platforms in weeks/months. I can’t explain exactly why, but lately I’ve just been deeply craving more and more time offline, and more and more privacy.
And after spending years working in media and having a blog in addition to being a full time student/researcher, I think I may just need a true break. My computer has also been in repair for several weeks, which makes it even harder to post. So, if you don’t see any posts from me in the next 3-4 weeks, I’m probably just taking a full break to restore myself and wrap up some other personal projects that require my time and attention. Thanks for standing by!
But for now, please enjoy this post on climate migration. Leave questions and comments below, or feel free to send me an email (firstname.lastname@example.org). I love hearing from you!
Oh, and PS – I will be doing a couple Zoom info sessions about climate change and health as part of my climate reality leadership corps action! Stay tuned for details…I will likely announce via Instagram!
First of all, what is a migrant?
The UN Migration Agency defines a migrant as any person who is moving or has moved across an international border or within a State away from his/her habitual place of residence, regardless of 1) the person’s legal status 2) whether the movement is voluntary or involuntary; 3) what the causes for the movement are or 4) what the length of stay is.
Basically, migration is the movement of peoples from their home territory to another place. People may migrate for a variety of reasons: political turmoil, climate change, natural disasters, and other factors may cause humans to seek other grounds to habitat.
How does climate change impact migration?
First of all, it’s important to acknowledge that environmental events and disasters have always been drivers of migration. They can directly impact migration by altering ecosystems and hazard exposures, and indirectly via environmentally-dependent economic drivers.
But what role does climate change play? Importantly, climate change is increasing the frequency and intensity of extreme weather events that often play a role in migration. For example, climate change can lead to loss of living resources, including water, energy and food supply or reemployment.
When individuals do not have access to clean water, ample food or energy, they are more likely to migrate. Climate change may also lead to loss of social and cultural resources, including loss of cultural properties, neighborhoods, and community networks, which may drive some to seek new habitat.
Climate change can also cause sea level rise, and increases in extreme weather events, like storm surges and floods, which can make certain locations uninhabitable. For example, a rise in sea level can lead to an increased risk of coastal flooding, erosion, and salinisation of low-lying agricultural land. Changes in tropical storms and cyclone frequency and intensity can also increase risks of coastal flooding and damage.
Additionally, as alluded to above, climate change can play a major role in agricultural success. Extreme weather events, changes in growing season, floods, droughts, and increased population and elongated seasons of certain pests may cause crop failure. Atmospheric chemistry changes may impact crop productivity, as well. If a community relies on these agricultural entities as their primary food supply, they may be forced to migrate if climate change jeopardizes their agricultural yields.
Even if climate change does not completely deprive a community of resources like food and water, their scarcity may cause conflict or drive some of the population to search for more abundant environments.
What are environmental migrants?
According to the International Organization for Migration, environmental migrants are “persons or groups of persons who predominantly for reasons of sudden or progressive change in the environment that adversely affect their lives or living conditions, are obliged to leave their habitual homes, or choose to do so, either temporarily or permanently, and who move either within their country or abroad.”
Basically, environmental migrants leave their home when environmental conditions or events make their home environments uninhabitable.
What is a climate refugee?
Actually, the term ‘climate refugee’ is not currently endorsed in international law. According to the UN Refugee Agency, a “refugee” is defined as a person who has crossed an international border “owing to well-founded fear for being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion” and in some contexts, a refugee may refer to a person fleeing “events seriously disturbing public order.”
Due to the complex nature of the way refugee has been defined under international law, the UN Refugee Agency does not currently have a term for ‘climate refugees,’ but suggests they are referred to as ‘environmental migrants.
Notably, however, in January 2020, the UN Human Rights Committee recognized climate change as a driver of migration for the first time. They ruled that “refugees fleeing the effects of climate crisis cannot be forced to return home to their adoptive countries.” This landmark decision made clear that states cannot deport climate migrants if climate change impacts worsen in their home environments.
So, for now, it seems that international law acknowledges that climate change is driving migration; however, there is still a resistance to using the term “climate refugee” at present.
Some have proposed a continuum for classifying those who migrate due to climate change. One one side of the spectrum, Bates et al, described “migrant-like situations” as those with greater control over the process and less vulnerability, even if people are moving in response to deteriorating conditions.
Next, “environmentally driven displacement” is compelled but voluntary, with middle levels of vulnerability and control. On the other end of the spectrum, “refugee-like situations” are those where migrants have very low levels of control and high degrees of vulnerability
How many people migrate due to climate?
During the first half of 2019 alone, 7 million people were internally displaced due to extreme weather events. To put this number into context, extreme weather events displaced twice as many people as did violence and conflicts.
Looking towards the future, a comprehensive 2018 report by the World Bank found that climate change could cause over 140 million people to migrate by the year 2050, and that climate-related migration may accelerate thereafter.
The report also identified certain climate migration “hot spots,” including Sub-Saharan Africa, Latin America, and South Asia. These areas are all expected to experience internal migration within the midcentury. Specifically, the authors suggested that many migrants will relocate within their own countries, most often from lowlands to higher ground. They also noted that many will migrate from areas of low water availability and crop productivity and from areas susceptible to rising sea levels and storm surges.
Who is at risk for climate migration?
Geographic location, occupation, and socioeconomic status all impact a population’s risk for climate migration.
First, let’s chat about geographic and ecosystem vulnerability. Certain geographical areas (like low-lying delta areas, small island states and coastal regions), as well as fragile ecosystems, may be more vulnerable to climate change and extreme weather events. The intensity of these events could make an area uninhabitable, forcing residents to seek new ground.
People who live in rural areas that depend on climate-driven sectors, like agriculture and fishing, are at risk for climate migration, as are inhabitants of coastal cities.
Additionally, impoverished populations often disproportionately feel the impacts of climate change. They are also less likely to have the resources to successfully adapt to climate change and extreme weather events, putting them at even greater risk of needing to relocate. But these vulnerable people may also lack the resources to relocate, forcing them to make tough decisions about their safety and well-being.
What action is needed to address this issue?
To reduce the amount of climate migrants, we must begin to better address climate change by targeting its root causes and mitigating its impacts. This will require large scale cooperation of governments and citizens alike to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, reliance on fossil fuels, and conversion of the current food system to a more sustainable one, among other actions (for more information on what you can do to stop climate change, see this post).
Even if we address climate change with our policies and actions, climate migration has already begun, and we must be prepared to work to help climate migrants.
Some climate groups have started to develop guidelines for people displaced by climate change. For example, the 2015 Paris agreement called upon the Warsaw International Mechanism for Loss and Damage Associated with Climate Change (WIM) to develop a set of recommendations for forced to relocate due to climate change. Other organizations are encouraging countries to come up with policies that will help support climate migrants.
Some have also suggested a “life cycle approach” to climate migration policy, meaning that policies are implemented to address prevention, mitigation and adaptation to environmental hazards. There is a need for increased understanding of the best way to help climate migrants – whether it be by providing safer means of transportation, or providing resources, etc. Some have also called for more robust development action plans to help migrants in addition to climate change mitigation efforts.
Take home: Climate migration and ‘climate refugees’
Migration is and will continue to be affected by environmental degradation and climate change. Existing models suggest that climate change will have an even bigger impact on migration moving forward, especially in the absence of action.
Currently, major refugee organizations recognize the impact that climate change will have on migration; however, ‘climate refugee’ is not currently a recognized term under international law. We must be prepared to better address climate change and its root causes, and to work with migrants forced leave their home environments due to climate change and environmental disasters moving forward.
If you liked: Climate migration, you may also like:
- Climate change and mental health
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- How rising CO2 contributes to climate change
- How climate change impacts health