• Migration, Immigration, and Climate Change

What role does climate change play in the decision of people to migrate?

When you ask people why they or their family migrated, there is a familiar range of answers: work opportunities, educational opportunities, family reunification, escaping persecution and violence. However, often overlooked is the role of the environment. From the dustbowls during the great depression in the U.S. to the hurricanes and floods causing migrants to flee today,  climate change is increasingly playing a role in human migration. Experts at the UNHCR (United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees)  explain:

“The Earth’s climate is changing at a rate that has exceeded most scientific forecasts. Some families and communities have already started to suffer from disasters and the consequences of climate change, forced to leave their homes in search of a new beginning.”

Climate Change and Migration Today.

In the introduction to a New York Times multimedia presentation on the relationship between the climate and human migration Jessica Benko, writes:

Climate change is not equally felt across the globe, and neither are its longer term consequences. This map overlays human turmoil — represented here by United Nations data on nearly 64 million “persons of concern,” whose numbers have tripled since 2005 — with climate turmoil, represented by data from NASA’s Common Sense Climate Index. The correlation is striking. Climate change is a threat multiplier: It contributes to economic and political instability and also worsens the effects. It propels sudden-onset disasters like floods and storms and slow-onset disasters like drought and desertification; those disasters contribute to failed crops, famine and overcrowded urban centers; those crises inflame political unrest and worsen the impacts of war, which leads to even more displacement. There is no internationally recognized legal definition for “environmental migrants” or “climate refugees,” so there is no formal reckoning of how many have left their homes because climate change has made their lives or livelihoods untenable. In a 2010 Gallup World Poll, though, about 12 percent of respondents — representing a total of 500 million adults — said severe environmental problems would require them to move within the next five years.

Climate Change and Migration in the Future

Indeed, a recent report from PRI’s Living on Earth introduces new research that suggests climate change will have a major impact on human migration in the very near future. Adam Wernick writes,

If global warming gas emissions continue at the present pace, the number of asylum-seekers to Europe could increase by nearly 200 percent, according to a new study.

Unrest, war and terrorism have boosted the number of desperate people fleeing parts of the Middle East and Africa, but new research from Columbia University economist Wolfram Schlenker shows a warming planet may also be a culprit.

The research, which appears in the journal, Science, links higher temperatures in agricultural regions with the flood of people seeking asylum in the European Union. If current temperature trends continue, the EU can expect an additional 600,000 or more refugees begging to enter each year — nearly twice as many as those who currently seek asylum….

Despite the potentially tragic outcomes his research predicts, Schlenker remains optimistic.

“There are myriad impacts from climate change in various countries,” he says. “I also really believe in human ingenuity. I really believe that humans have ways to combat climate change, and so far, I feel like the best estimate is that it’s not that costly, considering what the potential benefits might be. So, I personally feel that with human action, with human engineering and new developments, it might very well still be feasible to achieve something, but what we need is the political will to engage in that.”

Defining Terms

While scientists, anthropologists, geographers, and others work to document the flow of people across the planet, it will be essential to recognize the role that climate change is playing on today’s patterns of migration. To identify the impact of the environment on people’s decisions to migrate, the International Organization for Migration has proposed three categories of environmental migration. Below are their working-definitions describing these categories:

  • Environmental migrant
    “Environmental migrants are persons or groups of persons who, predominantly for reasons of sudden or progressive change in the environment that adversely affects 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” (IOM, 2011:33).
  • Environmentally displaced person
    “Persons who are displaced within their country of habitual residence or who have crossed an international border and for whom environmental degradation, deterioration or destruction is a major cause of their displacement, although not necessarily the sole one. This term is used as a less controversial alternative to environmental refugee or climate refugee [in the case of those displaced across an international border] that have no legal basis or raison d’être in international law, to refer to a category of environmental migrants whose movement is of a clearly forced nature” (IOM, 2011:34). See internally displaced persons and refugee.
  • Migration influenced by environmental change
    “Where environmental change can be identified as affecting the drivers of migration, and thus is a factor in the decision to migrate” (Foresight, 2011:34).

Reflection Questions

  1. What role does the environment play in the decisions of people you know to live where they live? What would it take for you to move?
  2. Research recent environmental catastrophes, such as hurricanes or floods. What can you learn about how those events impacted migration?
  3. How might the research discussed in this post help individuals, groups, and nations prepare for the impact of climate change on human migration?
  4. What are the similarities and differences in the challenges faced by environmentally displaced people as compared to those displaced by war or persecution?

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