Climate Migration: How the Human Impact of Climate Change Is the Next Global Crisis Waiting To Happen

By Alex Smith | 30th September 2022

With the threat of climate change causing a multitude of human impacts including driving increased food insecurity, increased exposure to disease, loss of livelihood and worsening poverty, the next global humanitarian crisis is expected to be mass migration as a result of climate change, and our current migration systems are woefully underprepared for it. Unless increased measures are put in place to slow down global warming and richer countries find a working and ethical solution to their already strained asylum systems, the human and societal impacts are set to be disastrous.

There’s no denying the evidence of climate change and the impact it’s having in the real world. With rising temperatures making some parts of the world close to the equator unhabitable, and estimated sea level rises of between 0.29m to 1.1m by the end of the twenty first century (possibly higher if the ice sheets and permafrost melt faster than expected) slowly decreasing the amount of habitable land, it’s clear that alarm bells are ringing. Flooding caused by rainfall in countries such as Bangladesh, which is considered as one of the most vulnerable countries due the impacts of climate change where a large number of people will be displaced as a result, and droughts in Iran where models suggest that soil may be increasingly infertile by mid-century, contributing to increased dust storms and falling agricultural output, are all events which show us the devastation of climate change. It’s no surprise then, that academics can draw links between climate change and migration patterns with various estimates over the years reporting that climate change will be one of the key drivers of population movement and displacement.

The International Organization for Migration (IOM) defines climate migration as: “persons or groups of persons who, for compelling reasons of sudden or progressive changes in the environment as a result of climate change that adversely affect their lives or living conditions, are obliged to leave their habitual homes, or choose to do”. Like issues caused by conflict, economically poorer countries tend to be where most of the impacts of climate change are seen and where most climate migrants originate and high-income countries tend to be the preferred destination of those directly displaced. Regions most at risk include Sahel, MENA, Dry Corridor, and South Asia. There are two types of climate migration which have been studied: internal and international. Internal migration is the one most observed at current and is mostly associated with natural disasters such as flooding with studies noting that it’s the most likely outcome for those affected by climate change and other environmental hazards, however, as more and more countries become unhabitable, migrants will have to resort to international migrations as a means of finding habitable accommodation. With worst-case scenarios suggesting that if business-as usual attitudes to climate change continue, nearly one-third of the global population will live in extremely hot (uninhabitable) climates, currently found in less than 1% of the earth’s surface mainly in the Sahara. In rural areas climate change has had impacts on agricultural productivity as well as the presence, frequency, and severity of natural disasters like storms, floods, droughts, and fires. These impacts have severe effects on livelihoods forcing people to move. With the rising sea levels and global temperatures, there could be an expected 200 million climate migrants by the middle of the century.

However, many states view climate migrants themselves as the issue rather than climate change or even deny climate refugees asylum eligibility. In the same vein of views towards refugees during the recent European migrant crisis, climate refugees are often considered a threat to national security and image with the state security frame viewing immigration as a threat to the territorial integrity of the destination state, challenging its fundamental notion of sovereignty. Furthermore, economically developed countries tend to make migration policies around their own national interests, prioritizing admission of persons who will contribute to economic growth, meet labor shortages, or have close family ties in the destination country. This obviously negatively impacts rural low-skilled refugees and can leave them homeless with no option of safe accommodation.

So, what’s the solution and how do we prepare? Some studies suggest the single most effective way to reduce the man-made attributions to climate migration in the US is by adopting policies at both the federal and state levels that rapidly reduce carbon dioxide and other GHG emissions and to work with other major economies through bilateral and multilateral engagement to do the same. In taking these steps, it’s expected that limiting global temperature increases to less than 2 degrees would likely prevent up to 150 million people from permanently losing their homes to sea level rise by the end of the century. Secondly, across the globe, countries should aim to invest in sustainable development which mitigates the impacts of environmental hazards with the fourth IPCC report suggesting “maintaining and enhancing both resilience and adaptive capacity for weather related hazards are critically important policy and management goals”. Economically developed countries should also adopt policies to recognise climate migration as a means of asylum eligibility and grant them protection. Furthermore, it’s important to note that the phrase ‘climate refugee’ is being used increasingly less, with the more preferred phrase ‘climate change induced migration’ used in order to create less of a securitisation stigma around the subject.

Although we can never truly stop the natural causes of climate migration, we can do our best to limit those who suffer the consequences of man-made causes and prevent those in lesser economically developed countries from being left without the basic human needs of food, water, and shelter.

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