Climate Migration: What You Should Know About the Developing Crisis

Since the most recent COP 26 conference in Glasgow, climate change has been in the spotlight again. It would appear that we truly are entering a ‘now or never’ phase when it comes to combating the growing problem. Similarly, irregular and regular migration is another growing global concern, particularly forced migration.

The two subjects, forced migration, and climate change have similar attributes. Neither of them occurs exclusively in one part of the world, rather they can occur anywhere. Another similarity between the two is that people’s wealth determines the severity of their impacts. In the past two to three decades these two issues have been intersecting to create a phenomenon known as climate migration.

For most of human history, people have lived in a surprisingly narrow range of temperatures. These were places where the climate supported abundant food production. Now, the climate in these places is beginning to stray from the norm. Thus, having adverse impacts on the people living in these regions.

What is Climate Migration?

Before I explain what climate migration is, it is important that you first know what an environmental migrant is:

“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, 2007:33).

Basically, if people are forced to leave their homes as a result of something like a tornado, flood, or tsunami – weather occurrences that cannot be directly attributed to climate change – they are environmental migrants. A climate migrant is almost word for word the same definition except it is, “…for reasons of sudden or progressive change in the environment due to climate change…” Climate migration is effectively a subcategory of environmental migration.

What Does It Look Like?

OK, so what does forced migration as a result of climate change look like in reality? Firstly, the nature, duration, and scale of climate migration depend on whether it is due to slow-onset events, or sudden-onset events.

Slow onset events refer to problems that develop over time due to a change in the climate. For example, land degradation due to drought, or rising sea levels eroding coastlines. Sudden onset events, on the other hand, happen rapidly and there may be very little warning. For example, devastation by floods, cyclones, and storms.

In the case of land degradation due to drought, these lands slowly become unfarmable, thus, affecting the livelihoods of whoever is living on that land. Rather than descending further into poverty, the farmers decide to move somewhere where they have a chance. Conversely, in the event of a sudden devastating occurrence such as a flood, a person’s home may simply be wiped away, forcing them to seek refuge.

The Reality of the Problem

The number of people displaced in 2020 as a result of climate change was 40.5 million. This was the highest level in 10 years. Climate change, or environmental reasons, now accounts for three times more migration than that caused by conflict or violence. The difference is that people that are forced to migrate because of adverse weather conditions tend to internally migrate (somewhere within their country).

What Countries are Affected Most?

The worst affected regions in the world are currently, Central America, South East Asia, South Asia, and Sub-Saharan Africa.

In regions such as the Mekong Delta in South East Asia, the inhabitants must choose between ‘flight’ and death. The unpredictable monsoon rainfall and drought have made farming considerably more difficult. According to the World Bank, more than eight million people have moved from South East Asia toward the Middle East, Europe, and North America.

Dhaka, the Bangladeshi capital, has developed into the fastest growing megacity in the world, receiving up to 2,000 migrants a day. Devastation from monsoon flooding and cyclones as sea levels rise has forced farmers, and other Bangladeshis, to leave their homes and head for the capital. The city’s poor infrastructure cannot deal with this extreme influx of migrants. 40% of greater Dhaka’s population of 21 million people live in slums. 

Guatemala, in Central America, has been experiencing severe droughts. Some parts of the country would witness almost no rain for five years. When it does eventually rain, farmers scramble to sow their seeds only to be devastated by flooding, without warning, destroying their crops. This unfortunate mixture of drought and flooding leads to bankruptcy and starvation for the farmers. As a result of these kinds of conditions, the USA is faced with an influx of people traveling up from Central America.

It’s Not All Down to Climate Change

The issue with climate migration is that it is difficult to identify whether people have migrated as a direct result of climate change. Many of the countries in Central America are also dealing with internal violent conflicts and several socio-economic problems. It is the same with many of the countries in Sub-Saharan Africa.

Ethiopia is gifted with abundant natural resources, fertile soil, water, wildlife, etc. However, the northern part of the country is witnessing extreme land degradation. In 2016, Ethiopia experienced its worst drought in 50 years. So, it would make sense to assume the land degradation has been brought on by the drought. But there are a number of reasons for the degradation of the land. Increased human use of the land, unsustainable agricultural practices, and overgrazing all play a huge role too.

The Possible Future Consequences

Today, 1% of the world is a barely liveable hot zone. By 2070 that portion could be up to 19%, which would affect billions of people. A 2017 study in Science Advances found that by 2100, temperatures could rise to the point that just going outside for a few hours in parts of India and Eastern China “will result in death even for the fittest humans”. Therefore, those living in these parts of the world will have to find somewhere more hospitable.

The World Bank has estimated that we could see more than 140 million people internally migrate within their own countries’ borders by 2050. 86 million in Sub-Saharan Africa, 40 million in South Asia, and 17 million in Latin America. As is the case in Dhaka, many of these regions’ capital cities do not have the infrastructure to deal with this influx of migrants.

What is Being done about Climate Migration?

In relation to stunting the future impact of climate change on migration, there were a number of agreements made at the COP 26 climate change event. These included agreements to phase out the use of coal, cut methane emissions, and end deforestation. All of these can certainly slow down climate change and help combat future predictions. However, they are of little value to the people experiencing these crises now.

Fortunately, there were also pledges to deal with the more immediate issues. Developing countries pledged $100 billion to aid developing countries that are suffering the most. This money can help the worst-hit countries increase their levels of resilience to adverse weather, whilst the rest of the world is working on combating the long-term effects.

The cruelest irony of the entire climate change phenomenon is that it is the richest, developed countries that have caused unprecedented levels of global warming. Yet, it is the poor, developing countries that are feeling the deadly effects. Whilst at the moment, internal migration is the dominant form of climate migration, it would seem likely that it is only a matter of time before more climate migrants need to cross borders. Then it could be the developed countries struggling with resources. It is logical to say that it is vital that the overall problem is dealt with sooner rather than later.

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Ronan Kirby

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