Introducing: Climate Migration Series

By Cameren Lofton on January 24, 2020

This post will be the first post in a series of posts focusing on the complex issue of migration that is caused or influenced by climate change. The first post of the series will discuss some of the causes of climate migration and its predicted effects.

The next few posts in the series will focus on the following topics:

  • the contested legal status of environmental migrants,
  • specific cases of environmental migration,
  • initiatives and organizations that combat climate change and climate migration and assist those affected by it.

The Causes of Climate Migration

Climate change is rarely the only reason that people migrate. Rather, a multitude of political and economic reasons, which are sometimes exacerbated by the effects of climate change, can induce people to leave their homes in search for better lives [1]. Some of the effects of climate change will be noticeable in the short-run while other effects (e.g. air pollution, ocean acidification, and loss of biodiversity) will accumulate over time and have large effects in the long-run [2]. In her policy brief on environmental change and migration, Susan Martin identifies four factors related to climate change that will affect migration patterns in both the near and distant future: longer-term drying trends, rising sea levels, intense natural disasters, and competition over natural resources.

Both changing weather patterns and rising sea levels, which are termed “slow-onset events”, will have starker effects over time.

Changing weather patterns related to climate change, including warmer temperatures and shifts in rainfall, can indirectly cause or influence droughts [3]. Not only are droughts dangerous for the possibility of wildfires, as evidenced in Australia, but they also affect the availability of and demand for water in certain areas, especially those that depend on agriculture and the consistency of the weather. Because weather patterns are not as consistent and reliable as they previously were, farmers are yielding fewer crops and experiencing “persistent unemployment” [4]. Melting of glaciers often cause sea levels to rise. Though it will happen over a long period of time, this melting can result in flooding and the disappearance of land in areas near or below sea level [5]. Natural disasters and conflict caused by competition over resources are currently affecting migration patterns.

Even though it is difficult to attribute the cause of a specific natural disaster to climate change, scholars generally agree that climate change can strengthen the effects of natural disasters [6]. Experts predict that natural disasters, such as hurricanes, may “increase in scale and frequency” [7]. In 2018, 17.2 million people were forced to leave their homes because of a disaster.

The effects of natural disasters on migration will be dependent on the capability of governments to care for and address the needs of their citizens.

Therefore, poor people who live in countries without the institutions to properly address crises will be most negatively affected and likely to migrate [8]. Competition over natural resources is an indirect result of climate change. Because resources such as food and crops have been made scarce due to climate change, there is an increased need for people to compete for those resources [9]. In addition to other political and social factors, this competition can result in conflict, which often causes people to flee their homes for fear of their lives.

The Effects of Climate Migration

Though some people migrate internationally partly as a result of climate change, most people who must move do so within their own country [10]. The World Bank predicts that if nothing is done to address climate change, internal climate migration will reach 143 million people by 2050 [11]. Though much of this migration will be internal, international migration is still likely to grow to a scale that will challenge the current structure of national and international institutions and cooperation [12].

Experts estimate that by 2100, 48 islands could be lost due to rising sea levels [13]. Additionally, the World Bank predicts that 1.8% of the South Asian economy’s annual GDP will be lost by 2050 as a result of climate change [14]. According to the New York Times, this loss could have serious negative implications for the living conditions of hundreds of millions, which could spur mass migration from the South Asian region. Although the negative effects of climate change may be more tangible in some areas, climate change is occurring in all regions and will cause movement everywhere through either relocation or displacement [15].

What’s Next?

In the next post, I will discuss the complexity surrounding the status of people who migrate for environmental reasons. People displaced by environmental disasters are not offered the same protection as refugees under international law even though, like refugees, their migration is often involuntary.

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