Climate emergency – migration

Climate emergency – migration

We discussed the effects of global heating on the planet in recent posts. This time we focus on how climate change migration, both within and between countries, will bring new challenges and tensions to populations.

The UN International Organisation for Migration (IOM) produced a substantial “World Global Migration” report which suggested that in 2015 there were an estimated 244 million international migrants globally (3.3% of the world’s population) — an increase from an estimated 155 million people in 2000 (2.8%[1]). Climate change is not the only driver of migration – economic prosperity, inequality, demography, violence and conflict play their part. However, in 2016 (as in previous years), disasters triggered by climate and weather-related hazards, such as floods and storms, displaced nearly 5 times as many people as conflict and violence.  Of course, historically people have often been displaced by severe weather, but we can clearly identify an increase in such events.

Sea level rise, extreme weather, and erratic droughts or flood may displace large sums of people but in the eyes of global law they are not, as of now, “refugees” per se, and so do not have the same rights as those fleeing conflict. Populist reaction may force Western governments to resist them being given that status.

The UK military think-tank, the Wavell Room, identified challenges in coping with those displaced by climate change.   The regional destabilisation caused by migrants (whether from climate change or conflict) creates a breakdown in law and order, and the emergence of criminal people traffickers exploiting vulnerable people in camps.  As an example, Pedro Sula, in Honduras, has an almost complete lack of state control and serves as a node for drug trafficking into the USA.  Similar situations in multiple cities across North Africa would pose a direct threat European security

States under pressure may look to Russia or China for support with arms and finance to maintain order in an increasingly stressed security environment. Climate refugees not only risk empowering repression, but also providing a pretext for the entrenchment of the West’s strategic competitors in Africa.  The UK will be faced with a strategic dilemma; to pursue a strategy based on international security by opposing Russian and Chinese interests, or to follow humanitarian instincts.

For domestic political reasons, and irrespective of the actual security threat, European nations will invest more resources into policies which keep climate refugees off the continent The Hungarian Government erected a wire fence on their border with Serbia in 2015. So it may even be that, just as the EU signed a deal with Turkey to restrict migration into Europe, it may seem appropriate to co-operate with China in diverting migrant flows.

Policy responses could be increasing funding for Frontex, the EU border agency, or providing support for national missions such as the Italian Operation Mare NostrumOperation Barkhane, the French anti- insurgent operation with 3,000 troops in Mali, may also serve as a model for how European nations might attempt to create stability in the Sahel. Stationing British troops in Africa may be a more effective way of reducing migration than more defensive and reactive policies.

However, most climate migration will be within countries. The World Bank conducted a major piece of research into the likely patterns.  In Sub-Saharan Africa, South Asia, and Latin America, which together represent 55 percent of the developing world’s population, something over 143 million people – or around 2.8 percent of the population of these three regions – could be forced to move to escape the “slow-onset” impacts of climate change (water stress, crop failure, sea level rise). “Rapid onset” events such as floods and hurricanes could significantly increase these numbers.  The poorest people and the poorest countries are the hardest hit, and their migration will likely overwhelm the infrastructure of destination areas.  Others, even more vulnerable, will be unable to move, trapped in increasingly unviable areas.

In all three regions, migration is projected primarily from coastal zones and also from rain-fed cropping areas, indicating that climate impacts on crop productivity in these regions may potentially disproportionately affect farming households. Migrants will gravitate towards cooler highland areas that will become even more densely populated.

In Sub-Saharan Africa some 86 million people may be internally displaced by 2050. In East Africa, migration hotspots include northern parts of the Ethiopian highlands; parts of western Uganda, southern Rwanda, and southern Malawi; and coastal stretches of Kenya and Tanzania. These hotspots reflect deteriorating water availability and crop yields in out-migration areas. In the coastal zone, declining land availability, reflecting sea level rise and storm surges, is also a factor. Migration is largely toward the south-eastern highlands of Ethiopia, the Lake Victoria basin, and the region near Lilongwe, Malawi.

By 2050, 40 million people may become climate migrants in South Asia. Migration will be substantial from the eastern and northern Bangladesh and the northern part of the Gangetic Plain, as well as some spots of the broader Gangetic Plain, the corridor from Delhi to Lahore, and even Mumbai. Migrants head to the Gangetic Plain and western Bangladesh. These areas begin to spread and intensify all over South Asia, with large migration destination areas seen throughout India’s regions, especially in the south. In Bangladesh migration will be predominantly from the east to the west.

Latin America may see 17 million climate migrants. Mexico and Central America could potentially see dramatic increases in climate migration toward the end of the century, because of steadily worsening impacts for water availability and crop productivity. People will leave the hotter, lower-lying areas of Mexico and Guatemala and move toward climatically more favourable Central Plateau of Mexico and the highlands of Guatemala. People will also leave low-lying coastal areas along the Gulf of Mexico and the Pacific coast of Guatemala. Some cities, such as Monterrey and Guadalajara in Mexico will see climate outmigration.  Rainfed cropping areas are likely to see declines in population as a result of climate out-migration. In contrast, pastoral and rangeland areas are likely to see increases.

Even in the US, by the end of the century, sea level rise alone could displace 13 million people including 6 million in Florida, according to one study. States including Louisiana, California, New York and New Jersey will have to grapple with hordes of residents seeking dry ground.

The World Bank argue that these internal migrations need not be a crisis. Migration can be a sensible climate change adaptation strategy if managed carefully and supported by good development policies and targeted investments. If, as well as reducing GHG emissions, countries integrate climate migration into national development plans and invest now to improve understanding of internal climate migration, many of the worst effects can be avoided.  It is hard to feel confident that these strategic actions will actually be taken.

This is the last of our analyses of the impacts of the climate emergency. The next set of posts will look at some of the things we can do about it.


[1] Definitions of economic, climate change and disaster/conflict migrants are difficult to make and vary between sources. 

Written by Huw Williams, SAMI Principal

Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily of SAMI Consulting.

SAMI Consulting was founded in 1989 by Shell and St Andrews University. They have undertaken scenario planning projects for a wide range of UK and international organisations. Their core skill is providing the link between futures research and strategy.

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