In 1990, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) noted that the greatest single impact of climate change could be on human migration — with millions of people displaced by shoreline erosion, coastal flooding and agricultural disruption. Since then various analysts have tried to put numbers on future flows of climate migrants (sometimes called “climate refugees”) — the most widely repeated prediction being 200 million by 2050.

But repetition does not make the figure any more accurate. While the scientific argument for climate change is increasingly confident, the consequences of climate change for human population distribution are unclear and unpredictable. With so many other social, economic and environmental factors at work establishing a linear, causative relationship between anthropogenic climate change and migration has, to date, been difficult.

This may change in future. The available science, summarized in the latest assessment report of the IPCC, translates into a simple fact; on current predictions the “carrying capacity” of large parts of the world will be compromised by climate change.

The meteorological impact of climate change can be divided into two distinct drivers of migration; climate processes such as sea-level rise, salinization of agricultural land, desertification and growing water scarcity, and climate events such as flooding, storms and glacial lake outburst floods. But non-climate drivers, such as government policy, population growth and community-level resilience to natural disaster, are also important. All contribute to the degree of vulnerability people experience.

The problem is one of time (the speed of change) and scale (the number of people it will affect). But the simplistic image of a coastal farmer being forced to pack up and move to a rich country is not typical. On the contrary, as is already the case with political refugees, it is likely that the burden of providing for climate migrants will be borne by the poorest countries — those least responsible for emissions of greenhouse gases.

Temporary migration as an adaptive response to climate stress is already apparent in many areas. But the picture is nuanced; the ability to migrate is a function of mobility and resources (both financial and social). In other words, the people most vulnerable to climate change are not necessarily the ones most likely to migrate.

Predicting future flows of climate migrants is complex; stymied by a lack of baseline data, distorted by population growth and reliant on the evolution of climate change as well as the quantity of future emissions. Nonetheless this paper sets out three broad scenarios, based on differing emissions forecasts, for what we might expect. These range from the best case scenario where serious emissions reduction takes place and a “Marshall Plan” for adaptation is put in place, to the “business as usual” scenario where the large-scale migration foreseen by the most gloomy analysis comes true, or is exceeded.

Forced migration hinders development in at least four ways; by increasing pressure on urban infrastructure and services, by undermining economic growth, by increasing the risk of conflict and by leading to worse health, educational and social indicators among migrants themselves.

However, there has been a collective, and rather successful, attempt to ignore the scale of the problem. Forced climate migrants fall through the cracks of international refugee and immigration policy—and there is considerable resistance to the idea of expanding the definition of political refugees to incorporate climate “refugees”. Meanwhile, large-scale migration is not taken into account in national adaptation strategies which tend to see migration as a “failure of adaptation”. So far there is no “home” for climate migrants in the international community, both literally and figuratively.

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migration and climate change



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