Human mobility and climate change: Migration and displacement in a warming world

Migration and climate change have each in their own right become defining global political issues. The links between human mobility and climate change require comprehensive policy approaches that minimise population displacement while facilitating migration as an adaptive force.

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    Climate change is shaping human mobility

    Globally, the impacts of climate change on migration are far-reaching and complex. Publicly and politically, however, the story seems rather simple. As the impacts of climate change intensify (sea-level rise, climate variability and extreme weather events), more and more people will be forced off their lands and out of their homes to seek “greener” pastures. This is already happening in some parts of the world. However, this rather linear, causal narrative fails to capture the myriad ways that climate change is shaping human mobility.

    Importantly, the issue is not a future hypothetical. Millions of people are already on the move, by choice or forced due to climate impacts. The changing climate is destroying coastlines (where most of the world’s population resides), degrading land and reducing agricultural productivity among people whose livelihoods depend directly and indirectly on natural resources (farmers, fishers, pastoralists).

    Assessing climate-related mobility

    Discourse on how climate change affects human mobility often focuses on future flows of displaced people: those who will be forced to flee their homes by extreme weather events like floods and hurricanes. With the impacts of climate change and the increasing concentration of populations in areas exposed to storms and floods, disaster displacement is likely to grow and become more intractable in the future.

    “Guesstimates” circulate predicting that 200 million, 300 million or more will be displaced due to climate change by 2050. No robust global figure for future climate displacement exists. What we do know is that massive disaster displacement is already occurring in several regions of the world. According to recent reports by the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre, weather-related hazards already account for more than 87% of all disaster displacement globally, and disasters have caused more new internal displacements than conflict over the past ten years.

    Displacement, however, is only one of the forms of human mobility related to the impacts of climate change. Climate change also affects people’s livelihoods, especially when those livelihoods are dependent on natural resources. Fishing, farming and pastoralism become more difficult with soil salinisation and degradation, erratic rainfall, droughts, rising temperatures, and depletion of fish stocks and other biodiversity.

    In countries where economies are largely dependent on natural resources, migration can offer an escape from poverty and food insecurity. Yet, while we have numbers that account for disaster displacement, it is harder to quantify these arguably more voluntary migration flows, particularly in response to slow-onset impacts of climate change. Because their migration is driven by several factors, and because no consensual definition of a “climate migrant” exists, these people are frequently labelled “economic migrants” and not privy to humanitarian protection instruments.

    Similarly, conflict and climate change can interact to incite displacement, further blurring the lines between traditional migration categories. Considering all of the direct and indirect pathways linking climate change and human mobility, the actual figures are likely to be far greater than current estimates.

    Moving beyond numbers

    Certainly, more robust figures (current and future) are needed to design and implement policies to manage migration and reduce displacement at various scales. But this still overlooks the fact that climate change not only affects the scale of migration and displacement, it also alters the character of human mobility. Asking only “how many?” masks important shifts in migration patterns and dynamics. This makes it difficult to design and implement comprehensive and effective policies.

    Where people go, how far they go, how long they stay, and what happens when they arrive are all affected by climate change. As local livelihoods become less tenable, mobility may take new forms or alter traditional ones. In Senegal, fishing migration is nothing new: fishers have long moved with the seasons. But with overfishing and depletion of local fish stocks and biodiversity, they are shifting their trajectories and staying longer in neighbouring countries like Mauritania.

    Moreover, people do not always move in (externally) expected ways. We tend to assume that people move out of harm’s way, leaving dangerous place A (community of origin) for safe place B (community of destination). Research, however, shows that people may move into risk zones. Migration is multi-causal, so perceived environmental risk is not the only factor in migration decision-making.

    In West Africa, for example, drought-prone rural villages are often abandoned in favour of better prospects in urban areas. The economic opportunities in coastal megacities draw in a young, active labour force, but these newcomers often arrive in precarious conditions and establish themselves in flood-prone areas. Thus, while they escape drought, their flood displacement risk increases. In other cases, environmental risk is precisely what makes a destination appealing. In Cotonou, Benin, for example, the repeated destruction of coastline homes attracts people who cannot afford to live elsewhere.

    Migration as adaptation

    Because the dominant discourse focuses on the security and humanitarian implications of future “climate refugees”, it overlooks the simple fact that not all people move when faced with intensifying climate impacts.

    In any area experiencing climate change, some people, if not the majority, will stay. For one, migration is not available or accessible to all. Migration takes resources, be they financial (money), social (networks), political (visas) or otherwise. When Hurricane Katrina struck, many of those left behind were unable to evacuate due to lack of transportation and/or friends and family outside the city. Physical ability, age, gender and education, too, affect people’s capacity to migrate.

    Secondly, not all people want to leave their homelands for another city, country or continent. Immobility, like migration, can be a choice. Cultural attachment to land, religious sites and the presence of loved ones can all keep people in place, even in dire circumstances. Therefore, we must recognise that not all people will be able to or want to get out, with some potentially becoming trapped in dangerous situations.

    Despite the generally negative perception of the climate–migration nexus, migration stemming from climate change is not necessarily a bad thing, as exemplified by the plight of those trapped in situ. Certainly, displacement should be avoided whenever possible, but an ever-increasing number of studies points to the fact that migration can benefit migrants and their communities of origin and destination alike.

    Voluntary, pre-emptive migration can, in fact, reduce displacement risk. In Comoros and Senegal, for instance, remittances sent back from abroad enable families to build stronger, more resilient housing. In Vietnam, internal migration brings financial assistance but also education and new skills to local farmers in the Mekong Delta, while government-led relocation programmes move them away from landslides, mudslides and riverbank erosion. Migration, therefore, can be a powerful tool for adaptation to climate change.

    Two-pronged approaches

    Climate and migration interact in many ways, so policy has to be cohesive and comprehensive at all levels and across the development, migration and climate domains. This requires two-pronged policy approaches that seek to minimise displacement while facilitating migration as an adaptive force. Taken together, these two policy prongs are mutually reinforcing.

    Displacement, internal or cross-border, has thus far been the primary concern of multi-level stakeholders seeking to prevent humanitarian crises resulting from climate change. To this end, several international policy processes and platforms are underway. One is the Platform on Disaster Displacement (PDD), created following the three-year Nansen Initiative, to tackle cross-border disaster displacement. Along with several international and civil society organisations, the PDD successfully campaigned for the inclusion of environmental concerns in the Global Compact for Migration.

    In the climate arena, under the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, the Warsaw International Mechanism for Loss and Damage created the Task Force on Displacement to develop recommendations and integrated approaches to avert, minimise and address displacement due to climate change. It is active at the subnational, national, regional and international levels.

    As evidence mounts that encouraging and better managing certain forms of migration can reduce the likelihood of humanitarian crises, international organisations, NGOs and academia alike have begun to push for inclusion of migration-as-adaptation in international fora alongside displacement initiatives. In 2018, the aforementioned Task Force on Displacement invited the Parties to “facilitate orderly, safe, regular and responsible migration and mobility of people… by enhancing opportunities for regular migration pathways, including through labour mobility”.

    To what extent this will make its way into policy-on-the-ground remains to be seen, as many politicians and stakeholders remain wary of promoting any form of migration, preferring to concentrate on adaptation measures in situ as a means to alleviate population pressures in destination areas.

    Despite the strides made, both scientific and political, we still have a long way to go. Data gaps persist, qualitative as well as quantitative, which hampers development of comprehensive, evidence-based policy approaches. A more nuanced picture of the climate–migration nexus is emerging, but unfortunately like many aspects of climate change, progress towards actually implementing effective, human rights-based solutions remains slow.

    About the author
    Caroline Zickgraf is Deputy Director of the Hugo Observatory: Environment, Migration, Politics at the University of Liège in Belgium.

    Read the full magazine issue

    The complex link between climate change and conflict – Volume 8, Issue 4 (Autumn 2019)
    Why are climate change and conflict intrinsically linked? In the autumn edition of our Great Insights magazine, contributors from across Africa and Europe answer these questions – and more.
    31 October 2019
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