Understanding Climate-Induced Migration

Migration has been long discussed as an implication of climate change. Climate-induced migration has the potential to affect (as well as be affected by) livelihoods, security, and development. Increased drought and desertification, sea level rise, and the occurrence of extreme climate events can pose a hazard to populations and ultimately cause displacement. However, our limited understanding of climate-induced migration makes it difficult to create policies to address it.

First of all, what exactly does the term “climate-induced migration” encompass? It is difficult to isolate climate change from other motives for migration. Causes for migration are often complicated and involve a mix of social, political and economic factors: for instance, many communities have pre-existing tensions and inequalities that interact with environmental changes.

Moreover, migrants do not necessarily identify climate change as a reason for migration although the causes they cite (such as economic difficulties caused by decreasing crop yields) are related to climate. It is even more difficult to make predictions based on what little we know about climate-induced migration. Earlier reports that remain widely cited to this day claim that there will be 200 million “climate refugees” by 2050, although this figure remains disputed.

What is clear, however, is that climate change will compound existing drivers of migration. According to a discussion paper by the International Organization for Migration (IOM) and the Asian Development Bank (ADB), climate-induced migration “is part of the broader framework of migration dynamics…[that] interplays with other drivers of migration”. Climate-induced migration should be seen on a “spectrum” of voluntariness, with some migrants having access to more options than others.

On the whole, it is clear that climate-related stresses are increasingly affecting migration patterns, whether the cases of migration are entirely forced or more voluntary. In the past three decades, disasters in the form of storms, floods, droughts, and earthquakes have increased threefold, according to the United Nations Secretariat of the International Strategy for Disaster Reduction.

In the current understanding of climate-induced migration, experts call attention to some distinct patterns. First, regarding the causes: slow-onset changes are as important as, if not more important than, acute natural disasters. The causes of climate-induced migration can be divided into two large categories. The first is sudden, catastrophic natural disasters such as floods and cyclones, and the second is gradual environmental changes such as desertification, erosion and seal level rise.

Slow-onset events receive less media attention compared to singular catastrophic events such as hurricanes because, as the IOM puts it, they are “less dramatic”. Moreover, as the ADB suggests, the impacts of slow-onset events are harder to measure because it is difficult to isolate them as causal factors in long-term decision-making. Nonetheless, slow-onset changes are predicted to have a greater net impact because they affect larger populations over a longer time scale.

To illustrate this point, the IOM notes that in the last three decades, approximately 718 million people have been affected by storms, whereas 1.6 billion have been affected by droughts. Sea level rise is another slow-onset phenomenon that is expected to accelerate, and with almost two thirds of the world’s population living within 100 kilometers of a coast, large populations may be forced to relocate.

In terms of how such causes are manifested, the majority of migration – at least up to this point – has been internal and domestic rather than international. According to the IOM, cross-border migration, and longer-distance migration in general, requires more resources and stronger social networks, to which migrants may not have access. Moreover, because the purpose of climate-induced migration is to escape the afflicted geographic area (rather than, for instance, a regime), migrants are less likely to attempt to cross borders in the first place.

International migration can and does happen, however, in the case that there is a nearby border; another exception is the case of the Pacific small island developing states, where there may not be enough nearby land for internal migration. So far, the recent increase in natural disasters has not led to an increase in cross-border movement: for instance, people displaced by the Indian Ocean Tsunami in 2004 moved predominantly within borders.

This means that the implications of climate-induced migration are – at least for now – more relevant to domestic, rather than international, policymaking.

Finally, climate-induced migration is not necessarily permanent; in fact, current environmental migration is generally short-term. In the case of populations displaced by sudden-onset natural disasters, the return rate is particularly high. A paper commissioned by the World Bank notes that cyclones, hurricanes and wind storms lead to “temporary distress migration”, but in the long run, populations return to affected areas.

Temporary – seasonal or circular – migration is also a common coping strategy for some agricultural communities suffering from drought in Mali, Senegal, Ethiopia, Argentina and India, among others. However, the IOM states that more frequent and extreme droughts (leading to an extended loss of agricultural productivity) can lead to more permanent migration in these communities in the future.

These patterns all call for a more flexible understanding of climate-induced migration. The effects that climate change has on migration are not yet fully clear, and it is difficult to quantify the effects not only because of the challenge of isolating causal factors for migration, but also because temporary and internal movement have not yet been studied in great depth. The report issued by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) in 2007 notes that previous attempts to estimate movement caused by climate change assumed that such movements were one-way and permanent, when in fact they have not been. However, as the stakes rise, it becomes increasingly necessary to measure and deal with climate-induced migration as a dynamic domestic policy issue.

It is also important to note that, in all of these cases, external factors such as environmental degradation are not the sole determinant of migration. The resilience of communities is an equally important factor, and it is something that can be managed more easily than climate. Policies that support early warning systems, better infrastructure and buildings, and public awareness can help communities respond better to environmental threats and make better choices.

Today’s droughts in the United States do not cause massive out-migration unlike the Dust Bowl migrations of the 1930s (even accounting for the scale of droughts) because adaptive capacity in the form of insurance, technology and financial relief has increased. At the same time, measures are needed to ensure that when migration is necessary, people have access to resources to do so safely.

Disaster is not unavoidable; active policy measures are necessary to make communities stronger and prepare for changing migration patterns.


Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.


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