Undeniably, human populations have always been exposed to environmental factors. Environmental migrants, as defined by the International Organization for Migration (IOM), are “persons or groups of persons who, predominantly for reasons of sudden or progressive change in the environment that adversely affects their lives or living conditions, are obliged to leave their habitual homes, or choose to do so, either temporarily or permanently, and who move either within their country or abroad”. Environmental drivers of human mobility are diverse, multifaceted and location-specific. Amongst them, natural events, land productivity and food/energy/water security may influence the habitability of an environment as well as the livelihoods of communities. It is thus difficult to estimate what percentage of environmental migration is induced by climate change and not due to mere natural variability. The incomplete understanding of climate change and the lack of quantitative data, often scarce and geographically disparate, are major difficulties in the assessment of the influence of climate on human mobility. What is sure, however, is that climate does affect the drivers of migration, and therefore the current and future patterns of population movements. Increases in temperature, for example, generate extreme droughts or heat waves with consequences on agricultural productivity. Changes in rainfall regimes and in weather events’ frequency or intensity threaten water availability and aggravate violent storms and floods. The rise in sea level is responsible for more damaging storm surges and for salt water intrusion in aquifers. Climate change also exacerbates gradual environmental degradation, such as land degradation, and coastal/marine ecosystem degradation.
It is worth noting that climate migration is a very good example of how the environment can impact other sectors. Existing vulnerabilities are amplified in all dynamics, be it political (through conflicts, insecurity, discrimination, persecution), demographic (disease prevalence, population size and density), economic (employment, income, well-being, prices, poverty) or social (inequalities, education, cultural mindset). With such widespread entanglements, the negative consequences of climate-induced migration are often exaggerated, with migrants generally perceived as a threat. Yet climate migration does have benefits that often go unnoticed. Population displacements can help reduce pressure on fragile resources, provide households with access to more secure livelihoods as well as better social status, and ultimately save human lives. In this respect, the most vulnerable populations would not be climate-induced migrants, but people who do not have the ability to relocate, usually due to lack of social, economic or political capital. These ‘trapped populations’ have the fewest opportunities to adapt and must endure increasingly unviable environments.
Furthermore, the evolution of climate-induced migration remains very uncertain. The World Bank’s striking estimation of 143 million climate-migrants by 2050 reflects a ‘pessimistic’ scenario, characterized by high greenhouse gas emissions combined with unequal development pathways. If appropriate and timely responses are put into place, this number could well stay a pessimistic overestimation. Government action certainly plays its part in bringing resilience and positive/negative outcome for the populations. Conceivable solutions include border management, migrant integration and reintegration of returning populations. For countries, prevention also relies on risk preparedness and embedding climate migration in development planning and investments. And as it cannot be stressed enough, significant cuts in GHG emissions are still needed to limit the progress of climate change and in turn ensure that fewer people will have to migrate or suffer its consequences.
Claire Hugo, Analyst