Problem to opportunity: migration in times of climate change

| 30th May 2018
Mother with child

A Sudanese refugee mother takes her newborn child to the International Medical Corps clinic for a polio vaccination.

USA State Department
How do displacement and migration relate to natural disasters and climate change? Today, there is little clarity about their inter-relationship. ARTHUR WYNS debunks three common misconceptions and offers a fresh perspective to frame the subject of 'climate migration'

Both adapting to climate change and climate migration are primarily social phenomena.

Misunderstanding No.1: "Climate change is leading to an increase in natural disasters, and these disaster are the main cause of climate migration."

Human-induced climatic changes are leading to more frequent and often intensified hurricanes, floods and droughts. A severe tropical storm, for example, can cause the deaths of many people, destroy infrastructure and property, and ultimately lead to the evacuation and expulsion of tens of thousands. In 2016 alone, about 23.5 million people were displaced by natural disasters.

However, it's important to distinguish between the temporary displacement of communities and permanent migration. After a natural disaster like a hurricane or a flood has occurred, most of the people affected will eventually return home - in the course of weeks or months after the event - and will try to rebuild what has been destroyed.

Picking up life again in the wake of a natural disaster, however, is never straightforward. Sometimes there is nothing left to rebuild: the island state of Fiji, for example, has lost almost 50 percent of its Domestic National Product during the 2017 hurricane season because of sustained damages to their community.

Although they can be considered the most visible and sudden expression of climate change, natural disasters are not the main drivers of global climate-induced migration.

More devastating than these individual extreme events, however, are slow environmental changes that occur due to a changing climate: desertification, soil destruction, changing precipitation patterns and sea-level rise, all contribute to food scarcity, loss of livelihood and social pressure. These so-called slow-onset events force people to abandon their traditional lifestyle and to find other ways to make ends meet.

One way to deal with these changes is to search for a 'better' place to live. Even then environmental degradation and natural disasters are often only an additional trigger, and not the main cause for people migrating.

Chronic poverty, issues of land ownership, limited local employment opportunities and lack of state support in the region of origin usually play a more decisive role in people's migration story. Additional 'pull factors' such as the promise of better work and improved living standards in other places, further add to the complex confluence of factors driving migration.

Although they can be considered the most visible and sudden expression of climate change, natural disasters are not the main drivers of global climate-induced migration.

Misunderstanding No.2: "Europe will be flooded by climate refugees."

No. At the moment Europe should not be expecting millions of 'climate refugees' seeking refuge within its borders, and even in the near future this not a realistic scenario.

Forecasts range from 25 million to one billion people displaced by climate and environmental changes worldwide by 2050 - and are highly controversial. They are based on a wide variety of climate scenarios and assumptions about the responses of the affected populations. Accurately predicting this complex play between climate and migration is not within science's capacity at the moment.

When conditions can no longer sustain the communities in a particular region, the main destination for those moving will be a larger city in their homeland. Only a small fraction of people migrating choose to leave their homeland across borders.

Although millions of people are currently already affected by climate change in a direct manner, most of them stay in their home region and try to cope with the changes that come their way. That often results in stronger inequity, less food and less local jobs.

When conditions can no longer sustain the communities in a particular region, the main destination for those moving will be a larger city in their homeland.

There they hope for better opportunities and can often count on friends or family to support them. Only a small fraction of people migrating choose to leave their homeland across borders, and more than 90 percent of these transnational migrants will look for a new life in countries directly neighbouring their own.

The long road to Europe is simply too expensive for those most affected by climate change: local farmers in Africa and Asia.

Misunderstanding No.3: "Those displaced by climate change are the most vulnerable population group."

Not all people in a certain region are equally at risk from the effects of climate change. Important here is not only how extreme events and climate change affect a region, but also who is affected by these changes, and whether those affected have the resources and skills to avert the damages and manage the consequences.

Both adapting to climate change and climate migration are primarily social phenomena. Studies in the north of Bangladesh, for example, show how richer villagers have a higher resilience in years of drought or flooding, and are able to compensate for their failed harvests with other income and savings.

The 'middle class' has a bit more difficulties in times of scarcity, and often individual family members are temporarily sent to neighboring cities where alternative means of income are more abundant.The income collected in the city can then be used to repair the incurred damages and to maintain the family.

Those leaving a region affected by change are often the most well-off segment of the population. The ones most affected by climate change often don't have the means to escape or change their situation.

The (mostly landless) poorer classes are often forced to migrate after environmental change hits, because there is no adequate work left in the area. At their new destination they often have to work hard at the lowest wages and are exposed to exploitation and marginalisation. They can barely make up for their losses and have a hard time maintaining their family.

The poorest layer of the population, however, is no longer able to migrate to a new region. They have insufficient resources or too weak health to take the journey, and are sometimes called the "imprisoned population".

This stratified distribution of resilience to economic and environmental changes within local communities shows there is no common response to a disrupted environment.

Those leaving a region affected by change are often the most well-off segment of the population. The ones most affected by climate change often don't have the means to escape or change their situation, further aggravating social inequality and injustice.

Migration as an opportunity for adaptation to climate change

Climate change is certainly not an isolated factor in the current displacement of hundreds of thousands of people, and Europe is certainly not the main destination for people migrating.

A changing climate does, however, play an increasingly prominent role in the migration story of those who try to build up their lives in a new place.

The debate on climate and migration should not be blinded by the numbers behind displaced persons and migrants, but should focus on the opportunities that migration brings as an adaptation strategy for those affected by climate change.

The mobility of people in the context of climate change should not be seen as the failure of local adaptation to new weather conditions.

On the contrary, insofar as human rights and dignity are respected and workers are protected from exploitation, migration opens new and often better life perspectives for many people who are affected by climate change, and leads to new experiences, new knowledge and new capital. Often it is the only way to successfully adapt to local changes in the climate.

This relatively new perspective - migration not as a problem, but as an opportunity to better deal with the challenges of climate change - is also increasingly recognized by policy makers.

This Author

Arthur Wyns is a tropical biologist and science journalist who writes about climate change, environment and migration. Arthur and the Masereel Fund are working on an informing and sensitising project around climate migration from a co-human perspective, in collaboration with other partners. More information can be found at klimaatling.be. Arthur tweets from @ArthurWyns.

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