Climate Change and the Future of Migration

As parts of the world become more challenging for human survival, will people begin to move en masse? The answer is complicated

Apr 22, 2022

As the effects of the earth’s changing climate have become more pronounced over the past few years, with natural disasters such as wildfires, hurricanes, flooding, and dangerous storms occurring with more frequency in larger parts of the U.S. and around the world, some climate scientists and migration researchers have begun to discuss whether these environmental changes will cause large numbers of people to move internationally in search of safer or more livable places.

Though people have been forced to flee their homes due to natural disasters for all of human history, the concept of a “climate migrant” or “climate refugee” is a newer one that grew out of climate change science in the second half of the 20th century.

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As it became clear to climate scientists that parts of the world would become unsuitable for people to live over the course of the 21st century – one climate model suggests that nearly one fifth of the world will become too hot for human life by 2070 – some have said that the most severe impacts of climate change could result in large, global movements of people seeking safer and more hospitable climates.

According to the most recent report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), a group of scientists convened by the United Nations, more than 3 billion people live in areas vulnerable to climate hazards, and since 2008, roughly 20 million people per year have been displaced, mostly driven out by storms and floods.

A world map comparing the 1% of the earth that is currently too hot for humans to live (2020), and to the right the same map showing the projected 19% of the world which will be too hot for people by 2070. These regions are in bright orange/red, with the surrounding area in grey.

Importantly, however, the report noted that most climate migration will take place within a country’s own borders rather than internationally. This has been borne out by other climate migration research, which found that the majority of people who are displaced stay closer to home. In fact, the global south is the predominant host of all categories of forcibly displaced people worldwide, be they refugees or climate migrants: roughly 85% of refugees are displaced from and hosted within global south settings.

In fact, Americans are most likely to experience the migration impacts of climate change in terms of large movements of other Americans into urban areas of the northern U.S.. Historically, the largest migrations of people in total terms have been from rural to urban areas within their own nations, and the United States is no different: 1 in 12 Americans in the southern half of the country are projected to move toward California, the Mountain West or the Northwest over the next 45 years due to climate influences. Cities of the Northeast and Northwest could see their populations rise by roughly ten percent as Americans flee overly hot, flooded, or otherwise dangerous regions.

However, at the end of the day, the biggest predictor of human migration is not political instability, climate change, or even the scale of a particular natural disaster, but the vulnerability or resources of the people who are impacted. As migration scholar Hein de Haas noted, extreme impoverishment does not lead to massive international movements, and in fact, the people who are most negatively impacted by climate change are often the people least able to escape it.

Because of the complex and interconnected reasons people either stay or move from particular regions, and because the people most harmed by the worst effects of climate change will also frequently be those least able to avoid those harms, organizations and governments should strive for policies based on accurate and non-sensationalized data when forming policies related to climate change and the “root causes of migration.”

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