Climate Migration: An Impending Global Challenge
For months, we have watched the crisis at the Mexican border as migrants tried to enter the U.S. In March, the U.S. Customs and Border Protection office estimated that there were 171,700 people attempting to cross the border—the highest number in 20 years. About 30 percent were families, of which one third were refused entry under Title 42, a public health statute.
The number of unaccompanied children arriving and being held in custody in U.S. border shelters hit over 5,700 in March. And this week, five unaccompanied girls between the ages of seven and 11 months were found at the Texas-Mexico border. While a migrant surge occurs every year as people come to the U.S. for seasonal work, the record number of children being sent by themselves is likely a sign of desperate conditions back home.
Most of those coming to the U.S. are residents of Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador, which are considered some of the most dangerous places on Earth. These countries are poor and plagued by gang violence, extortion, and government corruption.
Last year, they were hard hit by COVID, and then two back-to-back hurricanes in November, which killed more than 200 people. The storms displaced over half a million people, buried houses under mud, and destroyed 40 percent of the corn crop and 65 percent of the beans. Many people lost homes, access to clean water, and their livelihoods. The governments did not offer much help.
Climate change — as embodied by the hurricanes — may have been the precipitating factor that pushed many to try to cross the Mexican border into the U.S., but it is usually one of many reasons that people decide to move.
Alex de Sherbinin, associate director for Science Applications and a senior research scientist at the Earth Institute’s Center for International Earth Science Information Network, said, “Climate change, if it’s not currently the main driver of migration, tends to operate indirectly, and will continue to do that. But as the number of severe and extreme weather events or climate-related disasters increases, we’re going to see more migration and more of that may be directly triggered by it.”
Most ongoing migration occurs in response to fast-onset events, such as extreme weather, and usually results in short-term displacement within the person’s own country. This is naturally easier than migrating to another country, and occurs more than three times as often as international migration. But recurring temporary displacements can often lead to permanent displacement. As climate change impacts intensify and living conditions in certain areas gradually worsen, affecting land productivity, access to clean water, food security, and livelihoods, more and more people will likely be forced to leave their homes and potentially cross borders into other countries.
Climate change and migration
For thousands of years, humans have lived mostly on lands where a limited range of comfortable temperatures enabled an abundance of food to grow. Today, only one percent of the world is barely tolerable due to heat; but by 2070, extremely hot zones could make up almost 20 percent of the land, which means that a third of humanity could potentially be living in uninhabitable conditions. For every degree of temperature increase, it’s estimated that one billion people are pushed out of the hospitable zone.
The impacts of climate change — sea level rise, heat waves, storms, drought, and wildfires — will influence global migration. The New York Times reported that 40.5 million people across the planet were displaced in 2020—the most in 10 years—largely due to these impacts. The 2018 World Bank report Groundswell, which the Earth Institute’s de Sherbinin and Susana Adamo worked on, cited estimates that 30 to 143 million climate migrants may be forced from their homes by climate change impacts by 2050. The Groundswell II report, due out in July and covering all developing countries, pushes the upper bound to more than 200 million.
By 2035, the frequency of major hurricanes is expected increase by 12 percent in the South Indian Ocean, 14 percent in the Atlantic, and 41 percent in the South Pacific compared to 1986-2005 averages. Between now and 2100, sea levels could rise between two and 6.9 feet, submerging millions of homes around the world; sea level rise also creates larger storm surges and can cause saltwater contamination of farmland and drinking water supplies.
Drought has displaced 800,000 within their own countries each year since 2017; in the future, dry regions are expected to get drier still. And over the last decade, wildfires around the world have forced more than 200,000 people per year to leave home; 75 percent of them were in the U.S. Moreover, scientists also believe that there will be more compound weather events, such as flash floods and mud slides that occur after wildfires.
In 2017, approximately 23 million people around the world were displaced due to sudden extreme weather events. Another 44 million or so were displaced due to “humanitarian crises,” likely exacerbated by the cascading effects of climate change. For example, climate experts believe the extreme drought in Syria led to its civil war in 2011. And as crops fail and livelihoods are lost, terrorist groups recruit more desperate people and violence spreads. In countries without the resources to deal with climate change impacts and care for their people, conflicts over resources arise. A recent report by the National Intelligence Council predicted that climate change effects will increase migration, which in turn will put a strain on both origin and destination countries and potentially trigger disputes that could become national security concerns.
Climate migrants of the future
The Groundswell report focused on migration in sub-Saharan Africa, South Asia, and Latin America, which together comprise 55 percent of the developing world’s population. It projected that, if we do not take bold climate action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and help developing countries, 143 million people from these regions could be forced to move within their own countries to flee the effects of climate change. Migration could also accelerate after 2050 due to stronger climate impacts and population growth. If we can act to stem climate change, the number could be reduced to between 31 and 72 million. Extreme heat events, declining water availability, diminishing snowpack that feeds river basins, and sea level rise will drive people from “hot spots”— such as low-lying cities, coastlines, and places with water scarcity and decreasing crop yields. These migrants will gravitate toward places with a more hospitable climate for agriculture and more job opportunities.
Another study found that higher tides due to sea level rise could affect the land that 150 million people live on by 2050. If the melting of the Antarctic ice sheets picks up speed, 300 million could be affected and up to 480 million by 2100. Seventy percent of the people who would be affected live in eight Asian countries: China, Bangladesh, India, Vietnam, Indonesia, Thailand, the Philippines, and Japan.
Sea level rise has already overtaken eight Pacific islands, forcing the residents to migrate, and two more islands will soon disappear. By 2100, it’s estimated that 48 islands will have been submerged.
Parts of the U.S. are increasingly difficult to live in because of drought, floods, hurricanes, wildfires and sea level rise. A collaborative effort between ProPublica and the New York Times predicted that 162 million Americans will experience a decline in the quality of their environment and by 2070, four million could be living outside of their comfort zone. Because California has experienced record-breaking heat waves and rampant wildfires, with the wildfire season getting longer each year, many Californians are already moving to Idaho, Texas, Oregon and Washington.
Another researcher projected that rising sea levels will force 13 million Americans to move away from the coasts, and that in-land cities such as Atlanta, Orlando, Houston and Austin could each get 250,000 new residents by 2100.
Flooding and high tide are jeopardizing the Quileute Tribe’s school in northwest Washington, forcing the tribe to move the school and tribal government seat 2.5 miles away. In Louisiana, residents of low-lying Isle de Jean Charles are being moved 40 miles to higher ground in the first federally funded U.S. community resettlement project resulting from climate change.
Migration can be considered an adaptation to climate change, as those facing increasingly dire living situations who have the means will likely move. Most people don’t want to leave home, but if they feel they have no choice, they will usually first move from the countryside to a nearby city. If these cities lack the infrastructure or resources to support new residents, they could become overwhelmed.
And migrants with few resources and opportunities often end up living in slums, which are more susceptible to the impacts of climate change and chaos. Today half the global population is urban; the World Bank has estimated that by 2050, 67 percent of humanity will live in cities, with 40 percent of them living in slums by 2030.
Governments in many countries are already reacting to the waves of migrants by holding them in detention centers and erecting walls—Hungary closed off its border with Serbia, India constructed a fence on its Bangladesh border, and under Trump, the U.S. built its own wall. The anti-immigration sentiment has also ushered into office more nationalist governments around the world.
Meanwhile, as the wealthy are able to move to higher or cooler ground or to a more resilient location, some of the most vulnerable people without the means to move—like the poor or elderly—become trapped. This becomes a vicious cycle: As people abandon the community, there is less of a tax base to pay for social services, and those who are left behind and need public support suffer more as they become increasingly desperate. The disparity between rich and poor and their ability or inability to deal with climate change will almost certainly end up creating even more social division than exists now.
Climate migrants have no legal protection
Right now, the world is unprepared to meet the challenge of climate migration. No country offers asylum or legal protection to climate migrants. Because climate change cannot always be identified as the sole or principal reason for migrating, climate migrants have little recourse within current international or U.S. laws. They are not considered “refugees” because they do not fit under the 1951 U.N. Refugee Convention, the U.N.’s legal document that protects refugees—defined as displaced people “who have a well-founded fear of being persecuted because of their race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, and are unable or unwilling to seek protection from their home countries.”
While some experts believe climate migrants should be included under the “refugee” rubric, others argue that doing so would water down a convention that is already ignored by many countries. De Sherbinin said, “The fact is that Western governments have shown very little desire or inclination to receive migrants from other parts of the world—refugees—even by current standards, so to broaden the definition, you run the risk that people or governments will just say, ‘I’m opting out,’ or ‘I’m not even going to be part of this convention.’ It may be more appropriate to have this be a matter of national decision-making, so governments can decide whether they want to expand the definitions under which they receive refugees.”
The U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees does provide relief help and planned relocation guidance to the “disaster displaced,” and in 2019, appointed a special advisor to help shape the agency’s climate change agenda.
The Global Compact for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration, an agreement adopted in 2018 by 164 countries, but not the U.S., helps countries prevent displacement due to climate change and provide support to those who are forced to migrate. It is the first international agreement to clarify how countries should deal with international migration, but it is not legally binding.
Because there is no organization that oversees migration, displaced people go wherever they can and not necessarily where it would be best for them to go. As climate migration increases, the situation will likely become more chaotic and overwhelming unless legal and social frameworks are created for the displaced. However, given the current nationalistic and anti-immigrant atmosphere, trying to create an international legal framework to protect climate migrants might actually lead to reducing refugee protections, not extending them.
There are no easy solutions
While there are no easy answers to the complex challenge of climate migration, here are some ideas that have been proposed to make it less chaotic and more humanitarian.
-Enable free movement between member states. For example, the Caribbean has Free Movement Agreements for climate migration. During the 2017 hurricane season, the governments allowed displaced people to move to other islands, waived the need for travel documents and work permits, granted indefinite stays to the displaced, and helped with resettlement.
-Create a Western Hemisphere regional compact on permanent displacement to expand protection and status for those who have been permanently displaced over an international border by climate change impacts.
-Plan relocation of villages and communities from areas where climate change impacts are threatening. In the Pacific Islands, Vanuatu has developed safeguards and operating procedures for relocation which include technical expertise and financial assistance.
-Ensure that cities are better able to deal with an influx of migrants through investments in infrastructure, sanitation and health services, education, and opportunities for skills and job training.
-Fund more research on how climate change will shape migration so that governments can better predict migration and prepare for it.
-Set up a system of criteria and proof to determine if someone has a credible claim that they were harmed by climate impacts, since this is necessary for the application of laws and rules.
-Build climate migration into policies and long-term planning. This would include helping communities stay where they are by investing in resilience, job opportunities, education and social safety nets. For climate migrants, create incentives to move to low-risk, high-opportunity places. For example, Bangladesh is creating “climate-resilient, migrant-friendly” towns to encourage migrants to move to secondary cities rather than to already overcrowded major cities.
-Pay climate reparations. “The historically largest emitters owe something to the countries that are now being impacted most heavily by climate impacts,” said de Sherbinin. “And providing them with assistance is no longer just a matter of giving handouts—it’s actually an obligation. Because we [wealthy countries] set up the whole climate problem [through our emissions] for many of these countries that have contributed so little to it.”
What President Biden is doing
In an attempt to address the factors that make people want to enter the U.S., President Biden has proposed $4 billion in aid to help Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala deal with poverty, lack of jobs, government corruption, violence and climate change. He has also announced $310 million of emergency funding to help displaced people. These measures, however, could paradoxically increase migration by giving more people the means to move.
Biden has also issued an executive order for the creation of a report on climate change and migration, with recommendations for the resettlement and protection of migrants. The mayors of 15 cities, including New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Houston and others, have asked to be consulted for the report, as they “deal with the impacts of climate change and migration on a daily basis.” De Sherbinin is also part of an expert group organized by Refugees International to advise the Biden administration on shaping policies for climate migration.
Under Trump, the number of refugees allowed into the U.S. was set at an historic low of 15,000. President Biden has now raised the refugee cap to 62,500, and plans to increase it to 125,000 in 2022. A number of Republicans criticized the decision as irresponsible and dangerous.
“People in the U.S. perceive that migrants are a burden,” said de Sherbinin. “The reality is the data just don’t prove that in any way. Look at migrants who pay taxes—I’m talking about the undocumented—who are working hard contributing to society. They’re not on welfare, they don’t even qualify for welfare. They’re the ultimate ‘sink or swim’ people who are going to have to pull their own weight. Definitely, there’s a need to recognize and dispel some of the myths about migrants being parasites. But I think, frankly, most of the fear and concern is borne out of a racist reaction to people who are Brown and Black and other colors, and don’t speak our language. They are perceived as a threat.”
The U.S. could actually stand to benefit from an influx of immigrants because it, like other industrialized countries, is facing a demographic decline, which could lead to slow growth and a weakening economy. Migrants who come to the U.S. for better job opportunities would stimulate economic growth through their labor, their buying power and the taxes they pay.
ProPublica and the New York Times modeled international climate migration, as well as political responses to climate change and migration. It showed that how leaders respond to climate change and migration will make a huge difference in how much human suffering there will ultimately be. If they fight climate change aggressively, manage migration humanely, and invest in resiliency, there will be less poverty, less migration, and enough to eat, and these outcomes could help the world be a more stable and peaceful place.