Food, Water, Health Also Threatened

By John Podesta, Founder and Director, The Center For American Progress

In 2018, the World Bank estimated that three regions (Latin America, sub-Saharan Africa, and Southeast Asia) will generate 143 million more climate migrants by 2050. In 2017, 68.5 million people were forcibly displaced, more than at any point in human history. While it is difficult to estimate, approximately one-third of these (22.5 million to 24 million people) were forced to move by “sudden onset” weather events—flooding, forest fires after droughts, and intensified storms. While the remaining two-thirds of displacements are the results of other humanitarian crises, it is becoming obvious that climate change is contributing to so-called slow onset events such as desertification, sea-level rise, ocean acidification, air pollution, rain pattern shifts and loss of biodiversity. This deterioration will exacerbate many humanitarian crises and may lead to more people being on the move.

Multilateral institutions, development agencies, and international law must do far more to thoroughly examine the challenges of climate change (early efforts, like the World Bank’s 2010 World Development Report on climate change, had little uptake at a time when few thought a climate crisis was around the corner). Moreover, neither a multilateral strategy nor a legal framework exist to account for climate change as a driver of migration. Whether in terms of limited access to clean water, food scarcity, agricultural degradation, or violent conflict, climate change will intensify these challenges and be a significant push factor in human migration patterns.

There are instances of climate change as the sole factor in migration, climate change is widely recognized as a contributing and exacerbating factor in migration and in conflict.

In South Asia, increasing temperatures, sea level rise, more frequent cyclones, flooding of river systems fed by melting glaciers, and other extreme weather events are exacerbating current internal and international migration patterns. Additionally, rapid economic growth and urbanization are accelerating and magnifying the impact and drivers of climate change—the demand for energy is expected to grow 66 percent by 2040.

Compounding this, many of the expanding urban areas are located in low-lying coastal areas, already threatened by sea level rise. The confluence of these factors leads the World Bank to predict that the collective South Asian economy (Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, the Maldives, Nepal, and Sri Lanka) will lose 1.8 percent of its annual GDP due to climate change by 2050. The New York Times reports that the living conditions of 800 million people could seriously diminish. Diminishing living conditions on this scale and intensity will prompt mass migration—possibly at an unprecedented level.

Northwest Africa is facing rising sea levels, drought, and desertification. These conditions will only add to the already substantial number of seasonal migrants and put added strain on the country of origin, as well as on destination countries and the routes migrants travel. The destabilizing effects of climate change should be of great concern to all those who seek security and stability in the region. Climate and security experts often cite the impacts of the extreme drought in Syria that preceded the 2011 civil war. The security community also highlights the connection between climate change and terrorism—for instance, the decline of agricultural and pastoral livelihoods has been linked to the effectiveness of financial recruiting strategies by al-Qaida.

The intersection of climate change and migration requires new, nimble, and comprehensive solutions to the multidimensional challenges it creates. Accordingly, the signatories to the 2015 Paris Agreement on climate change requested that the Warsaw International Mechanism for Loss and Damage Associated with Climate Change (WIM) develop recommendations for addressing people displaced by climate change. Similarly, The Global Compact for Safe, Orderly, and Regular Migration (adopted by 164 countries—not including the U.S.—in Marrakech in December 2018) called on countries to make plans to prevent the need for climate-caused relocation and support those forced to relocate. However, these agreements are neither legally binding nor sufficiently developed to support climate migrants—particularly migrants from South Asia, Central America, Northwest Africa, and the Horn of Africa.

As gradually worsening climate patterns and, even more so, severe weather events, prompt an increase in human mobility, people who choose to move will do so with little legal protection. The current system of international law is not equipped to protect climate migrants, as there are no legally binding agreements obliging countries to support climate migrants.

As gradually worsening climate patterns and, even more so, severe weather events, prompt an increase in human mobility, people who choose to move will do so with little legal protection. The current system of international law is not equipped to protect climate migrants, as there are no legally binding agreements obliging countries to support climate migrants.

While climate migrants who flee unbearable conditions resemble refugees, the legal protections afforded to refugees do not extend to them. In the aftermath of World War II, the United Nations established a system to protect civilians who had been forced from their home countries by political violence. Today, there are almost 20.4 million officially designated refugees under the protection of the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR)—however, there is an additional group of 21.5 million people who flee their homes as a result of sudden onset weather hazards every year.

The UNHCR has thus far refused to grant these people refugee status, instead designating them as “environmental migrants,” in large part because it lacks the resources to address their needs. But with no organized effort to supervise the migrant population, these desperate individuals go where they can, not necessarily where they should. As their numbers grow, it will become increasingly difficult for the international community to ignore this challenge. As severe climate change displaces more people, the international community may be forced to either redefine “refugees” to include climate migrants or create a new legal category and accompanying institutional framework to protect climate migrants. However, opening that debate in the current political context would be fraught with difficulty. Currently, the nationalist, anti-immigrant, and xenophobic atmosphere in Europe and the U.S. would most likely lead to limiting refugee protections rather than expanding them.

While there are no legally binding international regimes that protect climate migrants, there are voluntary compacts that could be used to support them. Most notably, 193 countries adopted the 2030 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), which address both migration and climate change.

Several of the 169 targets established by the SDGs lay out general goals that could be used to protect climate migrants. 

The scale and scope of climate change demand dynamic and comprehensive solutions. The U.S. must address climate stress on vulnerable populations specifically, rather than funneling more money into existing programs that operate on the periphery of the growing crisis.

Greener Cities is a division of Crossbow Communications. Greener Cities is a resource for sustainable and resilient cities and communities around the world.