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Why the conversation about climate change and migration needs to change

‘The climate crisis is not a standalone issue; it’s a product of a long history of exploitation, of inequality, of accumulation.’

A man plants a tree on an arid patch of ground.
An afforestation initiative to combat desertification in Mosul, Iraq, 25 November 2021. (Ismael Adnan/Reuters)

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If you haven’t seen the projections, you’ve probably still absorbed the gist of them: At some point in the not-too-distant future an astronomical number of people will likely be displaced by climate change. Estimates range from 140 million to 1.2 billion by 2050. 

For some, these vast numbers conjure cataclysmic images of hordes of desperate people escaping climate hotspots in the Global South, clamouring to cross borders into Europe and the United States. And they’re often accompanied by an important caveat: The worst version of this nightmare scenario can still be avoided if high-polluting countries act now to drastically reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

It’s a clear and evocative narrative that dovetails neatly with fears and anger about irregular migration in many Global North countries. The only problem is it’s riddled with inaccuracy and xenophobic bias – and it has also proven ineffective as a motivator for climate action. Even so, it seems to be increasingly accepted by many as a matter of fact.

“People don’t make the distinction of understanding migrating to where, which is a very important question,” says Amali Tower, the founder of the NGO Climate Refugees. “It doesn’t even matter, because all they hear is, ‘They’re coming here’, when they are not.”

A more nuanced picture

From sea level rise and desertification to increased drought and more severe storms, the effects of the climate crisis are already real, menacing, and evermore apparent in day-to-day life. A report next week by the UN-convened Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) is expected to give the most worrying assessment yet of these impacts. 

It can be tempting to draw a direct line between the effects of climate change and the ever-growing number of displaced people around the world. But the relationship between climate change and displacement is, in reality, more complex. “It can be difficult to isolate people who are solely moving as a result of climate change,” Joseph Kofi Teye, director of the Centre for Migration Studies at the University of Ghana, said in a recent interview with The New Humanitarian.

“Climate change has always been one of the drivers of migration, but it doesn’t act alone,” he explained. “It interacts with other social and economic factors… [and] it also interacts with political factors, such as conflicts.”

“It has been over-dramatised, how [climate change] has been linked to international migration,”

There is also a general misconception about who actually migrates, according to Kees van der Geest, a researcher at the United Nations University’s Institute for Environment and Human Security. 

The assumption tends to be that people who cross borders are destitute, van der Geest explained. But international migration is expensive, and those who undertake long and arduous irregular journeys toward Europe and the United States tend to be from cities and to have resources, some level of education, and connections to diaspora communities in the countries they’re trying to reach.

“It’s typically the poorer segments of a population, the more rural inhabitants, that are mostly affected by the impacts of climate change on their livelihoods, and they usually lack the means to migrate,” said van der Geest, adding that this could potentially change in the future as access to information and migration options evolve.

Read more → Immobility: The neglected flipside of the climate displacement crisis

For now, however, climate-influenced migration tends to be overwhelmingly rural to urban, and within – not between – countries. Even when climate migrants do cross borders, they tend to do so regionally, not from the Global South to the Global North. “It has been over-dramatised, how [climate change] has been linked to international migration,” said Teye. 

A different conversation?

The over-dramatised narrative about climate change and international migration was initially supposed to serve a purpose. Many of the historically high-polluting countries that need to drastically reduce emissions to prevent the worst impacts of climate change also happen to be Global North countries that are keen on keeping asylum seekers and migrants out. Because of this overlap, some researchers may have initially thought that studying the impacts of climate change on migration would contribute to greater concern and action on the topic, according to van der Geest.   

The response, however, has not been what was hoped for.

“When people hear about millions, or tens of millions, or hundreds of millions of people being forced to flee their homes because of climate change, the reaction unfortunately is not that people would fight against the impacts of climate change, but that countries and continents – like Europe and the US – would just fortify their borders to [prevent] those people from coming in,” van der Geest said. “We are now seeing that these numbers do not have that kind of positive impact on better climate policy, but rather [lead to] more strict migration policy.” 

The counterpoint to the over-dramatised narrative, according to Tower, should not be to de-emphasise climate migration, because it is still taking place, just mostly internally and regionally. 

“Communities that emit less and bear the brunt of the impact of emissions and are likely to be uprooted.”

Even though it’s difficult to draw a direct line between climate change and people showing up en masse to the borders of Europe and the United States, high-polluting countries in the Global North still bear a historical and disproportionate responsibility for the very real impacts of climate change that are already making people’s lives more precarious in hotspots around the world. “Your [emissions are] destabalising these countries, these regions. This is an unjust situation,” Tower said.  

“Our responsibility for emissions and our capacity to influence the reduction of emissions globally is very limited, but the consequences and the impact that climate change is having on our territories, on our social and ecosystem, is huge,” said Adrián Martínez Blanco, director of the Costa Rican NGO La Ruta Del Cima

But funding to help low-income countries mitigate and adapt to the impacts of climate change has been slow to materialise. In 2009, high-income countries pledged to provide $100 billion a year in financing to low-income countries for this purpose by 2020. But 2020 has come and gone, and high-income countries have yet to deliver on that promise. At COP26 last year, the United States and the EU also blocked the creation of a separate fund to address the growing costs of losses and damages incurred by countries in the Global South due to climate change.

Read more → What do rich countries owe the rest of the world?

“Those countries that are responsible for generating this crisis are doing everything they can to avoid dealing with this issue and to avoid responsibility,” Martínez said. “That’s basically the worst part of this.”

For Faisal Garba, a sociology lecturer and migration expert at the University of Cape Town in South Africa, the question of how to address climate displacement and migration must begin with an understanding of global inequalities. 

“Communities that emit less [and] bear the brunt of the impact of emissions and are likely to be uprooted – these are the people that are likely not even allowed to move in the first place,” Garba said. “The climate crisis is not a standalone issue; it’s a product of a long history of exploitation, of inequality, of accumulation.”

According to van der Geest, instead of trying to limit the mobility of people displaced by the impacts of climate change, the focus should be on enabling those facing its worst fallout to have more choices about how to respond – including when it comes to migration. 

“The more forced a migration movement is, the more likely it is that the effects are negative,” he said. “The more [that] people have a choice in where they go, when they go, with whom they go… the more likely it is that the outcomes would be positive for themselves, for their relatives at home, and for the places they go to.”

Edited by Andrew Gully.

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