Climate change, environment and migration

International Institute for Sustainable Development

By Philippe Boncour, Head of the International Dialogue on Migration Division in the Migration Policy, Research and Communication Department of the International Organization for Migration

While the movement of people as a result of changes in the environment is not a new phenomenon, it is only in the last two decades that the international community has begun to recognise the wider implications that a changing climate and environment have for human mobility. The First Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) issued in 1990 noted that “one of the gravest effects of climate change may be those on human migration”.[1] This claim was further substantiated in 2007 by the findings of the IPCC Fourth Assessment Report, which provided ample indications that climate change is likely to raise the risk of humanitarian emergencies and trigger population movements as a result of increasingly intense weather events, sea-level rise and accelerated environmental degradation, including coastal erosion and desertification.

It is the most vulnerable who are expected to bear the brunt of climate change impacts, including its migratory and displacement consequences. Least developed countries are especially vulnerable to the adverse effects of climate change, not only because a large share of their economies depends on climate-sensitive sectors, but also due to their low adaptive capacities resulting from lack of resources and limited institutional and technological capability. Within the affected populations, vulnerable groups, such as women and children, especially amongst the poorest sections of the population, bear the highest burden of losses due to environmental degradation and its consequences. Recognizing and addressing the implications of the climate change and migration nexus will therefore be essential for ensuring human security.

Much of the discourse on the climate change and migration has focused primarily on cross-border movements, in particular those resulting from extreme environmental events. As a result, environmental migration is usually associated with crisis and is thought of a “last resort.” This outlook, combined with the widely varying estimates of the numbers of people expected to move as a result of climate change,[2] has raised fears that millions of people from the developing world would be forced to migrate to industrialized countries as a result of climate change. These fears, however, are largely misplaced, as the realities of environmental migration are much more complex and nuanced.

Existing research suggests that only a relatively small number of environmental migrants is likely to move beyond their region of origin: environmental migration is likely to be predominantly internal, with a smaller proportion of movement taking place to neighbouring countries.[3] It is also important to bear in mind that while natural disasters and the migration flows they trigger tend to be very visible, a larger number of people overall is expected to move as a result of gradual environmental degradation. Furthermore, not all environmental migration is forced: in cases of early stages of gradual environmental degradation in particular, people often move voluntarily, usually on a temporary basis, using migration as a livelihood diversification strategy to adapt to the changes in the environment. There is also evidence that, as migration requires resources, it is not necessarily the most vulnerable and the most severely affected who migrate. Therefore, attempts to stem migration at all cost may increase rather than decrease people’s vulnerability to environmental pressures acting upon them.

Policy approaches and practical measures for addressing the climate change and migration nexus need to reflect the complexity of the relationship between these factors. Minimizing forced environmental migration as much a possible needs to be one of the priorities. It is also essential to ensure that adequate assistance and protection is provided where forced migration does occur. However, it is also important to facilitate the role of migration as an adaptation strategy to climate change by, for instance, developing temporary and circular labour migration schemes for environmentally vulnerable communities, particularly at less advanced stages of environmental degradation, and seeking to strengthen the developmental effects of such migration on areas of origin. Overall, the key is to move from reactive to proactive measures, including planning for expected population movements and making migration one of the options for people who need to adapt to a changing environment.

For its part, the International Organization for Migration (IOM) has been actively working at the policy, research and programmatic levels together with a wide range of partners to raise awareness of the need for a comprehensive approach to migration and climate change and to realize the above objectives.[4] However, much more needs to be done to develop policy coherence in this area at national and international levels. This would involve, for instance, ensuring that National Adaptation Programmes of Action fully acknowledge the impact of climate change on migration as well as migrations’ potential for adaptation. Furthermore, it is important to build synergies between the humanitarian community and development actors, including by bolstering adaptive measures such as disaster risk reduction.

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