The New Humanitarian (TNH)
Specialists studying the likelihood of population movements due to climate change effects offer widely divergent predictions. But most agree policymakers must understand that migration is a vital coping mechanism for at-risk populations and must do more to help destination hubs prepare.
“Migration and mobility are always seen as exceptions but they are the norm. Mobility helps people get out of poverty,” said Cecelia Tacoli, senior researcher with London-based NGO the International Institute for Environment and Development. “If people affected by climate change lack access to resources or need to diversify their income sources, this lack should be [addressed] rather than be seen as a problem.”
Tacoli will publish a study, 'Crisis or adaptation? Migration and climate change in a context of high mobility’, in October.
Norman Myers, renowned environmentalist and fellow with Oxford University’s 21st Century School, who has just completed a study for the Swedish International Development Agency, said “hundreds of millions” of people could be driven from their homes by environmental crises and degradation by 2040.
NGO Christian Aid in 2007 estimated that up to 250 million people could be displaced by 2050 as a result of climate change effects. And in 2001 a World Bank study by Susmita Dasgupta predicted that sea level rises could force hundreds of millions of people to move within this century.
Up to 70 percent of people living in cities of 5 million or more live within 1km-2km of seaways, according to the UN.
But the IIED’s Tacoli said the projected migrant figures are inflated, as they tend to be based on population estimates in areas most likely to be affected by climate change, rather than on the number of people most likely to move.
Koko Warner, head of the Environmental Migration, Social Vulnerability and Adaptation Section at the UN University, said too many variables make accurate migrant predictions difficultto-impossible.
“When…predicting the environment, we can feel a bit confident – there is a lot of information out there. But when we are studying humans, it’s more dicey….Figures are almost always based on census information undertaken every five to 10 years, so all you get is a snapshot.”
These figures do not indicate why people have left or what the social dynamics behind their movements were, she added.
Myers defended his predictions. “These should not be taken to be gospel truth,” he said. “Rather they are informed estimates. If scientists kept quiet about numbers, then policymakers would say the absence of evidence [means] the absence of a problem.”
To date research on natural disaster-related population movements indicates most affected people move within a country’s borders, with the most vulnerable populations the least able to migrate far, with long-distance international migration the least likely option available.
One-off extreme events tend to trigger short-distance, short-term migrations; while longer-term environmental changes tend to generate longer-distance, more permanent migrations, says a 2009 Refugee Studies Centre report by James Morrissey.
Tacoli and others are pushing for policymakers to speed up help to vulnerable states to prepare for climate change at home, for instance by building up infrastructure and basic services in small towns in rural areas that could become destination hubs.
“Small towns in agricultural areas are especially important to provide livelihoods to the poorest groups, who are often landless and do not have the means to migrate to larger cities," Tacoli told IRIN.
“With many aspects of climate change mitigation it will be local governments that can make the most difference,” she said. “We will need the support of national governments in affected countries to promote this, but at the moment we are talking only about external governments when it comes to migration.”
Boosting local adaptation could also diminish the number of people forced to move in the first place, Warner said.
This must be at the heart of the migrant debate, rather than stirring up “fear-of-migration” rhetoric from policymakers and leaders, many of whom have framed climate change as a national security issue, researchers told IRIN.
An August report by the US Department of Defense said climate-induced crises and related mass people movements could topple governments, feed terrorist movements or destabilize entire regions. The UK Ministry of Defence’s Development, Concepts and Doctrine Centre (DCDC) has made similar predictions.
And the European Union High Representative for Foreign and Security Policy, Javier Solana, warned in 2008 that climate-change-related migration “may increase conflict in transit and destination areas. Europe must expect substantially increased migratory pressure.”
“It’s quite inappropriate for industrialized nations to build barriers – be they institutional, political or mental barriers – across the Mediterranean to bar would-be migrants from passing…if they don’t look at solutions for the numbers – both local and international – they will just get overwhelmed,” Oxford University’s Myers said.
There is some indication that EU member states are approaching a more nuanced picture on environmental migration. The European Commission is funding research in 24 vulnerable countries, to address the dynamics of environmentally-driven migration and examine lessons learned.
Rather than foment panic, leaders should apply lessons from the past to inform both migration and climate change mitigation policies in years to come, Tacoli said.