Environmental Refugees: Climate Change and Human Migrations


Image Source: Jessica Benko, New York Times, 19 April 2017 (See below for full link).

Climate change is a game changer in terms of population movements both internally and internationally. As Benko (NYT, 2017) notes “Climate change is a threat multiplier: It contributes to economic and political instability and also worsens the effects. It propels sudden-onset disasters like floods and storms and slow-onset disasters like drought and desertification; those disasters contribute to failed crops, famine and overcrowded urban centers; those crises inflame political unrest and worsen the impacts of war, which leads to even more displacement.”

So can climate change induce human migration? The short answer is ‘yes’, exemplified by ‘environmental refugees’ or individuals who are physically displaced from their homes and livelihoods by the effects of climate change. When we think of refugee movements, we typically think of individuals who are fleeing war, violence, persecution or some other reason that are recognized under the 1951 UN Convention on Refugees. Environmental refugees, on the other hand, are not recognized by the UN or national governments, but are increasingly part of the mix of displaced populations both at the national and international scale. Environmental refugees may be found in places where the environment has been degraded: Changing precipitation patterns and increased drought in already arid areas, rising sea levels that inundate low coastal areas and islands, and increased frequency of severe weather may generate tens of thousands of environmental refugees. For example, the Syrian civil war and the refugee crisis have been linked to climate change, drought, and the collapse of agriculture in the country (see Kelleya et al. 2015). The number of environmental refugees is only expected to grow, with the Fourth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) predicting the displacement of hundreds of millions of people due to climate change by 2080.

Although developing nations are expected to produce the majority of environmental refugees, we don’t need to look far to find examples of climate induced migrations. Already, the developed world is producing their own migrants owing to climate change. Florida, for example, is faced with increased coastal flooding due to climate change, potentially resulting in the relocation of millions of Floridians. Coastal flooding is also problematic in other places in the US and elsewhere.

The prospect of climate change adding environmental refugees to the list of reasons for displacement raises questions around the ability of countries, governments, and the global community to support these displaced individuals. The reality is, however, that governments will not move quickly, especially when climate change is denied and questioned.

Further Reading

Jessica Benko. How a Warming Planet Drives Human Migration. The New York Times, 19 April 2017. https://www.nytimes.com/2017/04/19/magazine/how-a-warming-planet-drives-human-migration.html?hpw&rref=magazine&action=click&pgtype=Homepage&module=well-region&region=bottom-well&WT.nav=bottom-well

Colin P. Kelleya, Shahrzad Mohtadib, Mark A. Canec, Richard Seagerc, and Yochanan Kushnir, “Climate change in the Fertile Crescent and implications of the  recent Syrian drought,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 2015, 112, no. 11, 3241– 3246.


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