Get Red Pepper's email newsletter. Enter your email address to receive our latest articles, updates and news.


Adapting to change

The impact of climate change on human migration could be profound. But the relationship between the two is far more complicated than many suggest, writes Alex Randall

December 1, 2015
6 min read

Over the summer, as the numbers of people fleeing Syria and North Africa reached a new high, a number of commentators pointed to the drought in Syria that preceded the conflict. A prolonged drought in the mid-2000s destroyed many rural livelihoods, leading people to move into cities hoping to find work. At the same time, unrest resulting from the Syrian regime’s numerous abuses and failings was on the rise. This, combined with the growing numbers of people living in urban poverty, created the conditions for the uprising that started in 2011.

This much comes from well-established and highly credible research. However, the media reports went further. Some commentators speculated that a hotter planet might create new and unprecedented waves of refugees: Europe would be inundated, they claimed, unless we did something to halt climate change.

These predictions were unhelpful for two reasons. First, they’re not accurate. The way climate change affects migration is actually far more complicated. Second, they painted migrants and refugees as a threat. The supposed threat posed by refugees was being used to make the case for reductions in carbon emissions, especially in the run up to the next round of climate negotiations in Paris.

Of course, the threat posed by unchecked climate change will be catastrophic. Climate impacts may force millions into poverty and create widespread displacement. But some commentators painted refugees and migrants themselves as part of this future apocalypse. Somehow a group of the most vulnerable people had become a threat to civilisation, rather than the wealthy nations and companies who are responsible for most of the carbon emissions.

The way climate change might affect migration is also rather different to this apocalyptic narrative. This doesn’t mean that the experience of people who are forcibly displaced is any less traumatic. And it doesn’t mean that the responsibility of developed countries to provide assistance is any less.

Patterns of displacement

Climate change could reshape patterns of natural disasters, making some kinds of disasters more severe or more regular. This in turn will alter patterns of displacement. However, when this displacement takes place the vast majority of it is internal. People tend not to cross international borders. Usually people seek safety near to their homes. This was the case in the aftermath of the widespread flooding in Pakistan in 2010. Millions of people were displaced, but most remained within Pakistan. The sudden nature of some disasters means that people often flee with whatever possessions they can carry, and do not move far.

As one survivor of the 2010 floods told the World Food Programme: ‘The water came at night and we didn’t have time to save our belongings; we had to chose whether to save our children and ourselves or our property and assets, so we chose to save our kids. We left everything and ran to save our lives.’

In an interview with Al Jazeera, Shauquat Ali, displaced tenant farmer and father said: ‘I go to get registered [as an Internally Displaced Person] and they dismiss me. I don’t want to live here. I don’t want my children out on the streets. In my village I have little but I look after my family.’

When people do cross international borders, it is often because a climate-linked disaster has combined with other political forces, such as conflict or human rights abuses, or when climate change, conflict and economic factors such as food prices and unemployment have combined. This is what happened in Syria. But Syria was certainly not the first time these factors had met and created widespread displacement across borders. In 2011 severe drought across the Horn of Africa, combined with rising food prices and existing conflicts, affected millions of people.

Speaking to the United Nations University, an elderly Somali farmer explained: ‘And since there was the war, we did not receive any support from the government. Therefore, there are combined factors that made us suffer: droughts and war. If war did not exist, then we might have been able to stay, but now that the land is looted, there is no way for us to claim it.’

Stay or go?

One of the counter-intuitive effects of climate change on migration might be that people move less. Not all disasters happen in an instant. Some, like desertification and water stress, are creeping disasters that unfold over years. These gradually erode people’s livelihoods, making them progressively poorer. People may reach a point where they no longer have the money to move. Climate impacts will have trapped them where they are, in worsening poverty, when migrating and finding work elsewhere may have been their best option.

For many, of course, migration will become the way they adapt to climate change. When this migration is not made in situations of distress and it is freely chosen there is no reason that migration should not become one of the climate adaptation strategies open to people. Indeed, for some areas that will be catastrophically affected by climate change, migration may be the only adaptation option.

Many people are already using migration to protect themselves from climate change impacts. Often people move and find temporary work in nearby cities, and then return during busier periods in the agricultural cycle. Some move when drought and water stress are at their worst and then return if conditions improve. What begin as patterns of temporary and seasonal migration may become more permanent ways of adapting to climate change.

‘My grandfather, father and I have worked these lands. But times have changed,’ a farmer in Hueyotlipan, Mexico told researchers of the European Commission’s EACH-FOR (Environmental Change and Forced Migration) programme. ‘The rain is coming later now, so that we produce less. The only solution is to go away, at least for a while. Each year I’m working for three to five months in Wyoming. That’s my main source of income. But leaving my village forever? No. I was raised here and here I will stay.’

There is a strong case for helping people to migrate as a way of adapting to climate change. The alternative is allowing them to remain trapped in ever-increasing poverty, or waiting for them to be forcibly displaced.

Alex Randall works on a number of migration and climate change campaigns. He writes in a personal capacity

Red Pepper is an independent, non-profit magazine that puts left politics and culture at the heart of its stories. We think publications should embrace the values of a movement that is unafraid to take a stand, radical yet not dogmatic, and focus on amplifying the voices of the people and activists that make up our movement. If you think so too, please support Red Pepper in continuing our work by becoming a subscriber today.
Why not try our new pay as you feel subscription? You decide how much to pay.

The new municipalism is part of a proud radical history
Molly Conisbee reflects on the history of citizens taking collective control of local services

With the rise of Corbyn, is there still a place for the Green Party?
Former Green principal speaker Derek Wall says the party may struggle in the battle for votes, but can still be important in the battle of ideas

Fearless Cities: the new urban movements
A wave of new municipalist movements has been experimenting with how to take – and transform – power in cities large and small. Bertie Russell and Oscar Reyes report on the growing success of radical urban politics around the world

A musical fightback against school arts cuts
Elliot Clay on why his new musical turns the spotlight on the damage austerity has done to arts education, through the story of one school band's battle

Neoliberalism: the break-up tour
Sarah Woods and Andrew Simms ask why, given the trail of destruction it has left, we are still dancing to the neoliberal tune

Cat Smith MP: ‘Jeremy Corbyn has authenticity. You can’t fake that’
Cat Smith, shadow minister for voter engagement and youth affairs and one of the original parliamentary backers of Corbyn’s leadership, speaks to Ashish Ghadiali

To stop the BBC interviewing climate deniers, we need to make climate change less boring
To stop cranks like Lord Lawson getting airtime, we need to provoke more interesting debates around climate change than whether it's real or not, writes Leo Barasi

Tory Glastonbury? Money can’t buy you cultural relevance
Adam Peggs on why the left has more fun

Essay: After neoliberalism, what next?
There are economically-viable, socially-desirable alternatives to the failed neoliberal economic model, writes Jayati Ghosh

With the new nuclear ban treaty, it’s time to scrap Trident – and spend the money on our NHS
As a doctor, I want to see money spent on healthcare not warfare, writes David McCoy - Britain should join the growing international movement for disarmament

Inglorious Empire: What the British Did to India
Inglorious Empire: What the British Did to India, by Shashi Tharoor, reviewed by Ian Sinclair

A Death Retold in Truth and Rumour
A Death Retold in Truth and Rumour: Kenya, Britain and the Julie Ward Murder, by Grace A Musila, reviewed by Allen Oarbrook

‘We remembered that convictions can inspire and motivate people’: interview with Lisa Nandy MP
The general election changed the rules, but there are still tricky issues for Labour to face, Lisa Nandy tells Ashish Ghadiali

Everything you know about Ebola is wrong
Vicky Crowcroft reviews Ebola: How a People’s Science Helped End an Epidemic, by Paul Richards

Job vacancy: Red Pepper is looking for an online editor
Closing date for applications: 1 September.

Theresa May’s new porn law is ridiculous – but dangerous
The law is almost impossible to enforce, argues Lily Sheehan, but it could still set a bad precedent

Interview: Queer British Art
James O'Nions talks to author Alex Pilcher about the Tate’s Queer British Art exhibition and her book A Queer Little History of Art

Cable the enabler: new Lib Dem leader shows a party in crisis
Vince Cable's stale politics and collusion with the Conservatives belong in the dustbin of history, writes Adam Peggs

Anti-Corbyn groupthink and the media: how pundits called the election so wrong
Reporting based on the current consensus will always vastly underestimate the possibility of change, argues James Fox

Michael Cashman: Commander of the Blairite Empire
Lord Cashman, a candidate in Labour’s internal elections, claims to stand for Labour’s grassroots members. He is a phony, writes Cathy Cole

Contribute to Conter – the new cross-party platform linking Scottish socialists
Jonathan Rimmer, editor of Conter, says it’s time for a new non-sectarian space for Scottish anti-capitalists and invites you to take part

Editorial: Empire will eat itself
Ashish Ghadiali introduces the June/July issue of Red Pepper

Eddie Chambers: Black artists and the DIY aesthetic
Eddie Chambers, artist and art historian, speaks to Ashish Ghadiali about the cultural strategies that he, as founder of the Black Art Group, helped to define in the 1980s

Despite Erdogan, Turkey is still alive
With this year's referendum consolidating President Erdogan’s autocracy in Turkey, Nazim A argues that the way forward for democrats lies in a more radical approach

Red Pepper Race Section: open editorial meeting – 11 August in Leeds
The next open editorial meeting of the Red Pepper Race Section will take place between 3.30-5.30pm, Friday 11th August in Leeds.

Mogg-mentum? Thatcherite die-hard Jacob Rees-Mogg is no man of the people
Adam Peggs says Rees-Mogg is no joke – he is a living embodiment of Britain's repulsive ruling elite

Power to the renters: Turning the tide on our broken housing system
Heather Kennedy, from the Renters Power Project, argues it’s time to reject Thatcher’s dream of a 'property-owning democracy' and build renters' power instead

Your vote can help Corbyn supporters win these vital Labour Party positions
Left candidate Seema Chandwani speaks to Red Pepper ahead of ballot papers going out to all members for a crucial Labour committee

Join the Rolling Resistance to the frackers
Al Wilson invites you to take part in a month of anti-fracking action in Lancashire with Reclaim the Power

The Grenfell public inquiry must listen to the residents who have been ignored for so long
Councils handed housing over to obscure, unaccountable organisations, writes Anna Minton – now we must hear the voices they silenced