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