It has been predicted that climate change will affect everything from the weather to livelihoods across the globe. It has already had an impact on people’s movement as well – but it is hard to estimate exactly how much of an impact it will have in the future.
Today, more people are on the move than ever before. According to the International Organization for Migration (IOM) there are now 258 million international migrants. This is 3.3 percent of the world’s population.
In the future, this figure is expected to rise for a number of reasons – including population growth, increasing connectivity, trade, rising inequality, demographic imbalances and, the theme we concentrate on here, climate change.
But nobody knows how exactly how much of an increase climate change will have on migration flows.
Last year, the World Bank group estimated that the accelerating impact of climate change in three densely populated regions of the world could mean that over 140 million people will move within their countries’ borders by 2050.
These regions – Sub-Saharan Africa, South Asia and Latin America – together contain around 55 percent of the developing world’s population. And this is just an estimate for these areas and for internal migration.
But in discussions about people moving for environmental reasons, we often hear figures like 200 million, or even or up to 1 billion,. However, these are more guesstimates rather than precise projections.
“I tend not to use those figures. It is understandable people want to quantify things, but it’s almost impossible to pin a figure on this”, says Alex Randall, an expert on climate change and migration, and project manager for the Climate Change and Migration Coalition.
He uses drought as an example: when it impacts farming, profitability declines and people might be out of work in that sector. These people will have to find new jobs and if there aren’t any in the vicinity, they will migrate to find them elsewhere.
But even then, they tend not to go further than they really need to – usually to the closest city, or at most, they go for seasonal work abroad.
This means a lot of the current climate related migration is movement from rural to urban areas. Or if local economies are doing badly in cities as well, seasonal workers cross borders to work elsewhere for short periods at a time.
“You can say climate change is a force behind this migration. But if you ask people they won’t say they moved because of climate change, but because they couldn’t get employed anymore”, Randall says.
An important point here is that local job prospects or factors such as social security systems play a big part in what people do.
Typically, only the poor will be forced to migrate when the environment changes, whereas the wealthy can more often choose to do so.
But the poorest and most vulnerable people also have the most difficulties leaving their homes, even when they would need to, suggests Anitta Kynsilehto, Senior Researcher from Tampere University.
“More well-being usually means more movement”, she says.
People move for different reasons – and these reasons can differ between countries, regions, villages, neighbourhoods, households and individuals. Environmental, political, economic and social factors all have a role.
“It is often stated that climate change causes migration movements, but it’s challenging to define how, if in any way, migration movements caused by climate change differ from those caused by other factors”, says Saija Niemi, a postdoctoral researcher from the University of Helsinki.
She also points out that things like the lack of opportunities for education or lack of connections to family members who have migrated earlier can influence a person’s decision to leave.
All of these decisions have multiple influencing factors, and that is one of the challenges in making estimates of the numbers of environmental or climate migrants.
“Migration is driven by a complex web of forces, so it’s very difficult to say X number of people will move by year Y”, says Alex Randall.
“It’s a very complicated picture, but climate change is a huge part of it, and will be an even bigger part in the future.”
So, people already move because of climate change and will probably do more so in the future. But news of migration and refugee movements can give us the wrong impression of the phenomena by focusing on very specific kinds of migrants, usually international refugees.
However, presently, people mainly move within their home countries. The figure mentioned earlier – 258 million migrants or 3.3 percent of the world population – does not take into account people who move within borders.
The most recent estimates suggest that there are now over 760 million internal migrants globally.
And when it comes to displacement, meaning moving against ones will, war is also not the main reason people are forced to leave their homes. Disasters are.
According to the Internal Displacement Monitoring Center, a striking 26.4 million people have been displaced every year between 2008 and 2014. This is one person per second.
During the aforementioned years, the amount of people displaced by disasters was almost double the amount of those that had to flee their homes because of armed conflict.
When it comes to climate change related displacement, Alex Randall makes a distinction between two types of reasons for it: sudden onset and slow onset disasters.
Sudden natural hazards force people to leave their homes quickly, within hours or days or weeks. Slow onset changes, like drought, affect people’s lives more slowly and allows more time for considering options.
“Both are linked to climate change, but in both cases, people tend to move short distances, within countries”, Randall emphasises.
So, the somewhat alarmist story that concentrates on a flow of climate refugees from the South to the North is far from the entire picture of climate related displacement.
Not only because most people don’t go very far when a disaster strikes, but also because they might simply not be allowed, or have the resources, to cross a border.
Even if climate change as a driver of migration is now starting to be recognized internationally, there is no such thing as a ‘climate refugee’ in international law. Displaced people must have another reason to get asylum, or for example a work permit, if they are to migrate legally.
But the question that remains is: will climate change increase displacement through increasing conflicts?
The link between conflicts and climate change is not direct, but it is often seen as one element in exacerbating or fuelling conflicts.
In one study, two researchers from Columbia University found a link between warmer or colder than usual weather and the amount of refugees. Between 2000–2014 there were more asylum seekers in the EU when there were more weather anomalies in the countries of origin.
“Our findings support the assessment that climate change, especially continued warming, will add another ‘threat multiplier’ that induces people to seek refuge abroad”, the study concludes.
If the warming continues in the future, they predict an increase of 28 percent in asylum applications in the EU by the end of the century.
Also, Alex Randall estimates that climate change is also likely to increase cross-border migration in the future. But by how much?
“It depends on how governments respond to [increased climate-induced migration]: with more border security or with support for people who are forced to move,” he says.
All in all, warming weather is just one piece of the puzzle.
If there are other job prospects, one might not have to move even if weather conditions change. If there are resources to get water from elsewhere when wells dry up, a conflict might not start as easily.
And finally, if there are possibilities to leave a destroyed country when other possibilities are exhausted, life might go on.
A lot depends not only on how well we succeed in mitigating climate change, but also on the resilience of local communities and how the international community responds to the changing circumstances.
As Anitta Kynsilehto puts it: attempts to address these complex issues require, first and foremost, political will to enhance global social justice.
Text: Elina Venesmäki and Veera Vehkasalo
Photos: Vanessa Riki