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Addressing The Climate Migration Crisis

By Ishan Khire



Introduction

175,500.


That is the number of people that were displaced in Haiti by the devastating Hurricane Matthew in 2016, which caused $2.8 billion in damage [1]. Unfortunately, this catastrophe is not an isolated incident.

The UN International Organization for Migration forecasts that there may be as many as 1 billion climate migrants by 2050 [2]. Most will not originate from developed nations, but rather from highly populated vulnerable communities in developing countries. To protect and develop solutions for the millions of people at risk of being displaced annually, it is imperative to understand the drivers of climate migration.



Causes of Climate Migration

Climate migration often cannot be attributed to one single phenomenon; rather, it arises from various environmental, political, and economic forces that interplay with, and exacerbate each other.

  1. Rising sea levels: For low lying regions in countries like Bangladesh, rising sea levels lead to increasingly frequent and intense floods that destroy rice paddies, causing internal migration to cities like Dhaka [3].

  2. Resource scarcity: Water scarcity is a worsening problem, especially in subtropical regions [4]. The UN estimates that for every 1 degree Celsius rise in global temperatures, there is a 20% drop in renewable water resources [5]. This has detrimental effects to food security, such as in Guatemala, where intense droughts and devastating floods have forced farmers north towards the United States [6][7].

  3. Deadly weather events: Rising global temperatures mean that devastating heat waves, storms, wildfires, and crippling droughts are more common and severe than ever.

  4. Increasing conflict: Droughts across Chad, Nigeria, Niger and Cameroon have increased poverty, making joining militant groups more attractive [8]. Increasing resource scarcity could also lead to greater conflict in the future.



Solutions to Climate Migration


Mitigation

The most straightforward solution to climate migration is, well, to stop climate change. Already, we see significant advancements in technology; costs of solar energy are rapidly declining to the point where they are now cheaper than fossil fuels [9]. Still, we have a long way to go. Countries are consistently falling short of their climate pledges; the 2022 UN Emissions Gap Report shows that we are far from the Paris Agreement aim of limiting global warming to 1.5° C [10]. Furthermore, renewable energy is still unable to provide a reliable supply of energy at scale, and as the developed world experiences economic growth, their emissions will rise. Even if we manage to surmount these hurdles over the next few years, the plight of those suffering from disasters now ought to be addressed.


Legal Recourse and Opening up Borders

International law is not equipped to protect climate migrants. They do not come under the definition of a “refugee” and as such, legal protections do not extend to them.


In 2015, the High Court of New Zealand denied a request for refugee status to the Teitota family, which faced rising sea levels threatening their island, Kiribati [11]. However, in 2020, the UNHCR made a landmark decision, ruling that countries cannot send climate refugees back home if their life is at imminent threat [12]. While this is a step in the right direction, it is far from the end. For one, the decision is not legally binding, meaning countries are not obligated to follow the decision. Secondly, there is a substantial amount of uncertainty regarding what meets the bar for a “climate refugee.” There are those that migrate due to gradual, yet equally pernicious, food shortages rather than large natural disasters. Do they fall under this category?


A reparative obligation exists for the US and Europe, being the historically primary contributors of carbon emissions [13], to establish definitions and open borders to the victims of their past actions. Moreover, this could be beneficial to them as well, as a solution to their rapidly ageing population to replace the declining workforce [14]. However, an increasingly xenophobic political climate stands in the way of freer borders.

To address the challenges faced by climate migrants, several changes need to be implemented. Firstly, countries should reach a legally enforceable consensus on letting climate refugees in, such as through a quota system. Secondly, countries must spend less on militarising borders and more on accommodating migrants. This includes delivering essentials to provide immediate respite after disasters, and in the long-term accelerating the integration of migrants by providing employment opportunities, healthcare, and education. In fact, as more migrants integrate, contribute to the economy, and create jobs through starting new enterprises, xenophobic attitudes may begin to change as local citizens view them as increasing the size of the pie as opposed to taking parts away from it [15]. Thirdly, researching migration patterns and making transport safer is important in ensuring migrants do not need to take dangerous routes to reach their destination [16].


Adaptation

Allowing the free flow of migration cannot be the sole solution. We must also focus on adapting to a world where climate change is an unavoidable reality, and remove the necessity for people to be forced out of their homes in the first place.


For countries particularly susceptible to a changing climate, investments such as building sea walls, using drought-resistant crop varieties, and encouraging regional water cooperation, could reduce push factors to migration.


For example, the Nile Basin Initiative [17], a partnership of ten Nile Basin countries to equitably utilise the Nile River, will be pivotal to mitigate the effects of deadly droughts in poor countries.

These investments could be funded, at least in part, by developed countries. In COP 27, developed countries agreed to create a fund to address loss and damage developing countries face due to climate change, to allow communities to recover and by rehabilitating victims [18]. $230 million was also pledged to the Adaptation Fund [19].


However, this still falls short of the estimated $300 billion developing countries [19] will require by 2030 to adapt to the effects of climate change. While recent progress is cause for optimism, further support from the developed world is crucial.


Conclusion

Climate migration is a complex, multifaceted issue that will shape international relations and determine the fate of millions forced out of their homes. It is critical that we develop a comprehensive, three-pronged approach of mitigation, legal recourse, and adaptation. While stopping climate change altogether would be ideal, it is unlikely to happen in the near future. In the meantime, we should work towards providing legal protections and immediate relief for climate migrants, as well as ensuring at-risk regions are resilient to the changing climate.


 

References


[1] World Bank (2017) “Rapidly Assessing the Impact of Hurricane Matthew in Haiti” https://www.worldbank.org/en/results/2017/10/20/rapidly-assessing-the-impact-of-hurricane-matthew-in-haiti

[3] “Bangladesh: A Country Underwater, a Culture on the Move” https://www.nrdc.org/stories/bangladesh-country-underwater-culture-move

[5] “Climate change threatening access to water and sanitation” https://news.un.org/en/story/2022/05/1118722

[6] “Hungry and desperate: Climate change fuels a migration crisis in Guatemala” https://www.nbcnews.com/science/environment/hungry-desperate-climate-change-fuels-migration-crisis-guatemala-rcna2135

[7] “How Climate Change Is Fuelling the US Border Crisis” https://www.newyorker.com/news/dispatch/how-climate-change-is-fuelling-the-us-border-crisis

[9] “Renewables Were the World’s Cheapest Energy Source in 2020” https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2021/07/renewables-cheapest-energy-source/

[12] “Climate refugees can’t be returned home, says landmark UN human rights ruling” https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/jan/20/climate-refugees-cant-be-returned-home-says-landmark-un-human-rights-ruling

[13] “Who has contributed most to global CO2 emissions?” https://ourworldindata.org/contributed-most-global-co2

[15] “Impact of Migration on Income Levels in Advanced Economies” Impact of Migration on Income Levels in Advanced Economies (imf.org)

[17] “Nile Basin Initiative” https://nilebasin.org/

[18] “What is “Loss and Damage” from Climate Change? 8 Key Questions, Answered” https://www.wri.org/insights/loss-damage-climate-change

[19] “Adaptation Fund Receives Nearly US$ 243 Million Mobilized in 2022 for the Most Climate-Vulnerable at COP27 in Egypt” https://www.adaptation-fund.org/adaptation-fund-receives-over-us-230-million-mobilized-in-2022-for-the-most-climate-vulnerable-at-cop27-in-egypt/


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