To what extent is climate change causing – and is likely to cause – the displacement and migration of people around the world? How should policymakers respond? This report draws on empirical evidence from a first-time, multi-continent survey of environmental change and migration. It argues that climate-related migration and displacement can be successfully addressed only if they are seen as global processes rather than local crises. The principle of common but differentiated responsibilities must underlie policy negotiations and subsequent outcomes.
Although economic and political factors are the dominant drivers of displacement and migration today, climate change is already having a detectable effect. The exact number of people that will be on the move by mid-century is uncertain, but the scope and scale could vastly exceed anything that has occurred before. People in the least developed countries and island states will be affected first and worst. The consequences for almost all aspects of development and human security could be devastating, and there may also be substantial implications for political stability. Some displacement and migration may be prevented through the implementation of adaptation measures, but poorer countries are underequipped to support widespread adaptation.
Unless vulnerable populations are helped to build climate-resilient livelihoods, climate change will exacerbate the breakdown of ecosystem-dependent livelihoods, leading to long-term migration. Disasters such as cyclones, floods, and droughts, already major drivers of shorter-term displacement and migration, are likely to increase. Further:
- Glacier melt will affect major agricultural systems in Asia, causing flooding followed by reduced water supply, threatening food production in some of the world’s most densely populated regions.
- Sea level rise will worsen saline intrusions, inundation, storm surges, erosion and other coastal hazards. In the Ganges, Mekong, and Nile River deltas, a one-metre sea level rise could affect 23.5 million people and reduce agricultural land by 1.5 million hectares.
- Seasonal migration already plays an important part in many families’ struggle to deal with environmental change, and is likely to become even more common.
- Most people will seek shelter in their own countries.
New thinking and practical approaches are needed to address the threats that climate-related migration poses to human security. It is important to strengthen the capacity of national and international institutions to protect the rights of persons displaced by climate change, and to:
- Invest in resilience: This will require: 1) substantial investment in adaptation measures including water-wise irrigation systems, low/no-till agricultural practices, income diversification, and disaster risk management; 2) the empowerment of women and other marginalised groups to overcome the additional barriers they face to adaptation; and 3) inclusive, transparent, and accountable adaptation planning with the effective participation of especially vulnerable populations.
- Prioritise the world’s most vulnerable populations: Establish mechanisms and binding commitments to ensure that adaptation funding is channelled to the people who need it most. Objective criteria for assessing vulnerability to the negative impacts of climate change – including people’s risk of displacement – should be developed to guide priority assistance.
- Include migration in adaptation strategies: This may include measures to facilitate and strengthen the benefits of migrant remittances, and the rights-based resettlement of populations living in low-lying coastal areas and small island states.
- Close the gaps in protection: Integrate climate change into existing international and national frameworks for dealing with displacement and migration. At present, people who move due to gradually worsening living conditions may be categorised as voluntary economic migrants and denied recognition of their special protection needs.