Human mobility in times of climate crisis

Forced migration, displacement, and resettlement in the new IPCC report
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Image credit: Pablo Merchán Montes (2018)/Unsplash

The latest IPCC report reemphasises the immense threat of climate change as a cause of displacement and migration, but this time with a much more pronounced focus on intersecting and multidimensional vulnerabilities that put certain groups at particular risk of losing their homes.

On 28 February 2022, the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released part two of its sixth assessment report (AR6) on climate change impacts, adaptation, and vulnerability. Introduced by UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres as an “atlas of human suffering and a damning indictment of failed climate leadership” , the nearly 3700-page document presents ample evidence of how climate change has and will continue to pose an immense threat to humans and nature on this planet.

Climate-related migration – a projection turned reality

Already, an estimated 3.3 to 3.6 billion people live in countries or contexts that are highly vulnerable to climate change, the report’s Summary for Policymakers states with high confidence. As climate extremes increase in frequency and intensity, more and more regions around the world are becoming (at least temporarily) uninhabitable, causing people to move; so far mainly within national borders (high confidence). An average of 20 million people is currently internally displaced by extreme events each year, “with storms and floods [being] the most common drivers (high confidence)”.

With figures like the above, the report leaves no doubt that climate-related migration is already well underway. This marks a major shift from the rather anticipatory wording in the fifth assessment report from 2014, which stated that climate change “is projected to increase displacement of people (medium evidence, high agreement)” over the course of this century [first emphasis added].

climate-related migration is already well underway

The latest report is also much clearer in its assertion that although climate extremes are influencing human mobility patterns in all regions, people are not equally threatened by displacement even when exposed to the same climate hazards. While the report states with high confidence that climate change is an important driver of migration and displacement, it points out within the same sentence that migration responses are “strongly influenced by economic, social, political and demographic processes (high agreement, robust evidence)”.

Findings have shown that people with higher agency, e.g. due to household wealth, may use voluntary migration as an adaptation strategy to shifting climate and weather conditions, while people with lower agency, e.g. due to pre-existing vulnerabilities, may face a higher risk of involuntary migration and displacement as a last resort. Consequently, the outcomes of these different migration paths also vary:

“[…] the more agency migrants have (i.e. the degree of voluntarity and freedom of movement), the greater the potential benefits for sending and receiving areas (high agreement, medium evidence) […]. Conversely, displacement or low-agency migration is associated with poor outcomes in terms of health, wellbeing, and socio-economic security for migrants, and returns fewer benefits to sending or receiving communities (high agreement, medium evidence) […].”

This shows that vulnerability, when intersecting with climate change, not only contributes to forced migration and displacement, but is also caused, amplified, and perpetuated by the process of moving.

Climate change as an added burden for displaced people

After illustrating the complex role of climate change in driving (forced) migration, the report goes on to highlight that climate and weather extremes can also pose a threat to victims of non-climate-related displacement. People who have fled conflict, persecution, or disasters often find themselves already in precarious situations, making them even more vulnerable to climate hazards.

Chapter 8 of the full report puts a particular focus on the dual climate risk of refugees and internally displaced persons (IDPs). First, these groups are “disproportionately concentrated in regions (e.g., Central Africa and the Middle East) that are […] exposed to climate hazards, including temperature extremes and drought.” Temperatures in many of these resettlement hotspots are expected to rise so much that peak levels will “exceed thresholds for safe habitation”. Second, refugees and IDPs often end up in situations that, although initially considered temporary, have since become protracted, leaving them with limited access to social and economic resources for years. Reinforced by legal and political barriers, this severely limits the capacity of long-term refugees and IDPs to adapt in-situ to climate impacts or to flee them.

dual climate risk of refugees and internally displaced persons

Thus, displaced groups, who had previously been on the move to escape violence or calamities, may become immobile and fall into “climate traps.” Along with displacement, the report identifies involuntary immobility, which prevents people from escaping uninhabitable climate conditions, as one of several representative risks to peace and human mobility. In the context of refugee and IDP (re)settlement, the report therefore argues for a stronger focus on humanitarian measures that enable people to adapt to and “safely maintain residence in areas exposed to climate hazards.”

Future developments: Adaptation instead of migration

It comes as no surprise that the report projects displacement to further increase in the next decades, with climate extremes such as “intensification of heavy precipitation and associated flooding, tropical cyclones, drought and, increasingly, sea level rise (high confidence)” acting as direct and indirect drivers (SPM.B.4.7). Precise estimates are difficult, but in Latin America, sub-Saharan Africa, and South Asia alone, between 31 and 143 million people could be displaced by 2050 (high confidence). Especially regions with high exposure to climate hazards and low human adaptive capacity (and thus increased vulnerability) will become less and less habitable as dwellings, livelihoods and food systems are disrupted.

displacement to further increase in the next decades

Still, it is assumed that forced migration will continue to take place mainly within countries and that people crossing national or even continent borders will remain a minority. Prioritising increased border security in anticipation of the influx of ‘climate refugees,’ as perceived by some supposed (high-income) destination states, therefore seems misguided. Rather than sealing off borders, therefore, the report calls for migration policies that “remove barriers to and expand the alternatives for safe, orderly and regular migration that allows vulnerable people to adapt to climate change (high confidence).” Planned relocation is seen primarily as a last resort, but the report recognises its possible transformative potential if rights- and well-being-based and incorporating traditional and indigenous knowledge.

The report also makes clear, however, that migration and resettlement as an adaptive strategy, even at high levels of agency, “is not a substitute for investment in adaptive capacity building (high agreement)”. To ensure that fewer people around the world are forced to leave their homes and habitats in the first place, viable and effective adaptation options for people at risk of displacement are needed:

“Reducing future risks of involuntary migration and displacement due to climate change is possible through cooperative international efforts to enhance institutional adaptive capacity and sustainable development (high confidence).”

But implementing sustainable and inclusive adaptation measures takes time, which is why existing adaptation gaps need to be addressed immediately. Particularly in the context of refugees/IDPs and other displaced groups, it is critical to move beyond the prevailing notion of resettlement as temporary and recognise the need for long-term adaptation strategies that reduce the climate risk of these particularly vulnerable groups.

For more information, see the Summary for Policymakers, the Technical Summary, and the full report of the sixth assessment report, Climate Change 2022: Impacts, Adaptation, and Vulnerability, by Working Group II of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.