Climate change is more than melting ice caps and swamped islands. The environmental effects of climate change — droughts, floods and severe weather, for instance — have increasingly put more people on the move.
In 2015, the U.N. Refugee Agency counted 65.3 million people around the world as “forcibly displaced,” including about 40 million within their home countries. Wars, ethnic conflicts, economic stresses, famines and disasters are among the reasons people leave their homes.
Less understood, perhaps, is how climate-induced environmental changes — such as increased flooding, salinization, droughts or desertification — amplify these drivers of migration. What are the policy options to help people stay in place or minimize the security concerns related to migration? These questions are becoming more and more important to figure out.
Climate change and conflict
To look at these issues in depth, the Institute for the Study of Diplomacy at Georgetown University convened a working group on human migration and climate change. ISD’s April 2017 report, “New Challenges to Human Security: Environmental Change and Human Mobility,” brings together analysis and discussion from experts on climate change, resource management, migration, foreign policy and national security, and included government and nongovernmental organization policymakers and foreign policy practitioners.
The report provided a number of guiding principles for policymakers. Here are five key findings:
1) Environmental migration poses significant human security challenges. Local and regional tensions over water problems are likely to rise sharply in the coming decades, according to a 2012 U.S. National Intelligence Council (NIC) report on water security. The U.S. government designated climate change a national security issue a decade ago.
Over the next 20 years, a 2016 NIC report warns, increasing numbers of countries may be overwhelmed or destabilized by climate-related stresses such as famines, weather-related disasters or resource shortages. In 2015, for instance, a tropical cyclone hit Yemen — the first in the country’s recorded history — dropping several years’ worth of rain in a single day. The flooding heightened political tensions in a country “already suffering a humanitarian crisis from war and water shortage,” according to the NIC.
These are not isolated incidents. We see conflicts over water and land resources growing in Mexico, Syria, Nigeria, Mauritania, Somalia, Mali, Vietnam and many other countries — along with parts of the U.S. Southwest.
2) Extreme weather events are likely to displace more people. The 2014 report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) cautions that most communities are unprepared for cyclones, storm surges and other climate-related extremes, which can cause “disruption of food production and water supply damages to infrastructure and settlements.” Whether these events cause short- or long-term displacement of people, the likelihood is that more people will be on the move in the decades ahead.
3) Many displaced people head to nearby cities, and that’s a problem. The ongoing urban population explosion means coastal cities will continue to grow. But many of these cities probably already feel the brunt of many of the same environmental problems driving people from their homes — water and other shortages, increased salinization or rising sea levels, for instance.
Figuring out the “pull” mechanisms to direct people where their needs can be met is a policy priority, as is job creation. An added challenge is the rising trend of “urbanization without growth” — when new jobs or economic growth fail to keep up with the influx of new residents, leaving environmental migrants few work options.
4) We don’t adequately define “environmental migrants.” Those who relocate within their own nations rely on the protections and assistance of their government. But how do we identify and protect those who cross national borders in search of safety from environmental harm? These definitions are important for a host of legal, economic and security reasons. Not all environmental migrants are “refugees” — a term that confers specific legal rights and protections.
5) “Planned relocations” will become more frequent. From the coastlines of Alaska and Louisiana to growing numbers of Pacific island nations, communities are already preparing to relocate as rising sea levels wash away their homes and leave the land too salty to support crops or livestock. These are highly complex and expensive moves and require much planning. The island nation of Kiribati, for instance, is negotiating with Australia and New Zealand to take some of its population, and Kiribati has already purchased part of an island in neighboring Fiji.
None of these challenges has an easy fix, but many governments, international organizations and communities are looking at ways to boost the resiliency of communities at risk from climate change, as well as facing the reality that climate change will displace millions more in the coming decades. In 2015, for instance, more than 100 governments pledged to support the Nansen Initiative, a Swiss-Norwegian plan to bring about greater global collaboration to protect people displaced by climate change and disasters. With the numbers of displaced people rising, there’s a lot to discuss — and a lot of lives at stake.
Kelly M. McFarland is director of programs and research at the Institute for the Study of Diplomacy and an adjunct professor in the School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University.
Vanessa Lide is associate editor with the Monkey Cage, based at Georgetown University’s Institute for the Study of Diplomacy. She edits diplomacy cases for the institute’s online case studies library.