Since the advent of humankind, people have moved from one location to another in search of better opportunities for food, shelter, and safety –and the modern era is no different. As climate change takes a firmer hold around the world, temperatures and sea levels rise, and increasingly polarized global politics take a toll on tangible climate action, the trend is on the upswing as climate change forces migration patterns to change.
Climate migration in 2024 is a critical global issue, involving the displacement of people due to climate change-related impacts. Climate migration is frequently driven by factors that can include everything from rising sea levels and increased frequency and intensity of extreme weather, (like hurricanes, floods, and droughts) to changing agricultural conditions and rising heat that affect food security. These factors cause individuals and communities to relocate temporarily or permanently within their countries or across international borders.
It's important to note that economic, social, political, and environmental reasons for migration often overlap. In 2022, an estimated 32.6 million people were displaced within their own countries due to storms, flooding, and droughts, made worse in part as a result of climate change, according to a report by the Internal Displacement Monitoring Center or IDMC. Estimating the number of people who have become climate migrants as the world warms and changes is difficult. There’s no agreement on who counts as a climate migrant and who does not.
In the U.S., one study estimated that more than three million people have become climate migrants as a result of flooding alone between 2000 and 2020. Global numbers are much more dire. A 2021 World Bank report (that’s widely cited across the web) notes that the number of people displaced internally (rather than internationally) by climate change could reach 216 million by 2050. As the report notes, “By 2050, Sub-Saharan Africa could see as many as 86 million internal climate migrants; East Asia and the Pacific, 49 million; South Asia, 40 million; North Africa, 19 million; Latin America, 17 million; and Eastern Europe and Central Asia, 5 million.”
For context, according to a World Bank report released in December 2023, around 184 million people (2.3% of the global population) live outside their country of citizenship. The World Bank says that approximately 40 percent of the global population lives in places that are highly vulnerable to climate change, and "challenges brought about by climate change are becoming increasingly influential in reshaping patterns of human movement…Whether and how much climate change will amplify international movements in the coming decades depends on global collaboration to adopt and implement policies for mitigation and adaptation now."
Certain regions are also more prone to climate migration, including low-lying island nations facing rapid sea-level rise, areas with severe drought conditions like parts of Africa and the Middle East, and regions experiencing more frequent natural disasters such as South Asia and the Pacific Islands. At the same time, those who are displaced by the impacts of climate change are not designated as refugees in international law, though Latin America and the African Union have recognized environmental drivers as factors in migration.
In November 2023, the U.S. released its fifth National Climate Assessment, which painted a rather dire picture of climate migration in the U.S. The report, which comes out every four to five years, underlined that “The effects of human-caused climate change are already far-reaching and worsening across every region of the United States.”
The report notes that as a country, the U.S. is warming about 60% faster than the rest of the world, with the lower 48 states warming by 2.5 degrees Fahrenheit (1.4 Celsius) and Alaska warming by more than 4 degrees Fahrenheit (2.3 Celsius) since 1970.
Last year was a record year for disasters in the U.S., with more than 20 disasters that exceeded $1 billion in damage; all of which claimed more than 250 lives and displaced thousands of others. As a result of everything from fires and floods to mega-storms and heat, insurers in the hardest-hit states like Florida and California are pulling out, citing the cost of covering homes in climate-vulnerable areas.
Climate change and the resulting migration impact low- and middle-income countries that have contributed very little to climate change the most. At COP28 at the end of 2023, the leaders of a number of climate-vulnerable nations gathered on the sidelines to advocate for new policies and agreements around how to manage climate change. South Pacific nation leaders lashed out over the deal that came out of COP28 because they were "not in the room" when the final agreement was announced.
While some good came from the COP28 agreement, including the establishment of a fund of around $700 million to help smaller and poorer countries deal with the growing impact of climate change, plenty of questions remain. Issues like whether the money will ever show up since rich nations like the U.S. have notoriously underfunded their pledges, as well as significant questions around where the fund will sit, who will manage it, and which nations will have access to it, as a piece over at The Conversation points out.
Climate migration is a challenging issue to solve. There's a lot of rhetoric and fear around issues of immigration around the world, and tackling the continuing climate crisis while managing climate migration is going to require a lot of difficult work.
Rethinking everything from infrastructure and housing to where we build will be vital to supporting climate migrants and refugees, especially in the U.S., as this story I wrote for The Verge notes. It will also take a rethinking and redefining of international law, free movement agreements between countries, support for poor and middle-income countries that are the most vulnerable to climate change, and, of course, a lot of money to create a sustainable plan for climate migration. Whether the international community is up to the challenge remains to be seen.
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