In recent years, it has become popular to argue that climate change will lead to massive North-South movements of ‘climate refugees’. Concerns about climate change-induced migration have emerged in the context of debates on global warming. Without any doubt, global warming is one of the most pressing issues facing humanity, and the lack of willingness of states and the international community to address it effectively – particularly through reducing of carbon emissions – is a valid source of major public concern and global protest.
However, to link this issue with the specter of mass migration is a dangerous practice based on myth rather than fact. The use of apocalyptic migration forecasts to support the case for urgent action on climate change is not only intellectually dishonest, but also puts the credibility of those using this argument - as well as the broader case for climate change action - seriously at risk.
The climate migration apocalypse
Media, politicians, environmentalists and migration experts have increasingly claimed that the effects of global warming, especially on sea-levels, rainfall patterns, and extreme weather events such as hurricanes will lead to massive population displacements.
This idea is not new. Back in 1995, in a publication entitled ‘Environmental Exodus’ , the influential biodiversity specialist Norman Myers drew a direct, but simplistic, link between environmental change and large-scale migration, arguing that there would already be 25 million ‘environmental refugees’ which would further increase to 200 million by 2050. In 2005, the United Nations Environmental Programme (UNEP) issued a warning that a whopping 50 million people could already become environmental refugees by 2010, fleeing the effects of climate change (see the map below). They also published a map of world regions where people were likely to be displaced by the ravages of global warming.
Since then, scenarios have become increasingly apocalyptic. In 2007, in a report called Human Tide: The Real Migration Crisis, Christian Aid, an influential UK-based development NGO, escalated dramatic forecasts of future population displacements up to one billion by 2050. In recent years, more and more organizations, researchers and media have put forward alarmist scenarios of mass displacement as a result of climate change. This includes widely-respected news outlets that are normally not known for unfettered sensationalism. For instance, in 2019 VICE news spread the idea that climate change will create 1.5 billion migrants by 2050 (see photo), without providing any evidence or source.
- First, climate change, however serious, is a slow-onset phenomenon, which gives people time to adapt to resulting environmental stresses, such as to sea level rise.
- Second, people can use various adaptation strategies, such as flood defense systems (dikes, polders), changes in livelihoods or short-distance mobility to cope with environmental stress.
- Third, existing studies suggest that in cases of floods and other environmental havoc, the vast majority of people move over short distances, such as to the next neighborhood, village or town.
- Fourth, most of such displacements tend to be temporary, because most people wish to return home as soon as possible.
- Fifth, most people living in the poorer countries of the world do not have the resources to move over large distances.
On the move or getting trapped?
In the same vein, when people are impoverished by such factors as drought, they often lack the resources to move, trapping them in situations of extreme vulnerability. Detailed studies from Africa therefore fail to find a simple causal link between environmental stress (whether linked to climate change or not) and migration. In Malawi, for instance, droughts decreased rural out-migration. In Burkina Faso, droughts have shown to increase short-distance migration between villages, but reduced international moves to Côte d’Ivoire.
Complex links: the case of 'desertification'
Another popular ideas is that 'desertification' is a major cause of migration, particularly from African countries. The underlying idea is that deserts are advancing rapidly, and that the resulting increases in the incidence of droughts would be a major cause of migration, for instance from the Sahel zone in Africa. However, also in this case the evidence challenges such simplistic narratives.
First of all, the idea of an 'advancing' desert is challenged by evidence from satellite imageries that parts of the Sahel zone have in fact been ‘greening’. This confirms field studies that have shown that ‘desertification’ is generally a local phenomenon largely caused by human intervention, such as the cutting of trees and shrubs or the collapse of traditional institutions for land and water management. While scholars have even questioned the very existence of 'desertification', cases of environmental degradation are almost always primarily human-made.
In the case of North African oases, this has for instance led to the breakdown of traditional irrigation system. As my own research has shown, more often than not, such crises in land and water management, are the partial result of the social changes brought about by migration (such as the emancipation of former serfs and sharecroppers) as well as massive water extraction for urban and industrial use rather than a cause of migration. This highlights the human and political origins of 'desertification'.
So, what may appear to be migration caused by a lack of water resources, is in fact an environmental crisis caused by people. This shows that the links between climate change, environmental factors and migration are complex, defying simplistic reasoning according to which climate-change would 'lead' to migration. In fact, depending on circumstances, environmental stress can lead to more, or less migration.
Recycling the climate migration myth
For all these reasons, it is unlikely that climate change will ‘lead’ to large-scale international migration, let alone on the massive scale predicted. In some cases, this has already embarrassed the organisations putting out such claims. For instance, when the massive climate migrations predicted by UNEP in 2005 failed to materialize (in fact, populations turned out to be growing in the regions it identified as environmental danger zones), UNEP distanced itself from earlier wild claims and deleted their climate refugee map (see above) from their website.
Although the assumptions and methodologies of studies on which such forecasts are highly problematic, why is this myth being persisted by international organization, researchers, climate activists and various pressure groups? The main explanation seems that doomsday scenarios of climate change leading to mass migration serves powerful political agendas both on the left and right.
For left-wing groups, it serves to raise attention to the issue of climate change, and the urgency to address this. For right-wing groups, it serves to raise the specter of future mass migration, and the need to step up border to controls to prevent such an imagined deluge. For researchers and international organizations, the climate migration narrative seems to serves fundraising purposes.
The climate refugee narrative therefore mainly serves to generate media attention. As argued by Gemenne, they organization recycling these myths abused the topic of climate change and migration to give a ‘human face to climate change’. Urging governments to ‘do something’, NGOs and international organizations use alarmist rhetoric about impending mass migrations. In this way, they turn climate change into a security topic.
Blaming the climate: depoliticizing displacement
By drawing a simplistic, direct causal link between climate change and migration, the ‘climate refugee’ narrative also depoliticizes the migration of vulnerable people. 'Depoliticization' refers to strategies to remove the political dimension from a social issue. Political issues affect the vulnerability of people and their resilience to cope with environmental and other stresses.
For instance, poverty, poor housing and weak governmental services explain why the damage and the number of people injured and dying is much higher when a hurricane hits a poor country like Haiti compared to the damage inflict by similar hurricanes in a much wealthier countries like the US. And, as shown by the example of hurricane Katrina, poor people are much more likely to lose their homes, to get injured, or to die during such extreme events.
Politicians often depoliticize social issues by shifting the blame to environmental or climatic factors ‘beyond their control’. For instance, in Morocco politicians and bureaucrats often invoke 'drought' and 'desertification’ to explain a whole range of perceived problems in rural areas, from low agrarian productivity, economic stagnation to rural-to-urban migration. Crisis narratives of climate change and desertification have been invoked to justify policies that have marginalized nomadic groups and forced them to settle down.
It can be convenient for governments to use ‘the climate’ as an excuse to displace people, for instance in the case of discourses around sea level rise in Pacific islands. In a recent article, Uma Kothari, a professor of migration studies at the University of Manchester, showed how the government of the Maldives has recycled older, highly controversial, proposals for the resettlement of its population dispersed over 200 islands onto 10–15 islands. The main motive has always been economic, because the government finds it too costly to provide services and resources to dispersed populations. However, in recent years the same ideas are gaining renewed leverage by being couched in environmental and ‘sea level rise’ terms.
Rising seas or sinking lands?
In fact, the main immediate cause of increased flooding risk in coastal cities and deltas is land subsidence, which is mainly a consequence of groundwater extraction for cities, irrigation and industry. This highlights the political causes of most environmental hazards, which climate migration narratives try to conceal.
For instance, a recent study indicated that in Jakarta, recent rates of land subsidence in some coastal parts of have estimated at levels up to 15 cm per year, against an average sea level rise of around 2 mm per year. In the same vein, the construction of houses, hotels, industries and roads are generally the most direct cause of coastal erosion in the Pacific and many other areas of the world. This also questions the popular 'sinking islands' narrative.
The political roots of displacement
There is often a wide gap between dominant media images of 'climate refugees' and the reality on the ground. Political and social issues are the main cause of environmental crises, and a focus on ‘climate’ not only ignores the facts but also diverts the attention away from governments’ responsibility to address these issues and to increase people's resilience to environmental adversity.
If people are displaced or die as a result of natural disaster, this is not just the direct consequence of the disaster, but also reflects the inability of governments to help people to cope with such stresses, such as by building flood defenses, timely evacuation efforts and building regulations.
A simplistic view of the relation between environmental factors and migration distracts the attention away from the political causes of much displacement. In fact, apart from conflicts and persecution, development projects (such as dams, mining, airports, industrial areas and middle-class housing complexes) and wildlife conservation are a major cause of displacement. Development-induced displacement is the largest single form of forced migration, leading to the internal displacement of an estimated 10–15 million people per year, mainly affecting vulnerable groups such as slum dwellers, the urban poor in general, indigenous peoples, and other ethnic minorities.
Climate change mitigation can become a cause of displacement in itself. In China, hydropower, irrigation and water transfer projects are an integral part of climate change mitigation and adaptation strategies, but also displace a large number of people. Ironically, wildlife conservation and other environmental protection projects are estimated to prompt the displacement – or forced settlement in case of herders ('pastoralists') and nomadic people – and the loss of land and property for hundreds of thousand of people each year.
Displacees tend to be among the most vulnerable people, unable to defend themselves and they often get barely compensated for the loss of livelihood. These examples expose the importance to remain aware of the deployment of categories, concepts and discourses by political actors that serve to try to conceal the political causes of environmental hazards and people's vulnerability.
Being right for the wrong reasons
By deploying alarmist rhetoric around future waves of ‘climate refugees’, media, politicians, non-governmental organizations (NGOs), humanitarian organizations and also researchers have turned climate change into an immediate security threat linked to migration. This ignores evidence showing that climate change is unlikely to cause mass migration. It also overlooks the fact that the implications of environmental adversity are most severe for the most vulnerable populations who may even lack the means to move out. It also draws the attention away from the political causes of most environmental hazards and displacement.
To be sure: the absence of the displaced millions predicted by climate migration fearmongers is by no means a reason for complacency. The forecasted acceleration of climate change is likely to have severe effects on production, livelihoods and human security and the overall stability of planetary ecosystems. Climate change will create serious challenges for humanity.
However, using the specter of mass migration to make the case for urgent action on reducing CO2 emissions is an example of ‘being right for the wrong reason’, which is not only intellectually dishonest, but can also put the credibility of organizations using this argument seriously at risk.
This blog was originally posted on heindehaas.blogspot.com
This text partly draws on excerpts from Chapter 2 of the sixth edition of The Age of Migration, a textbook on migration published with Red Globe Press in 2020, see age-of-migration.com.