Climate change as a driver of migration

Environmental hazards affect populations worldwide and can drive migration under specific conditions, especially in middle-income and agriculture-dependent countries. Changes in temperature levels, increased rainfall variability, and rapid-onset disasters such as tropical storms play an important role in this regard.

© melitas | Dreamstime

Environmental migration is most pronounced in middle-income and agricultural countries and weaker in low-income countries where populations often lack the resources needed to move away. IIASA researchers contributed to research that makes it possible to identify geographical regions that may be especially susceptible to migration movements in the future.

The study revealed a number of interesting patterns including that impacts on migration vary by types of environmental hazards, and that different hazards can reinforce each other. While changing temperatures in a region, for instance, have the strongest impact on migration; rapid-onset disasters, rainfall variability, and anomalies can also play a role. Smallholder farmers especially, rely on steady climatic conditions and are more susceptible to changes and shocks, as they do not have sufficient capacity to adapt.

The researchers further note that the current narrative of climate refugees pushing towards Europe or the US may be too simplistic. In this regard, the study’s findings include compelling evidence that environmental changes in vulnerable countries predominantly lead to internal migration or migration to other low- and middle-income countries rather than cross-border migration to high-income countries. This implies that affected populations often migrate to places within their own country or region. Specifically, the results suggest that populations in Latin America and the Caribbean, several countries in sub-Saharan Africa, as well as Western, Southern, and Southeast Asia may be particularly at risk.

Given the expected rise of global average temperatures, the researchers believe that the topic of environmental migration will become even more important in the future. Consequently, interventions have to be tailored to actual situations on the ground that support affected populations and reduce vulnerabilities. But how can this be done?

According to the authors, the best way to protect those affected is to stabilize the global climate by rapidly reducing greenhouse gas emissions from burning fossil fuels, while simultaneously enhancing adaptive capacity by, for example, improving human capital. While migration can be an effective adaptation strategy for households, it can be involuntary and could have challenging consequences for migrants and their families, as well as the people at the places they end up.