The number of people forcibly displaced across the world topped 100 million in 2022. This has tripled since 2010, and for the first time more people were displaced by climate disaster than by conflict.
This statistic paints a terrifying picture for the future of a world overwhelmed by climate crisis; the UN International Organization for Migration has recently estimated that there will be as many as one billion environmental migrants within the next 30 years, perhaps reaching 1.4 billion by 2060.
Despite this increasingly certain, increasingly imminent reality, very little has been done to address how nations will handle this level of migration; the COPs have so far neglected this issue. Experts such as Andrew Harper, special advisor on climate action for the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, have expressed concern and warned that the issue of climate migration must be addressed to prepare for a world in which relocation is the norm.
‘Ignorance is no excuse any more; we are seeing disasters now on a daily basis. One person was displaced every second last year. At what point do we start taking this seriously? When it’s two people a second?’ – Andrew Harper.
Recent environmental disasters directly linked to the impacts of climate change include widespread flooding in Pakistan, which left more than 20 million people reliant on humanitarian aid, and severe droughts in the Horn of Africa, resulting in 150 million people facing extreme hunger. Extreme events such as these are increasingly widespread and frequent and will displace millions from homes where their livelihood and safety are overtly threatened.
Humanity has historically resided in a climate niche, with average temperatures around -11C to 15C. As climate change intensifies, this niche moves polewards at a pace of around 1.15m a day. Currently around 279 million people live in the 25th to 26th north parallels, the latitude with the most comfortable climate and fertile land – including nations such as Pakistan, Bangladesh, China and the US. These latitudes are the ones which will experience the most severe disruption from climate change; those living here will be forced to chase the climate niche polewards, resulting in migration on an as-yet unimaginable scale.
It is impossible to imagine how such global migration will function in a world in which many nations function through tight control of their national borders, recently refigured to keep migrants out, rather than to keep populations in. Such borders are the basis of nation states reliant on the false idea that the world is made up of distinct homogenous groups which naturally occupy separate parts of the globe; the reality is messier, with cultural and ethnic pluralism historically omnipresent.
This false leads national governments to attempt to ‘protect’ their already-pluralistic populations by restricting migration, leaving many migrants unable to claim asylum and resorting to dangerous and often deadly means to enter a country, where they may then receive little to no support or protection. This is despite the cultural and financial benefits of migration for both migrant and receiving nation: only 3% of the population are international migrants, but they contribute 10% of the GDP.
To accommodate the influx of climate refugees which will only increase, change, then, is needed. The 1951 Refugee Convention which legally defined ‘refugee’ does not include those who are forced to leave their homes for climate reasons, giving countries a get-out clause to refuse asylum requests for climate-change related reasons.
Removing borders, or making them significantly more flexible, offers the chance to improve humanity’s resistance to climate change. Managed migration could protect those most threatened by climate change, while allowing more northern nations with ageing populations to boost their depleted workforce.
The EU’s handling of the refugee crisis following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine provides an example of what such a system of flexible borders and protection for refugees could look like. EU leaders enacted an open-border policy for those forced to flee, giving them the right to live and work in the EU bloc for three years, while also providing support with housing, education and transport. Meanwhile, people across the EU came together as communities to welcome and help arriving refugees, reducing the burden for central and regional governments.
Of course, the climate refugee crisis will take place on a much larger scale. But hope remains that those threatened by the impacts of the climate crisis who will be forced to flee their homes can be welcomed in nations with more manageable climates. Our idea of national identity as we maintain it today will have to change. But if we can manage such a change and create integrated global communities, perhaps humanity stands a chance for survival.
‘Managed right, this upheaval could lead to a new global commonwealth of humanity. Migration is our way out of this crisis.’ – Gaia Vince.
(Image: Victoria Pickering via Flickr).