Climate change and other environmental problems worldwide are driving migrants from their homelands – but not necessarily onto European and North American shores, as is commonly assumed. The first worldwide survey of climate refugees suggests that most of the displaced won’t make it further than nearby villages or neighbouring countries. The new findings went into a report released yesterday at UN climate negotiations in Bonn – I’ve covered them in a news feature here.
“There’s been a bit of political rhetoric saying we’re going to have waves of migrants at our doorsteps, rushing into Europe and North America,” says Koko Warner of UN University, the report’s lead author. Concerns about these huddled masses came up in a Commentary Warner co-authored in Nature Reports Climate Change last year.
In April, she and a team of collaborators from across Europe wrapped up two years of research, which involved interviewing migrants on five continents for the European Commission’s EACH–FOR programme. “What we found is that the people whose livelihoods are most sensitive to the environment also tend to be the ones who may not have the means to move very far,” Warner says.
Instead, says the report, they could be stuck in destinations that are “as precarious as the places they left behind.”
The Bonn paper reviews climatic threats like sea level rise and drought that are likely to displace increasing numbers of people this century, and its picture of suffering around the globe has grabbed quite a bit of coverage. A lot of stories are highlighting scale, citing estimates from previous studies that hundreds of millions of migrants could be on the move by 2050. But the latest report intentionally avoided coming up with new numbers that might prove irresistably quotable but scientifically debatable.
“There’s no scientifically agreed methodology to come up with the numbers,” says Warner. “We don’t even have an agreed-on definition for environmentally induced migrants, and it’s hard to measure something if you can’t define it.”
But regardless of how exactly how many people will be displaced over the coming decades, the current systems for handling refugees don’t have the capacity to take them on. Warner and colleagues are hoping that their document will have a decisive influence on negotiators, whose brief in Bonn is partly to discuss what issues should be included in a new global climate treaty.
By the standards of success here – which is measured one sentence at a time – the EACH-FOR team has already achieved one victory. Owing to their previous work, migration is defined as a form of adaptation in the draft negotiating text. It may be far from a plan to deal with the diaspora, but it does put it on the agenda.
Image: UN High Commissioner for Refugees / Brendan Bannon