Displacement, Migration, and Climate Change: the Discussion at COP18

Student Group: 

Climate change loads the dice for more frequent and severe extreme weather events which lead to the displacement of people. Scientists are using new data to understand the motivations behind their exodus and definitively link the humanitarian challenge of migration with climate change.<--break->

At COP18, climate-induced migration was not a major point on the official agendas of the various negotiating tracks, however one side event on December 3rd, 2012 chose to focus on this issue in depth. Sponsored by the International Organization for Migration (IOM), the event highlighted recent research on climate-induced migration and discussed possible strategies to confront the challenges it imposes.

It’s hard to estimate the number of climate migrants because, as migration specialist and panelist Dr. Koko Warner pointed out, no universal definition of a climate migrant exists. If farmers voluntarily move to another region in search of better rainfall, are they climate migrants? Must there be a specific, catastrophic event like a hurricane or prolonged drought that forces them to move? How confidently must an extreme weather event be attributable to anthropogenic influence before the criteria of climate migrant are met? A universal definition will likely have to come from a UNFCCC body, but Warner hopes her data will help inform a fair definition that will apply to those climate migrants desperately in need of assistance. 

Through surveys of households in eight case-study countries known to be particularly susceptible to extreme weather events, Warner showed that people do perceive changes in rainfall even if they don’t have access to meteorological analysis. Furthermore, their behavior and risk management strategies change in sync with these climate conditions. However, extreme weather events stretch the limits of local adaptability—long droughts (e.g. desertification of the Sahel) or destructive typhoons (e.g. Typhoon Bopha) can wipe out agriculture on a regional scale or cause so much loss that families decide to move away.

Though it might be intuitive to assume that major storms and droughts leave resource conflict in their wake, there is no demonstrated causal link between climatic stress and increased violence. The 2006-2011 drought in Syria caused an estimated 80% loss in livestock and untold hardship as farmers tried to migrate toward better climate conditions, but the causes of the ongoing civil war are too complex to allow us to draw a simple connection between this societal unrest and the violence that currently consumes Syria. The evidence we do have merely shows that hydrometeorological events like typhoons, hurricanes, and prolonged droughts cause displacement. 

This evidence should not be misconstrued as always indicating that low rainfall causes out-migration. One UNEP representative on the panel pointed out that Doha, the very site of the COP18, sees extremely low rainfall but many people are nonetheless migrating in from countries like Bangladesh and Pakistan to seek employment. Many people migrate because they see an incentive or benefit to migrating; their movements may not be dictated by climate even if they seem to be. They see prosperity in larger towns and cities, but these incentives could be erroneous and cause them to encounter challenges specific to migrants like squalor or violations of their rights (withheld passports, unfair wages, exploitation).

Another obfuscating factor in identifying climate refugees is the fact that climate change can cause migration, but migration can also cause climate change. Desertification in Morocco and the Sahel was the result of severe drought compounded by a huge influx of people. These migrants fled densely populated areas and brought herds of livestock which overwhelmed the aquifers and vegetation of the water-poor Sahel. Overly intense agriculture and grazing led to famine and transformed the region into a new biome.

Even once many of the above complications are worked through, one key issue will remain: unlike other forms of displacement which are typically caused by regional factors like civil war, the responsibility for climate-induced migration lies with all carbon emitters.

In my next blog post, I discuss the challenge that climate displacement poses for other nations, particularly developed ones.