To migrate, according to Merriam-Webster dictionary, means “to move from one country, place, or locality to another” or “to pass usually periodically from one region or climate to another for feeding or breeding” (Merriam-Webster, n.d.). While at the international level there is no universal definition of who is a migrant, the UN Migration agency states that it is a person who “moves away from his or her place of usual residence, whether within a country or across an international border, temporarily or permanently, and for a variety of reasons” (International Organization for Migration, n.d.). In this regard, we can define climate migration as the process in which people move from one country, place, or locality to another temporarily or permanently due to the necessity of avoiding the adverse effects of environmental disasters.
As of June 2019, there are 272 million international migrants globally, which is 51 million more than in 2010 (United Nations, 2021). While most people migrate due to humanitarian crises, those who were forced to move within their countries due to extreme weather events consisted of around 55 million in 2020 (Lombrana, 2021). Increased frequency of extreme weather events, known as slow onset events (such as flooding, intensified storms, desertification, ocean acidification, glacial retreat, etc.) intensified the need for people to migrate. In 2020 environmental disasters triggered around 30.7 million internal displacements globally, with more than 60% of all occasions happening in China (5.1 million), the Philippines (4.4 million), Bangladesh (4.4 million), India (3.9 million), and the United States (1.7 million) (Migration Data Portal, 2021).
As the planet warms and new disasters occur, more people will likely suffer from political or economic chaos, as well as from hunger, due to the difficulty of farming in dry or overflooded areas. Given the weak general preparedness to respond to disasters, people have poor resilience to cope with problems by themselves on the ground. That is why there is a need in assistance from the governmental side in establishing protective measures for affected population. Good examples can be found in South Korea and the Maldives with their planned sustainable floating cities, for instance. Such cities will allow people to survive the rising sea levels without leaving their homes. “Backed by the UN, the floating city . . . will be ‘a flood-proof infrastructure’ comprised of several human-made islands that all rise with the sea to eliminate the risk of flooding” (MSN news, 2021).
Despite such projects and others that are guided by international stakeholders in collaboration with local governments targeted to enhance resilience and to mainstream climate change policies into national strategies, it will still be difficult to overcome administrative inefficiency and achieve the desired outcomes. According to an evaluation report about climate-induced migration conducted on Pacific Island territories, the main difficulty consists of the lack of “national policies around migration and national planning on how to address the future impacts that climate change will have on migration” (Hosking, 2017). Since sudden-onset disasters may emerge in any part of the world and at any time, the problem of climate migrants becomes a global challenge. This, therefore, requires coordinated actions, durable partnership, an improved knowledge base, and solidarity in projects implementation procedures.
Despite many international agencies, international organizations, and multilateral agencies working on the problem of climate change, “neither a multilateral strategy nor a legal framework exists to account for climate change as a driver of migration” (Podesta, 2019). However, the number of migrants will only continue to increase as the climate changes. That is why it is important to find migration management solutions through intergovernmental cooperation that can be used to supplement national strategies. A good example of such cooperation is the Nansen Initiative, which was launched by Norway and Switzerland after Nansen Conference on Climate Change and Displacement in Oslo (June 2011) to address cross-border displacement in a coherent fashion.
The Initiative aimed to develop toolkits and standards for the treatment of the problem of climate-induced migration that could be taken up at “domestic, regional, and global levels and lead to new laws, soft law instruments or binding agreements” (UNHCR, 2021). Regional and international cooperation may reconsider approaches for response in places where the disaster already has occurred, as well as to create strategies for prevention the large migrant flows and displacements in the future. Consequently, intergovernmental cooperation rather than declarative documents may mitigate the effect of climate change, relieve stress on the borders, and prevent people from having to abandon their habitat.
Before climate change totally remaps locations of the world population, now is the right time to act. And such actions should start from bottom-up intergovernmental cooperation, which may design universal mechanisms applicable in different contexts.
Author information: Daria Blinova is a graduate student from Western Michigan University, studying International Development Administration at the Department of Political Science.
Hosking, P. (2017). Evaluation Report: Enhancing the capacity of Pacific Island Countries to address the impacts of climate change on migration. UNESCAP, 1–68. https://www.unescap.org/sites/default/files/2017-EPO-PCCM-Evaluation Report-with-MR.pdf
International Organization for Migration. (n.d.). Who is a Migrant?. Retrieved December 14, 2021, from https://www.iom.int/node/102743
Lombrana, L. M. (2021). In 2020, more people displaced by extreme climate than conflict | Business and Economy News . Al Jazeera. https://www.aljazeera.com/economy/2021/5/25/bbin-2020-more-people-displaced-by-extreme-climate-than-conflict
Merriam-Webster. (n.d.). Migrate Definition & Meaning . Retrieved December 14, 2021, from https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/migrate
Migration Data Portal. (2021). Environmental Migration. https://doi.org/10.1371/JOURNAL.PMED.1001083
MSN news. (2021). The world’s first FLOATING CITY is coming in 2025. https://www.msn.com/en-us/news/world/the-worlds-first-floating-city-is-coming-in-2025/ss-AAR2wG8
Podesta, J. (2019). The climate crisis, migration, and refugees. Brookings. https://www.brookings.edu/research/the-climate-crisis-migration-and-refugees/
UNHCR. (2021). Nansen Initiative. https://www.unhcr.org/5448c7939.pdf
United Nations. (2021). Migration . https://www.un.org/en/global-issues/migration