Forced migration is a significant socio-political challenge both today and in the foreseeable future. According to the most recent report of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), there were 79.5 million forcibly displaced people worldwide at the end of 2019. Although it receives considerable media attention, particularly when it overlaps with irregular migration, it is necessary to make a couple of remarks. First, most of the forced migration occurs in the Global South and only a small percentage of forced migrants reach the Global North, so it is necessary to understand the context, dynamics, and consequences of the regions in the Global South rather than thinking about this phenomenon exclusively from a Global North prism. Second, although the main causes of forced migration are war and political violence, this phenomenon is caused by multiple factors including climate-related disasters, which is precisely the matter of this article. Climate migration involves displacements provoked by ‘fast-onset events such as floods, storms, or fires, and slow-onset events, such as droughts, land degradation and sea-level rise’, which contributes to the growth of forced migration. Although knowing the current figures of climate migrants or making predictions is a difficult task, the most cited source estimates that the number of climate migrants could reach 200 million by 2050, which would equal the current estimation of total international migrants worldwide.
Changing narratives and focuses on climate migration
Early discourses on climate migration framed it as a disaster-driven migration, that is, climate change would make some regions in the Global South uninhabitable and create mass displacement, which led to simplistic narratives focused on how this would affect the potential host countries in the Global North. Even though this discourse has mostly been rejected in academia, picturing forced migration as in the above-mentioned terms had a long trajectory in the field of advocacy, policy, and media. However, multi-causal perspectives indicating that climate change is part of a combination of factors causing migration have gained ground even beyond academia in the last years. Indeed, climate change intensifies already existing economic, political, and ecological drivers of migration, and it is rarely the only reason to migrate. This means that migration will happen regardless of climate change, but the number of migrants increases as the climate changes. Finally, current debates have also started to pay increasing attention to an often hidden aspect of climate migration, namely, the populations whose mobility is disrupted and find themselves ‘trapped’ in ecologically vulnerable and socio-economically marginalized regions.
Geographies of climate migration
Before starting the discussion on which groups of people, why, and how are affected by climate change and thereby, are most likely to displace due to this phenomenon, it is necessary to point out the role and responsibility of energy-intensive lifestyles in the Global North in this matter. The latter has long ago been discussed in terms of ‘injustice’ by Roberts and Parks since developing countries face the worst climate-related effects due to their geographical locations although industrialized countries produce the majority of greenhouse gas emissions. In other words, the countries that have benefited the least from the consumption of greenhouse gas emitting fuels are the ones that suffer the hardest consequences in the form of climate change. Furthermore, this issue is also taken into account in the policymaking arena. Indeed, the 1992 United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) incorporates this idea adopting the principle of common but differentiated responsibility (CBDR) and the Paris Agreement in 2015 reaffirms it.
The most affected regions by climate change are the Global Arctic and the countries in the Global South due to their latitude. The research conducted by the Arctic Monitoring and Assessment Programme (AMAP) in 2017 already pointed out that climate change impacts the arctic environment and thereby the livelihoods of local populations. Some of the consequences of climate change listed in this report are the decrease in the number, or even extinction, of many boreal species; the expansion and warming of the Atlantic Water; the negative effects on human health through changes in weather, new diseases, environmental disasters, and societal changes; the impact on traditional livelihoods such as the reindeer herding; etc.
In the case of the Global South, Central America is an illustrative example since it is in a disaster-prone area. The countries in this region have a strong reliance on agriculture and fisheries, so the migration of those populations working in the latter economic sector is very likely to increase in case climate change limits or even prevents these livelihoods. According to a 2018 report by the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC), there is evidence of extreme weather events and climate change scenarios in recent years, which involve increasing temperatures and variability in precipitation causing either floods or droughts. The consequences for the local populations include problems with water availability; difficulties with continuing agricultural activities and with food supply, as the production of basic grains (e.g. maize, rice, beans, and coffee) decreases – these are basic components of local diets and economies; negative impacts on local biodiversities and ecosystems, which are not just important because of climate or economic reasons, but also in terms of history, identity and culture; etc.
Climate change represents a threat to long-term regional stability in those regions most affected by this phenomenon. This phenomenon is causing deep structural changes in the living conditions of local populations who are constantly adapting to survive in changing environments but are increasingly facing the need to leave their homelands as either internal or international migrants, which can create new migratory patterns. All these points demonstrate that climate change is very likely to be a significant factor contributing to reinforcing pre-existing issues for the populations of climate-vulnerable regions.