Climate displacement is an umbrella term that encompasses very disparate movements, so this article aims to explore these differences and get a more nuanced idea of migration in a climate context. But first of all, there is some empirical evidence on the common characteristics of this phenomenon, which is important to have in mind. Most of the climate migration (1) stays within the countries of origin and does not cross international borders; (2) happens gradually; (3) more permanent migration is usually caused by geophysical causes such as volcano eruptions and earthquake rather than climate-related causes; and (4) the majority of international migration stays within the region, in this way, migrants from the Global South are most likely to stay in the Global South.[1]


The link between climate change and migration is a complex one to pinpoint as climate change is hardly the only reason to migrate.[2] It can be said that migration can be an adaptive response to climate change-induced hazards, that is, migration can be an action that reduces the vulnerability of populations.[3] As mentioned above, climate migration does not happen overnight, so there are prior steps.[4] The following pattern is very likely to happen:

Figure 1: Prior steps migration. Compilated and adapted by the author, based on McLeman (2018).

Many islands in the Pacific Ocean are paradigmatic examples of this situation due to their vulnerability to sea-level rise. For example, such states as the Maldives, the Marshall Islands, Kiribati, Vanuatu and Kiribati are condemned to submersion, indeed, there is evidence pointing out that they will completely disappear by 2100, which will affect approximately 2 million people.[5] Although they are using mitigation and adaptation strategies to face the effects of climate change, which include water storage, inland relocation, creation of new ways to harvest and change of policies, these measures will not be helpful in the long term.[6]

Photo 1: Source go_greener_oz

However, it is important to remember that migration is not a universal strategy to face climatic hazards and it depends on the different options available, which at the same time, are influenced by demographic, cultural, political, economic, social and environmental factors.[7] Even in some cases in which migration is, in fact, the best option an individual or a group can be unable to leave because of a series of impediments beyond their control, such as, lack of money or social networks or poor health.[8]


The overarching term of climate displacement encapsulates very diverse and distant scenarios that are necessary to distinguish from each other. For example, the above mentioned circumstances faced by islanders have little to do with a household that has to unexpectedly leave their house due to a sudden mudslide elsewhere, or a farmer that has to give up on agriculture because of increasing difficulties and uncertainties related to an erratic climate. Although there are different classifications, Walter Kälin[9] suggests a useful typology of movements in the context of climate change.

  1. Hydro-meteorological disasters, such as hurricanes, floods, mudslides, etc. This type of disaster provokes large-scale displacement, which can be for longer or shorter periods depending on the effectiveness of the recovery efforts and usually stay within the country.
  2. Slow onset disasters and environmental degradation, for example, desertification, scarcity of water, salination of coastal zones, recurrent flooding, etc. Life conditions and economic opportunities deteriorate slowly, which makes staying unsustainable and forces people to move. Migration in those cases in which regions have become completely inhabitable will create forced and permanent displacement.
  3. ´Sinking’ small island states due to the rising sea levels. As mentioned earlier, these areas will progressively not be able to accommodate all previous inhabitants and later, they will disappear completely, which will create permanent international displacements.
  4. Violence or armed conflict due to decreasing essential resources, for instance, food and water, which might cause either/both internal or international displacements.
  5. Dangerous zones for human habitation, that is, areas in which people are at risk of evacuation, displacement and prohibition to return, being the last characteristic that distinguishes this point from most of the previous forms.


The causes and circumstances might vary but climate displacement is usually part of a long process of adaptation and it manifests as a strategy to cope with an increasingly unsustainable social, economic and/or environmental situation, as it is in the case of other types of migration. However, and looking at both extremes of this phenomenon, climate displacement neither provokes massive international migration flows, since people are mostly internally displaced, nor is a possible option for all who would need it.


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