The New Phenomenon Of Climate Migrants

In a world focused on isolationism and closed borders, people driven from their homes by extreme climate scenarios are having difficulty finding refuge. Climate effects, including heat waves, wildfires, floods, droughts, and sea level rise, are creating a new phenomenon of climate migrants, and the US and other countries around the world are struggling to reconcile political pressures to insulate borders with the new pressing humanitarian need created by the climate crisis.

Disasters linked to climate change poverty, hunger, and access to natural resources, contributing to instability and violence. Clearly, there is a time sensitive need for countries around the world to unify and create legal infrastructure for climate migration.

Strengthening laws and policies is essential to holistically addressing disaster and climate related internal displacement that forces millions of people from their homes by violence, conflict, and disasters.

“I am very much afraid that raising the specter of a new migration crisis in the making is likely to reinforce the current pattern of border closures and tension on migration issues,” revealed Francois Gemenne, a lead IPCC author and specialist in international migration, “ with the feeling among many people, many governments, that the best way to guard against climate disruption is to shut tighter borders.”

“We have to be very careful with this discourse,” Gemenne warns, “which is often based on good intentions, especially coming from climate naming. The risk is to reinforce a deeply xenophobic discourse that plays on the fear of migration in the hope that it will lead governments and populations to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions.”

So what can be done to assist climate migrants while diffusing xenophobia? Gemenne acknowledges that it will take “courage to recognize that migration is a structural transformation.” It will take organization to provide a confluence of best interests for climate migrants, host countries, countries of origin, and the countries of transit. That means legal access routes for different types of migration, internal migrations, and more open borders, he says.

Many, like the IFRC, agree that new laws and policies must move beyond aspirational statements. They say that mandating practical measures to meet the assistance and protection needs of those displaced and the host communities which receive them is essential. So, too, is the need to provide for longer term support to mitigate risk, recover, and support the realization of durable solutions.

Climate Migrants aren’t just a Foreign Phenomenon

The organization Climate Refugees made the following recommendations to the Biden administration in April, 2021:

  • Incorporate climate drivers into its existing asylum pathways
  • recognize the number of Indigenous smallholder farmers who have fled Central America’s Dry Corridor
  • better understand the historic context, marginalization, violence, instability, and intersection of climate change on livelihoods and food insecurity in the region

As a result of this and other influences, the Biden administration issued a Report on the Impact of Climate Change Migration in October, 2021. In it is a primary recommendation for the establishment of a standing interagency policy process on Climate Change and Migration to coordinate US government efforts to mitigate and respond to migration resulting from the impacts of climate change.

It recognizes the interplay between climate change and various aspects of eligibility for refugee status and how “voluntary frameworks and processes depend heavily on good faith, deliberate participation, and cooperative implementation by individual states.” It suggests that governments should put in place statelessness determination procedures (with a path to citizenship for stateless persons) as well as legal safeguards and policies to prevent statelessness at birth.

The report notes that “it is important to support people to stay as long and as safely possible in their current home areas through investing in measures to reduce disaster risk and enable local adaptation.” Raising the voices of local actors and front-line stakeholders “will continue to be a priority of United States” to address climate change and migration.

Climate migrants are more than a foreign phenomenon, though. No comprehensive data exists on the scale of US internal climate migration, but there is growing local evidence that it is gathering pace.

Numbers of US citizens have started to realize they can no longer live in a place where they face soaring temperatures and worsening wildfires driven by climate change. So they’re moving to a less vulnerable part of the country. In the last few years Vermont has welcomed new arrivals, with its constant search for workers. But the Vermont housing market doesn’t have the capacity to absorb many more people.

Vermont and other New England states seem to be a destination for internal climate migrants, as temperate northern states are seeing the majority of inbound US migration. As someone who summers in Connecticut, I can bear witness that New England, too, is experiencing the effects of global warming on climate. The residues of 4 hurricanes drove up from the Atlantic shoreline inland in summer, 2021, causing significant flooding each time. (The cover picture shows how readily a small brook overflowed its banks and swallowed our yards.)

The Massachusetts coast braces itself now for regular flooding as the confluence of nor’easters and high tides pummels their communities from Cape Cod to Boston’s North Shore. Residents on picturesque Plum Island, many of whom own longstanding, multigenerational family homes, are “clearly panicked and in crisis mode,” say Mayor Donna Holaday. The 2021 nor’easter in Sandwich compromised several homes, as the video below shows in ways that words cannot.

Wired has chronicled how residents of the coastal Louisiana community of Isle de Jean Charles, which sits just a foot or two above sea level, are being pushed out by rising seas. Inhabitants of coastal Native Alaskan villages such as Shishmaref and Newtok — where more intense storm surges caused by declining sea ice are eroding coasts weakened by melting permafrost — are being relocated. It is all-too-easy to forget the number of New Orleans residents who fled their city after Hurricane Katrina in 2005, or the Houston residents who were forced from their homes by Hurricane Harvey flooding in 2017.

NOAA’s 2022 Sea Level Rise Technical Report Points to US coastlines to have projected to rise, on average, 10 – 12 inches (0.25 – 0.30 metres) from 2020 – 2050, which will be as much as the rise measured over the last 100 years. The report outlines how sea level rise will create a profound shift in coastal flooding over the next 30 years by causing tide and storm surge heights to increase and reach further inland. By 2050, “moderate” (typically damaging) flooding is expected to occur, on average, more than 10 times as often as it does today, and can be intensified by local factors.

Final Thoughts

Migration driven by uninhabitable coastal areas is likely to happen sooner rather than later. From sea level rise and desertification to increased drought and more severe storms, the effects of the climate crisis are already being first-hand in all their experienced alarming, threatening, and devastating forms. Extreme weather events disproportionately hit communities of color, yet these same people are the least able to move.

The decision to migrate or not is complex and difficult to predict. Sudden events like hurricanes and floods are considered alongside generally less flashy phenomena like drought and fresh water availability, say authors at Climate Refugeesso there is a need to protect all displaced people or forced to migrate due to climate change impacts, whether internally or across international borders.

Protecting the rights of climate displaced persons is essential, governments must do more to support them, and citizens must be ready to open up their communities to climate migrants.


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