Climate Migration: A Reality for Billions as More of the World Becomes “Barely Liveable”?

We know that the climate crisis will put enormous pressure on our societies and way of life. Many people are already feeling some of these pressures and the more vulnerable of us will face even greater hardships. Drought, sea-level rise and other climate-related challenges have already forced many people in the Global South to uproot themselves in search of a better life elsewhere. The scientific community is divided on the issue as some predict that the number of “climate migrants” will grow significantly in the coming decades while others argue that such figures are exaggerated. In the meantime, increasing prevalence of right-wing sentiment is likely to make migration policies much harsher around the world making it more difficult for those seeking refuge.

Humans can be found in all corners of the globe living within different ecosystems utilising the various natural resources available to them. This has been the case for millennia. Despite our vast distribution, a recent study published in the Proceedings of the Natural Academy of Sciences has found that human beings have lived and thrived in quite a narrow range of the earth’s climate; an average annual temperature of around 13°C. This has been the case for the past 6,000 years. 

The study projected that unchecked climate change will raise the mean annual temperatures to dangerously high levels in parts of the world where billions live. We can expect to see this by as soon as 2070 as temperature ranges will increase more in a few decades than they have in the past six millennia.   

Currently, around 1% of the Earth’s land surface is characterised by a mean annual temperature of around 29 °C, mostly found in the Sahara desert. If we continue to emit greenhouse gases without decline (RCP8.5), this “barely liveable hot zone” could expand to 19% of land surface exposing 3.5 billion people to dangerously high temperatures. The people living in these regions are some of the poorest and most vulnerable in the world who have even lower capacities to adapt to such changes.

Another study in 2017 found that, by 2100, parts of India and Eastern China could experience heat waves so deadly that simply going outside for a few hours “will result in death even for the fittest of humans.”  

Humans have occupied this 13°C niche for the last 6,000 years for various reasons. It is the ideal climatic condition for small-scale farming which feeds half of the global population. It has been found that high temperatures have negative impacts on physical labour capacity, mood, behaviour and mental health. One study also found that this climate also provides optimal conditions for economic productivity.  

So how will humans adapt as the places they inhabit start to become hotter, dryer and harder to live in? 

As the climate crisis worsens, people are increasingly faced with great challenges at their doorstep; sea-level rising leading to flooding, agriculture practices collapsing due to extensive drought and extreme heatwaves are just a few. These factors along with a complex network of other environmental and socio-political issues are likely to push people to uproot themselves from their homes and rebuild their lives elsewhere, particularly if they are not given the tools and support with which to adapt.

We’re already starting to see large swathes of land in the Global South rendered unproductive which has lead many to move to cities and urban areas within their countries under the notion that it would be easier to make a living there. Life in these cities generally fails to live up to their expectations. It’s harder to find work, the cost-of-living is much higher and high levels of crime often lead people to consider a next, more extreme step; crossing borders.  

Scientific predictions of climate migration

There have been a number of studies which attempt to quantify the level of climate migration in the next few decades and predictions range from hundreds of millions to billions of people. Some argue that such predictions are problematic given the multitude of complex factors which could push someone to decide to leave their country. In many cases, the link between climate change and migration might not be as straightforward.

The current mass migration from Syria was preceded by the worst drought in the fertile crescent in 900 years. As agriculture become virtually impossible, millions of Syrians fled to the cities which lead to increased tensions. A study in 2010 also found that periods of drought in Mexico lead to increased migration into the United States.  

Regardless, a faction of the scientific community seems to be opposed to discussing climate migration. Marten Scheffer, one of the author’s from the recent Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences study told the New York Times that his team were asked to downplay the possibility of climate migration as a result of the shift of the mean annual temperatures over the coming decades. He believes that, because of this, the published research was only allowed to “superficially explore” migration.

Perhaps the most problematic aspect of many of the outcomes of climate migration studies is how it is being presented as a security risk for the Western way of life, also known as securitisation. This narrative has created a widespread justification for the hardening of borders across the Global North such as those within the EU, the US and Australia.

The climate crisis, migration and mobility

The way the global community reacts to the climate crisis could literally mean life or death for hundreds of millions of people. Richer nations have a responsibility to aid poorer ones in adapting to the effects of climate breakdown and to provide shelter and opportunity for displaced people, especially since the bulk of the responsibility for the climate crisis lies in the hands of such developed countries. 

Tackling the crisis without further delay is also of the utmost importance. Allowing the planet to warm to  2 °C instead of 1.5 °C exposes several hundred million more people to climate-related risks and poverty by 2050. 

Changing the way the scientific community conducts its research around the issue of climate migration could have a positive impact on the way the issue is dealt with by policymakers. This includes an understanding that migration is not a security risk but has been a reality of humankind for thousands of years and is more likely as our world becomes more connected.  Research needs to focus on understanding the complexities and relationships between the climate crisis and the movement of people. Research must also include the knowledge and experiences of affected communities and indigenous populations to ensure that a stronger evidence base is built and to ensure better outcomes when designing policy aimed at indigenous rights and human development. 

Migration can also be seen as beneficial to receiving societies, particularly if it is addressed properly in order to avoid or, at the very least, minimise tensions. More immigrants could greatly benefit countries experiencing demographic decline but this can only happen if they respond positively. This means investing and preparation in order to avoid being overwhelmed, creating further tension and widening the inequality gap. 

Ultimately, the outcomes of migration depend largely on how the receiving countries and regions react to it. A proactive response to the climate crisis and to migration will lead to more resilience, poverty reduction and peace. A lack of action to the crisis coupled with an aggressive stance on migration will create more food insecurity, deepen poverty and ultimately more human suffering.  

The Author: JD Farrugia | Translation & adaptation: Simona Getova

JD has been working in project and campaign management roles since 2010, mostly within civil society but also in the private sphere, as well as the arts and culture sector. Some of these roles include: directing a CSO focused on sustainable fisheries, setting up and coordinating civil society programmes, and coordinating the programme of a community theatre. JD has an M.Sc in Environmental Management & Planning and a Bachelor's degree in Psychology, both from the University of Malta. He is currently involved in various projects related to environmental causes as well as artistic projects in Malta, North Macedonia and on a European level.



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