What triggered global warming

Immigration, Displacement and Asylum: Current Issues

Dr. Benjamin Schraven

is a senior researcher at the German Development Institute (DIE), where he has been working on the topics of "climate migration", migration governance and the causes of flight since 2011. He has advised the World Bank, the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) and the Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development (BMZ) on migration issues.

200 million people who could flee to Europe due to climate change. This number appears regularly in the media and politics. Does the global north really have to expect an onslaught of "climate migrants" in the foreseeable future? Findings from research.

Indian shepherdess leads her herd of goats through the dry river bed of the Varuna. Above all, poorer population groups in the global south are affected by the effects of climate change, as some of them are highly dependent on agriculture and natural resources. (& copy picture-alliance, Pacific Press Agency)

Apocalypse "climate escape"?

Migration is without a doubt one of the major issues of our time. In 2015 over a million people came to Europe, mainly from Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan [1] - the year is generally considered to be the climax of the so-called European refugee crisis. Refugees, integration and combating the causes of flight have since been the terms that determine many public and political discussions in Germany and Europe. 2015 was also the year in which the Paris Climate Agreement was passed. And it is precisely the possible effects of climate change in relation to migration that cause many observers to look worriedly into the future. Quite a few are asking themselves whether the consequences of global warming - from rising sea levels to severe droughts - could trigger a completely new refugee crisis of previously undreamt-of dimensions for Europe in just a few years or decades. The founder of the alternative Nobel Prize, Jakob von Uexküll, sums up this concern as follows: "If Europe cannot cope with one million war refugees [...], how should it deal with 200 million climate refugees [...]?" [2]

Do we have to expect a huge influx of "climate refugees" in the foreseeable future? What does research actually know about the connection between climate change and migration? And what sources are the findings in this area based on?

The scientific examination of environmental migration

With a few exceptions [3], the connection between environmental factors and human mobility hardly played a role in migration research or in science as a whole until the mid-1980s. That only changed when the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) published a definition of the term "environmental refugee" in 1985. According to this definition, it should be understood as people who - for a certain period of time or permanently - have to leave their traditional home because environmental events threaten their existence there. [4] Many quarters have always rejected this definition as being too vague. Nevertheless, the publication led to an intensive scientific discussion on the topic.

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The consequences of climate change

The consequences of climate change, some of which are already observable, are extremely diverse. They include, on the one hand, creeping environmental changes such as the increasing salinization of groundwater resources, a change in tropical precipitation patterns (in large parts of Africa or South Asia) and a higher probability of droughts (e.g. in the Horn of Africa), but on the other hand, sudden events such as flood disasters in coastal areas as a result of rising sea levels (e.g. in parts of Bangladesh or the Pacific island states). In addition, an increasing frequency and intensity of cyclones in the Caribbean and parts of the Pacific and Indian Oceans can be expected. This can pose a threat to human security. On the one hand, there is a direct risk of being harmed by an environmental incident. On the other hand, the risk of bad harvests and the associated food insecurity increases; Health risks arise from spreading tropical diseases or water scarcity. *

* Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) (2014): Climate Change 2014: Synthesis Report. Contribution of Working Groups I, II and III to the Fifth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Geneva.



With this burgeoning discussion in the late 1980s and early 1990s, two rather different factions in the scientific community were quickly identified. On the one hand there are the so-called "alarmists", who are mainly scientists. The starting point of their analyzes of the relationship between the environment and migration is the premise that ecological changes - and in particular the consequences of global warming (see box) - will play an increasingly dominant role in migration decisions. In this group of scientists, the assumption is widespread that environmental changes make human habitats increasingly uninhabitable and that this would drive people to flight. The best-known representative of the alarmist group is Norman Myers, who is still a respected expert in the field of biodiversity research to this day. In the 1990s he published a forecast according to which there would be 200 million "climate refugees" by the middle of the 21st century. [5] This prognosis has long since ceased to be tenable and methodologically very questionable; however, it turned out to be extremely durable. To this day it appears again and again in media reports or statements by politicians on the consequences of climate change. [6]

On the other hand, since the early 1990s, a group of scientists who were soon referred to as "skeptics" took part in the academic debate on "environmental and climate migration". [7] They include representatives from migration research, economics and social sciences. Their view of the role of ecological factors is completely different from that of the "alarmists". They assume that environmental influences are only one of several factors that influence human migration decisions. They reject forecasts of the future number of "climate refugees" - especially because of the difficulty of being able to define who falls under such a category at all.

For a long time, the scientific debate on the climate-migration nexus - i.e. the connection between climate change and migration - was based primarily on individual case studies. This only changed from the mid-2000s, when public interest in the topic grew and international organizations such as the International Organization for Migration (IOM) or the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) began to take on the problem to a greater extent. Since then, this situation has favored the establishment of numerous international research projects and initiatives, which have significantly expanded the focus of previous research. These include the projects "Environmental Change and Forced Migration Scenarios" (EACH-FOR) [8], "Migration and Global Environmental Change" [9], "Where the Rain Falls" [10] or "Migration, Environment and Climate Change: Evidence from Policy "(MECLEP) [11].

What can be said about the connection between climate change and migration
There are certainly still gaps in knowledge with regard to the connection between migration and climate change. However, the results of the projects and initiatives listed above allow some conclusions to be drawn about the (global) relationship between climate change and human mobility. These tend to agree with the position of the "skeptics" and can be summarized as follows:

There is no automatism between ecological change and migration
The increased likelihood of sudden environmental disasters such as tidal waves is one of the clear consequences of climate change. Millions of people are threatened in their human security; in other words: there is danger to life and limb. But creeping consequences of global warming such as changes in the tropical rainy seasons or coastal erosion are increasingly having a negative impact on food production, food security and the (traditional) economic and lifestyles of many people (see Box 1). Nevertheless, even in view of these environmental changes, human migration decisions remain highly complex. It is not just the consequences of climatic change that are causing people to leave their place of residence. Rather, many factors play a role: Economic (e.g. job offers), political (e.g. visa-free) or social framework conditions (e.g. access to networks that support the migration process) can contribute to the decision whether someone leaves their place of origin or not. In short: migration decisions are usually not based on a single cause, but on an interplay of different motives and compulsions. The distinction between flight and voluntary migration can sometimes hardly be made in specific cases. The same applies to the distinction between the consequences of climate change and non-climate change-related environmental events. It is therefore extremely difficult to answer whether a certain migration process is environmental or climate-related, whether one should even speak of "climate exodus". A cause-and-effect equation based on the motto "the more droughts, the more migration" cannot be established either. Because: Migration is by no means the only reaction or strategy of adaptation (see below) to the effects of climate change; There are many options for adapting to changed environmental conditions "on site". For example, smallholders affected by droughts can adapt their agricultural production to climate change using water storage technologies or new cultivation techniques, which enables them to remain at their place of origin.

"Climate migration" particularly affects poor population groups in the global south

The people who are mainly affected by the effects of climate change - and for whom migration can or must be an option in this context - are poorer population groups in the global south, some of whom are highly dependent on agriculture and natural resources. Above all, smallholder families, cattle breeders, shepherds and the urban poor should be mentioned here. Due to their modest resources and financial resources, they are often not even able to migrate over long distances. Climate-related migration therefore takes place primarily within the country or between neighboring countries. A millionfold onslaught of "climate migrants" in the direction of Europe is unlikely for the time being. Many of the people affected are so poor that they have nowhere to migrate and they are to a certain extent "trapped" in their hometowns. In the literature they are referred to as "trapped populations". These people are and will be hit hardest by the effects of global warming. However, if people affected by climate change can migrate, this usually happens for a limited time and is often limited to the migration of individual household and family members. It is not uncommon for migrants to compensate for harvest or livestock losses, for example, by earning money at the point of arrival and sending part of it back to their families. It is not for nothing that the question of whether and to what extent migration can also be a risk minimization or adaptation strategy to climate change has developed into one of the most important questions in the research field "climate migration" in recent years. [12]

Forced migration due to climate change will increase.
Due to the ongoing climate change and, above all, the increasing rise in sea level, it can be assumed that numerous areas (e.g. parts of the Pacific island states or Bangladesh) will become uninhabitable in the next few decades. There people have to be prepared to give up their hometowns permanently and the governments have to think about resettlement measures. Figures are available on the extent of the forced migration that is already taking place as a result of natural disasters. For example, the Internal Displacement Monitoring Center (IDMC) assumes 24.2 million people who had to leave their homes due to natural disasters in 2016. [13] But these figures also include migratory movements in which the affected people return to their place of residence after a very short period of time. Therefore - like the forecasts for the future number of "climate migrants" in general - they should be interpreted with extreme caution.

A long way: from science to politics

"Climate migration" is no longer a subject of purely academic discussion. The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) set up a "Task Force on Displacement" in 2017 and migration was an official topic for the first time at the annual World Climate Conference in 2010. Addressing migration politically in the context of climate change is challenging and should not simply mean stopping migration. Rather, the aim must be to enable affected people to migrate in dignity - without fear of discrimination or exploitation - and to reinforce the positive aspects of migration as a risk minimization strategy. Therefore, a more intensive exchange between science and politics seems to be more urgent than ever. [14]

This article is part of the Policy Brief on Migration and Climate Change.