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Climate Justice 101: Climate Migration

The potential for a climate migration crisis grows by the day, as the climate crisis rages. To address both crises, we need to dramatically reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and quickly.


The climate movement is changing. And it matters.

Chances are you’ve seen it: The growing recognition across the climate community that we cannot truly solve the climate crisis without also confronting the deep inequities and racial injustice at the heart of our societies.

This truth isn’t new. For years, environmental justice leaders, relief agencies, and even UN officials have been shouting from the rooftops about the countless ways that climate change hits people of color hardest and makes poor families poorer.

Only now, more and more people across the movement are finally listening to these demands – really listening – and a commitment to climate justice has become a core part of what it means to be a climate activist today.

If you’re like a lot of people and new to the climate justice space, there’s a whole lot to learn. But it doesn’t have to be intimidating or overwhelming.

To help you get started, we’re launching a new series of explainers exploring key terms in climate justice. Because the better we understand the issue, the better we can fight for a truly just and sustainable future.

We start with one of the most pressing issues in the climate world today and an issue that will remake the map as temperatures keep rising in the years ahead: climate migration.

What is Climate Migration?

Climate migration is defined as, “The movement of a person or groups of persons who, predominantly for reasons of sudden or progressive change in the environment due to climate change, are obliged to leave their habitual place of residence, or choose to do so, either temporarily or permanently, within a State or across an international border.”

Though climate migration receives the most media attention when it is across borders, the majority of those migrating (climate migrants) are doing so within their own countries.

What Causes Climate Migration?

Climate migration typically occurs due to one of two kinds of disaster: sudden-onset or slow-onset disaster.

Sudden-Onset Disasters

Sudden-onset disasters include events like hurricanes, wildfires, and floods – things that occur, you guessed it, suddenly, and can force people to migrate. Typically, though not always, sudden-onset disasters lead to internal migration (migration within one’s country) that is temporary.

In 2019, 23.9 million of the 24.9 million people who were internally displaced due to disasters were displaced due to weather events. We know that climate change is making many weather events more intense and frequent, so we can expect that these sudden-onset disasters will lead to more displacement as the climate crisis grows.

The places most affected by internal, sudden-onset displacement have been South Asia, East Asia, Southeast Asia, and Sub-Saharan Africa. These regions tend to see most of the new displacements each year as well as many longer-term displacements. India, for example, was home to nearly 12 percent of the 5.1 million internally displaced persons who were still displaced at the end of 2019.

Slow-Onset Disasters

Slow-onset disasters refer to things like sea-level rise, drought, unfavorable agricultural conditions, etc. These are disasters that develop more gradually and do not emerge from a single, distinct event. Typically, slow-onset disasters lead to cross-border movement that is permanent.

A recent World Bank report examining internal climate displacement found that, in a worse case warming scenario, more than 140 million people across Sub-Saharan Africa, South Asia, and Latin America could be internally displaced by 2050 due to slow-onset impacts of climate change.

What makes this study so compelling is the enormous data set it draws on, looking at 55 percent of the developing world’s population and offering the most comprehensive study on the impact of climate change-related slow-onset disasters to date. To put it bluntly, these findings aren’t one-offs or maybes. This is real.

I’ve Heard the Term “Climate Refugee” – Is There a Difference?

We use the term “climate migrant” rather than “climate refugee” to refer to people forced to move by slow-onset or sudden-onset climate impacts. But there’s a lot of discussion in the international development, policy, and law spaces about whether climate migrants should be extended refugee status for protection. Let’s start by looking at what a refugee is and the protections offered them.

Refugees Explained

The 1951 Refugee Convention, the key legal document of the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR), extends refugee protection to “people outside their country of nationality or habitual residence and who have a well-founded fear of being persecuted because of their race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, and are unable or unwilling to seek protection from their home countries.”

As you can see, this definition doesn’t include migrants fleeing sudden-onset or slow-onset disasters. But should it?

Your initial thought might be, “yeah, probably!!!” because people fleeing climate impacts are vulnerable just like people fleeing political persecution or violence. That instinct isn’t wrong – people migrating because of the effects of climate change are extremely vulnerable, particularly because there’s currently no international legal framework specifically protecting them. But experts on migration and refugees have shared some of their concerns with extending refugee protection to climate migrants.

One such expert, Dina Ionesco, who is head of the Migration, Environment, and Climate Change Division of the UN Migration Agency, posits that “climate refugee” status might not be the right strategy.

One of her primary observations is, as we mentioned previously, that the majority of climate migration is internal. Because refugee status is conferred to individuals who are outside their country of origin, extending this status to climate migrants would fail to protect the majority of climate migrants. She also highlights concerns that creating a special refugee status for climate change-related movement might have the opposite effect than is intended. Namely, it could lead to the exclusion of those who are most in need of protection who might have difficulty proving a link to climate or environmental factors.

This conversation is continuing, however, as governments begin to recognize that a climate migration crisis is looming. In January 2020, the Human Rights Committee ruled that countries may not deport individuals who face climate change-induced conditions that violate their right to life.

This is this first ruling by a UN human rights treaty body on a complaint by an individual seeking asylum from the effects of climate change. It also sets forth a new standard that could facilitate the success of future climate change-related asylum claims.

(An aside about asylum: an asylum seeker is someone who is seeking international protection but whose claim for refugee status has yet to be determined. It’s helpful to think of it this way: not every asylum seeker will ultimately be recognized as a refugee, but every refugee is initially an asylum seeker.)

All this is to say, we use the term “climate migrant” because it encompasses all kinds of forced movement due to the effects of the climate crisis. And even if refugee status isn’t the solution to the climate migration crisis, these people need and ought to have protection.

This leads us into exploring possible other solutions.

Possible Solutions

The World Bank report on internal migration mentioned earlier concludes that if we act now, we could reduce the number of people forced to move because of the climate crisis by as much as 80 percent. The report outlines three strategies we should follow to prevent an internal climate migration crisis:

1. Cut Greenhouse Gases– The greatest impact – and frankly, the most obvious – solution. If we cut greenhouse gas emissions now and significantly, a far lower number of people will need to migrate. Why? Because climate impacts from lethal heatwaves to powerful hurricanes will be less severe.

2. Invest in More Research– We need more investment to better understand where and how climate impacts might lead to migration. With a better understanding of where climate impacts strike, governments can better predict where migration might occur – and, in theory, better serve potential climate migrants.

3. Create Better Policy– National governments need to not only integrate climate migration into all facets of development planning but also implement policies that address migration and protect climate migrants.

Another solution might be to expand the UN Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement. These principles current cover displacement due to disaster (sudden-onset), but they could be expanded to cover displacement due to slow-onset disasters.

Adaptation assistance is also important to consider in thinking about solutions to a potential climate migration crisis. As we said previously, mitigation (i.e. slashing fossil fuel use fast) is the best approach, hands down.  But even if we dramatically reduce greenhouse gas emissions in line with recommendations from international bodies like the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), we’ve locked in a certain amount of adverse consequences from the climate crisis. And the nations most likely to generate large numbers of cross-border migrants are those least responsible for the climate crisis. Which gives the nations more responsible for climate devastation a moral obligation to provide adaptation assistance to those forced to leave their homes.

There are so many other potential solutions to explore, but let’s look at one final option. Some have suggested that climate displacement should be addressed within the UN’s primary climate body, the same UNFCCC mentioned before. One benefit of doing so would be avoiding the lengthy process of designing a new international legal framework for climate migrants. Another – and just as important – would be avoiding the need to amend the existing refugee framework and keeping protections for traditional refugees intact.

Whatever the solution, the potential for a climate migration crisis grows by the day, as the climate crisis rages. To address both crises, we need to dramatically reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and quickly. And it is imperative that the international community work to protect the millions of people who are expected to be displaced in the next 30 years.

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