Climate & Energy
Environmental Justice
Malina Brannen

Climate Migration: the Change We Aren’t Talking About

Author: Malina Brannen, COL ‘23

“Early in 2019… Jorge A. knew he had to get out of Guatemala. The land was turning against him. For five years, it almost never rained. Then it did rain, and Jorge rushed his last seeds into the ground. The corn sprouted into healthy green stalks, and there was hope — until, without warning, the river flooded… Soon he made a last desperate bet, signing away the tin-roof hut where he lived with his wife and three children against a $1,500 advance in okra seed. But after the flood, the rain stopped again, and everything died. Jorge knew then that if he didn’t get out of Guatemala, his family might die, too.”

This account, documented in the New York Times, is of just one person out of millions who are displaced every year due to the climate crisis. Despite seeing an increase in conversations surrounding climate change in the national discourse, stories like that of Jorge and the implications of climate change on people’s livelihoods are too commonly left out of the picture. It is time that policy action and public conversations draw on the connections between the impacts of climate change, the role of immigration, and the real-life experiences of individuals.

The Climate-Migration Nexus

When talking about the science behind the climate crisis, it’s far too easy to disengage from the direct human consequences, particularly the vast displacement by environmental changes that force people from their homes. While this relationship has long been neglected in policy and scholarship, the climate-migration nexus has become increasingly visible in recent years. Still, there are often many disconnects in broader climate discussions: When we discuss disappearing coastlines, where are the Indigenous communities facing relocation from their ancestral homes? When the news covers regions experiencing extended periods without rainfall, where is the impact on the agricultural workers whose livelihoods depend directly on the health of their land? 

Like many issues, climate migration is part of a larger challenge, not of the future, but of the here and now.

“The climate-justice [movement] needs to understand that if we aren’t in solidarity with refugees, migrants, and people displaced by climate change, war, and violence, we are doing ourselves a disservice, because we will need to deal with these issues soon, whether we like it or not.”

Niria Alicia, Xicana community organizer and SustainUS COP25 youth delegation leader

The statistics are disheartening. In the coming years, climate change, coupled with population growth, will dramatically increase forced migration, an already immense phenomenon. In 2020 alone, 82.4 million people were forcibly displaced worldwide: the equivalent of every person in Germany losing their homes. In the face of scarcity and other threats, people will seek refuge both within their countries of origin and abroad. The World Bank reports that by 2050, more than 143 million people from just three regions could be internally displaced by climate challenges in their countries, and the shift has begun.

The National Intelligence Council ranked the anticipated risk of fifteen climate-related issues, of which climate migration was one. They regarded the level of risk as on par with the two other most elevated issues (at a “Medium risk level” at present) and expected to reach “High risk” as soon as 2030. Entire communities are at risk of displacement. This is not an issue the U.S. can afford to neglect; people are already threatened with the need to move. The question is, who gets to decide the who, when, and how?

Climate Migration, Equity, and Justice

The climate crisis is deeply entwined with global social and economic inequities. Namely, communities whose consumption and emissions are most responsible for climate change are those who are least vulnerable to its immediate impacts. Conversely, communities most adversely affected largely have inadequate funding and/or political power, limiting their ability to adapt. 

Climate migration is a prime example. Where mitigation efforts fall short, migration is an adaptive response taken more often as a last resort than a preventative measure. However, while people can discuss the option of moving as much as they want, the ability to act on that decision is strongly influenced by factors external to community members’ control, specifically issues of race and gender inequality, disability rights, and poverty.

As the climate crisis worsens, who gets to move and who is forced to stay will exacerbate existing disparities; groups unable to adapt will suffer the life-threatening consequences of extreme weather events, large influxes of migrants will test urban area infrastructure and services to their limits, and areas already navigating scarcity and conflict will likely endure increased violence. Without effective policy, the basic human rights of millions of people are at risk. Moving forward, it will be crucial for decision-makers to be intentional about providing aid and pathways to safety, both legal and physical, to vulnerable communities, targeting those too commonly left behind.

Policy Efforts

Current policy does not sufficiently address climate-related migration. However, there is strong potential to build from existing immigration frameworks. For example, per the UNHCR, refugee status is granted to those with a “well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion.” While climate-related claims alone do not merit refugee protections, the interaction between climate disasters and other regional conflicts will be important in understanding many asylum cases. Additionally, Temporary Protected Status (TPS) can be granted in many circumstances for states facing environmental disaster. While refugee and TPS status may offer the foundation for organizing climate migration, they alone will be insufficient to manage the impending mass movements of populations.

“…there are two big buckets of work to be done… prevention is one and the other is protection… [This entails] enabling people to stay in climate fragile environments if they would like to do so, but then also acknowledging that migration or displacement may be an eventual reality for folks, and planning accordingly for that with this protection phase of investment and intervention.”

Kayly Ober, Refugees International

The Biden administration has taken preliminary steps to recognize the unique nature of climate migration with Executive Order 14013, “Rebuilding and Enhancing Programs to Resettle Refugees and Planning for the Impact of Climate Change on Migration.” Enacted on February 9, 2021, it called for the preparation of a report on the intersection between climate change and migration. The resulting study–which marks the first time the federal government has officially reported on this relationship–calls for the strengthening of U.S. legal and foreign assistance infrastructure, specifically targeting the climate-migration nexus. It states, “the United States has a compelling national interest in strengthening global protection for [climate migrants].” Despite the vocal support, there is still a significant lack of action (namely, funding and organization) to address these issues. It is also worth mentioning that the U.S. is not immune to internal climate displacement – consider, for example, the record temperatures in Arizona. Yet, this too remains neglected, going essentially unmentioned in the aforementioned report.

What’s Next

Climate migration, both within and across borders, will have deep social and economic effects around the world. Insufficient climate mitigation/adaptation technology and investments threaten to turn mass displacements into a global crisis. But, if action is taken now, this doesn’t have to be the case. 

But, if action is taken now, this doesn’t have to be the case.

Direct action must be taken to address the climate-migration nexus, as current international and national legal mechanisms for immigration will be inadequate to facilitate these grand-scale population shifts. At the international level, multilateral efforts must be made to acknowledge and anticipate the challenges of climate migration, particularly by including climate displacement as grounds for refugee status. Domestically, the United States needs to be prepared to both support internal communities facing impacts and to receive displaced individuals from other countries. On the political level, governments must invest in strengthening infrastructure, develop relocation plans for at-risk communities, and establish new legal immigration pathways for climate migrants, such as the development of a visa program based on climate vulnerability. On a social level, pre-existing inequities must be part of every stage of the decision-making process. Overall, the most important thing to remember as we witness an increase in false narratives which paint immigrants as criminals and job thieves, is that climate change, not the climate migrants themselves, is the real threat in this crisis.

Further Reading

Biden administration
climate migration
climate refugees
international policy