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Displacement in a changing climate

Weather-related disasters like hurricanes and floods displace millions annually, but slow-onset climate impacts often go unreported, driving millions more from their homes. As global temperatures soar, areas become uninhabitable, pushing millions to leave everything behind. In this post, we explore the complexities of climate-related displacements, shedding light on their diverse forms and legal distinctions. The terminology matters, from migrants to refugees, but behind each label lies a unique human story.

Two misconceptions about climate-related displacement

Let us first get two misconceptions out of the way:

“Climate change will lead to mass migration from the Global South to the Global North.”

Most people who leave their homes because of climate-related disasters typically relocate within their own country rather than crossing borders. Whether escaping conflict or disaster, people generally prefer to remain as close as possible to home and family. Additionally, those affected by climate change often lack the means to move long distances.

“Climate-related displacement refers to people fleeing extreme weather events.”

Climate change is a complex and gradual process that acts as a threat multiplier. It exacerbates the impact of other factors, such as poverty, loss of livelihoods, and tension over dwindling resources. This can create conditions that may eventually lead to conflict and displacement.

Migrant, Internally Displaced Person (IDP), Refugee, or Migrant – what is the difference?

Displacement can take many forms, with people moving voluntarily or forced, resettling within their home country or across international borders, and for a limited period or even permanently.

A migrant is someone who relocates to another country for various reasons, including work, disasters or climatic changes. An Internally Displaced Person (IDP) is someone who is forced to leave their home but remains within borders. A refugee flees their country due to persecution, war, or violence and seeks protection elsewhere. Asylum-seekers have claimed that they are refugees but are officially awaiting a decision on their refugee status.

Although the terms are often used interchangeably, they have important legal differences. Whether someone is a refugee, asylum seeker, IDP, or migrant, let’s not forget that their legal status cannot express their whole identity and personality.

What is leading to climate-related displacement?

Weather-related events like cyclones, hurricanes, floods, heatwaves, wildfires and landslides displace millions of people every year. These sudden-onset hazards often cause loss of life and significant damage to ecosystems, crops, infrastructure and the services people rely on. Climate change not only increases the frequency and intensity of these events but also makes them more unpredictable and destructive.

In 2022, weather-related events displaced 31.8 million people. But this number doesn’t tell the whole story. The displacement resulting from slow-onset climate effects, such as rising sea levels, coastal erosion, altered rainfall patterns, drought, desertification, or salinification, is significantly underreported by countries and remains largely unaccounted for. Millions of people have already moved, either forced, intentionally, permanently, or seasonally, to cope with the livelihood consequences of such climatic changes.

Studies have shown that gradual changes, such as high temperatures and drying conditions, are more likely to cause displacement than sudden events. With over 3.3 billion people living in areas vulnerable to climate change, we can expect displacement figures to rise rapidly unless we take action to stop global warming.

 

The human cost of global warming

As our planet heats up, an increasing number of people will experience challenging or even lethal temperatures. As global temperatures increase, large parts of the world will become increasingly difficult to live in. These findings underscore the need for transformational change. We need bold policies to limit global warming and its ecological and humanitarian consequences.

Mean Annual Temperatures of 29°C or higher are considered unliveable. Such high temperatures are linked to decreased labour productivity, cognitive performance and learning, adverse pregnancy outcomes, reduced crop yield, and increased mortality, conflict, and spread of infectious diseases. People need to move or adapt, but there are limits to adaptation.

People are most comfortable with dry air temperatures between 22–26°C in the shadow. Above 28°C, well-being quickly declines. We must adapt by altering clothing, changing our environment, and altering work patterns. At a certain point, sweating doesn’t cool us down anymore, and temperatures above 40°C can even be fatal – the risk increases with humidity. Other mammals have physiological limits similar to those of humans.

 

Today, ~30 million people are exposed to unprecedented heat, but that number is quickly growing. Affected areas now only cover 0.8% of the global land surface but are projected to cover 19% in 2070 in a worst-case scenario. Our current trajectory (2.4°C in 2070) is projected to expose 2 billion people to unprecedented heat and force a billion or more to migrate to cooler places. But even if people migrate to cooler areas, they will still experience more frequent heatwaves, droughts and other extreme weather events. A neighbouring region or country might have a MAT that’s within the human climate niche, but whether it’s 27°C or 28°C, it’s still incredibly hot.

The time for transformational change is now

Today, climate change impacts are felt worldwide, with vulnerable regions in the Global South bearing the brunt. Being disproportionally affected while lacking the resources to recover and adapt deprives communities of daily food and other basic needs, forcing them to leave everything behind.

But when large areas become scorching hot, where can people go? The current approach of confining millions of people in camps or leaving them and their hosts to face climate change alone is unsustainable. It begs the question: can we rethink our conception of borders and envision ourselves as a unified global community?

Removing borders or making them far more flexible has the potential to enhance humanity’s resilience to the stresses and shocks of global climate change. Managed well, migration could benefit everyone. Ultimately, embracing migration as a tool in the fight for global equality and justice is essential in addressing the social and humanitarian challenges posed by climate change.

The time for transformational change is now. Let’s rethink borders, unite as a global community, and embrace migration as a tool for resilience and justice.

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Elise & Joy

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