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Jean Lambert London's Green MEP

Speech: Climate Change and Migration

Jean’s speech at the Doctors of the World Annual UK Conference

The estimates by Professor Myers for potential climate migrants that are often quoted would mean that by 2050 one in every 45 people in the world will have been displaced by climate change. Other estimates are even higher. Such numbers would exceed the current global migrant population. According to the International Organization for Migration (IOM) about 192 million people, or 3 per cent of the world’s population, now live outside their place of birth (this has been a fairly steady percentage over the years: the numbers are up because there is a bigger global population)

Climate change is complex of itself – its impact is then affected by the ability of communities to adapt, further complicated by the resources available to them. When it comes to decisions to migrate we add a further level of complexity because individual migrants’ decisions to leave their homes vary so widely and deciding causality between economic “pull” and environmental “push” is often highly subjective. Then picking out the role of climate change from other environmental, economic and social factors requires an ambitious analytical step into the dark (IOM).

IOM cites Katrina as not just being a weather disaster, but poor planning, inadequate response and poverty played a role in making it a major disaster and resulting in large-scale displacement. So, if you are looking at where climate migrants are going to come from, you have to take a variety of factors into account, not least the adaptation possibilities available to individuals and to populations as a whole.

I was at a conference where Professor Stern stated: Climate change is about water: too much, too little, in the wrong place or at the wrong time.

In terms of health, we know that access to clean drinking water is possibly the most important factor. So let’s look at some of the predictions concerning water, as referenced by IOM:

Large areas are expected to become drier – the proportion of land in constant drought is expected to increase from 2 per cent to 10 per cent by 2050. Meanwhile, the proportion of land suffering extreme drought is predicted to increase from 1 per cent at present to 30 per cent by the end of the 21st century. In Somalia, drought cycle will go from once every 10 years to becoming almost constant (Norwegian Refugee Council).

Rainfall patterns will change as the hydrological cycle becomes more intense. In some places this means that rain will be more likely to fall in deluges (washing away top-soil and causing flooding). This could mean that extreme weather events such as droughts, storms and floods are expected to become increasingly frequent and severe. For example, it is estimated that the South Asian monsoon will become stronger with up to 20 per cent more rain falling on eastern India and Bangladesh by 2050.

I currently chair the EP’s Delegation to South Asia, which includes countries such as the Maldives, Bangladesh, Nepal and Bhutan: they have a very direct interest in the impact of climate change. Already, we see thousands in Bangladesh displaced by flooding from so-called floating islands or having to take refuge on raised roadways until the water subsides.

Conversely, less rain is expected at low to mid-latitudes; by 2050 sub-Saharan Africa is predicted to have up to 10 per cent less annual rainfall in its interior. Less rain would have particularly serious impacts for sub-Saharan African agriculture which is largely rain-fed. These areas would not be the only ones affected.

Some fish stocks will migrate towards the poles and colder waters and may deplete as surface water run-off and higher sea temperatures lead to more frequent hazardous algal blooms and coral bleaching. When we add this to over-fishing, compounded by such policies as the EU’s Common Fisheries Policy, the impact on the nutrition of coastal communities is very worrying.

Meanwhile, melting glaciers will increase the risk of flooding during the wet season and reduce dry-season water supplies to one-sixth of the world’s population, predominantly in the Indian sub-continent, parts of China and the Andes. However fast the glaciers may be melting, there is no doubt that they are retreating. Managing water supplies and particularly shared watersheds, is a major diplomatic challenge and absolutely essential if conflict is to be avoided.

Large delta systems are at particular risk of flooding. The area of coastal wetlands is projected to decrease as a result of sea level rise. When we think of major population concentrations in delta areas, we can also consider major population displacement.

While many of the most serious predictions concern Africa, Asia and South America, we should not assume that other areas (often with high emissions) will not be affected. EU studies looking at Europe, show serious implications for the Mediterranean area; Australia has just experienced a long, serious drought and there are changes underway in Alaska.

Maybe the question to ask is where will not be affected?

But as I have already said, similar events can have very different outcomes, depending on preparedness, poverty and the ability to recover.

Migration is an adaptation strategy:

I absolutely agree that migration is part of an adaptation strategy to changing circumstances and always has been.

So what do we know about the various causes of migration and the different patterns it takes?

Natural disasters the leading cause of displacement at present (Norwegian Refugee Council).

2008 saw more than 20 million people displaced as result of climate – related, sudden – onset disasters, such as floods and storms. Compare this to the estimated 4.6 million newly displaced by conflict and violence. Of the 20 disasters causing most displacement, 17 were in Asia (800,000 displaced when Cyclone Nargis hit Myanmar: from what we know, that was a disaster magnified by poor governance and an unwillingness to accept assistance from outside sources).

There is a difference in the human effect of sudden-disaster displacement, to the gradual, maybe more considered migration resulting from progressive change, as we have heard from previous speakers. It will be interesting to look at patterns of movement in Australia after the last few years of extended drought.

The EU has funded a project which tries to examine the factors that lead to people moving in a variety of areas affected by environmental factors. The fact that it was only a two-year study, with much left to investigate, demonstrates the need for further research as has been emphasised already today.

EACH-FOR study (Environmental Change and Forced Migration Scenarios Project: European Commission 6th Framework Programme Jan 2007 – Dec 2008: project ended May 2009) aimed to eventually produce scenarios of possible future displacement due to environmental stressors for selected case studies.
What were its findings? In general, people are attached to their original place of living and would prefer not to move. Improving the livelihoods in the respective countries of origin could therefore offer a chance for those having to migrate and an important strategy of survival for those, who cannot afford to move due to poverty.

Land ownership is an important factor:

As long as the farmers are hired on the land, they are very mobile and flexible in response to environmental changes. Owners of the land would not leave unless there is no other way or they are officially displaced by the government.

Migration occurs when livelihoods cannot be maintained:

When the economic basis is threatened by environmental degradation, people migrate elsewhere in search of an alternative livelihood.
However fieldwork showed that not only the farmers move: shop and restaurant owners, truck drivers, and merchants migrated because of the environmental stressors. This maybe also reflects the additional livelihoods of farmers already referred to today.

Migration decisions are complex:

The research results repeatedly point to the interconnectedness of environmental factors with economic, social and political factors affecting the migration flows of people. The natural and human-made disasters are a complex mix of both natural and socio-political and economic processes.

While the environment can be an important “push factor” for migration (and in some cases it is the sole driving factor), it is often closely interwoven with other social, economic and political triggers for migration decisions. Other “push factors” include lack of infrastructure (social services, education, etc.) and the withdrawal of the state from rural areas. At the same time there are often significant “pull factors”, especially more promising economic opportunities elsewhere and the supposed attractions of urban areas. Once migration has started, it reinforces further migration, by networks that facilitate migration and “a culture of migration”.

The complexity of the migration decision-making processes is also illustrated by examples of Counter-intuitive findings. In some cases, for example, severe environmental deterioration led to reduced migration and even to increased return migration. This can be explained by the overall political and economic context at the time: under certain conditions stronger political and economic forces may override an existent or even increasing environmental push on migration flows.

Finally, the complexity is further illustrated by the findings that even if the causes of migration are very similar from one person to the next, people opt for different strategies in terms of destination and timing for migration.
Although the environment is often not the only trigger for migration, the EACH-FOR case studies show that it is an important factor and with the expected impacts of climate change it will grow in importance.

Who migrates?:

Many of the EACH-FOR case studies show unambiguously that people who want to leave their villages/regions/country can only do so if they have the necessary financial means and access to networks that support migration. In fact, the financial means are often not available, since environmental degradation had a negative impact on their income or, as discussed above, the overall political or economic context overrides the environmental push-factor.

Many of the case studies find that it is the younger generation that migrates. The older people stay in the places of origin even in the face of severe environmental stress. The migration decision is generally not made at the individual level but at the household or family level. The older people stay behind to maintain the home etc, while the young migrate in search of employment and send back remittances.

Internal or international migration?:

An important outcome of the fieldwork is that migration induced by environmental hazards and degradation is mainly internal and seldom international. From migration studies it is already known that international migrants to Europe or the US are not the poorest, but people that have some means (both financial and social capital/networks + some education) to invest in the migration abroad. Many people who had migrated also reported that their quality of life in the place of destination had not improved: it had been difficult or impossible to find employment or housing or adequate land for agriculture.

For the UK?:

The UK Government has actually done more research on the national and regional even down to local level effects of climate change than many other countries – perhaps as a result of the flooding in Hull, Gloucester and so many other places.

The tabloid press, and the Daily Telegraph, certainly seem to know where those displaced will come to!:

‘Eco-migration threat to UK of climate change’

Climate change threatens Britain with “environmentally induced migration”, a top level European Union report has warned.
There will be millions of ‘environmental’ migrants by 2020, with climate change as one of the major drivers of this phenomenon,” states the report.

Such migration may increase conflicts in transit and destination areas. Europe must expect substantially increased migratory pressure.

The EU analysis of the security threats posed by global warming predicts social unrest as an influx of immigration sweeps “destination” Europe, following failing harvests and environmental conflicts in the world’s poorest countries.

(Climate and Security report. EU 10.3.2008 as reported in the Telegraph!)

The EU report does not single out the UK at all! Nevertheless, the report is couched in terms of the scare-mongering tones that so often accompany migration stories.

But let us also take care that we in the environment and development movements don’t also support this approach by talking up numbers and predictions of mass-movements across borders and continents. It is sometimes done with the best of intentions in order to wake-up decision-makers to the need to take action on climate-change: unfortunately, it can also wake-up the very forces we would want to stay asleep!

We do have evidence that a key factor in determining where people move to, if they can afford it and have a choice, will be family ties and / or a social network.

From that, we could assume that those who would consider coming to the UK would be based on the communities that are already here: from the 1950s, people from Caribbean countries; India and Pakistan in the 1970s; Bangladeshis in the1980s; more recently, those from sub-Saharan Africa and the EU. In fact, recent migration is more diverse than ever before in our recent history. But we should not assume an automatic linear connection. People now have family ties in many parts of the world that can open up other possibilities.

We should also recognise that membership of the EU brings rights to free movement for EU nationals including ourselves. It would be a mistake to leave ourselves out of the global migration movement, given estimates that 1 in 10 UK citizens currently live or work abroad.

So, we have to ask whether our current policies and legislation are up to the potential challenge. Are we going to see countries carry on literally putting up fences to keep migrants out – as is happening between India and Bangladesh, or the USA and Mexico? Are governments going to acknowledge that generally people wish to stay where they are, or move somewhere as close as possible or will they continue to see migration as “floods” of people, rather than a reaction born of necessity in most cases, and cross-continental migration as the exception rather than the rule? Migration is an adaptation strategy: it may be temporary migration, sometimes seasonal in character or it may be permanent in character. Ideally, it should be a choice freely made. Are decision-makers willing to make the fundamental changes necessary for that to be the reality?