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Climate Change and Migration: Policy Must Change to Mitigate Displacement

From rising global temperatures to increasing natural disasters, climate change is already causing extreme disruption and irreversible ecological damage worldwide across geographies and economic sectors. As the world nears the 1.5 degrees celsius of warming that the IPCC has warned is a tipping point for climate change, the impacts of climate change will only continue to worsen. Moreover, climate change is interconnected across many of the sustainable development challenges we face today, including migration.

Climate Change is Reshaping Displacement

Each year, more and more people are displaced due to the effects of climate change. For example, millions of people are forced to flee their homes each year due to natural disasters, such as floods, drought, and extreme weather. In 2020, Hurricane Eta hit Central America and Southern Mexico—a region already vulnerable due to heavy flows of inward and outward migration—resulting in what the UNHCR identifies as “one of the worst weather-related disasters in the region in the past two decades.” Over 120,000 people were forced to evacuate their homes due to flooding, landslides, power outages, and the destruction of crops and infrastructure.

And as climate change worsens, additional increases in weather-related displacements can be expected. In 2022 (the most recent data available), the nearly 32 million displacements caused by weather-related events represented a 41 percent increase compared to weather-related displacements in 2008. This rate shows no signs of declining as temperatures continue to rise and weather patterns change, with hurricanes, wildfires, floods, and droughts displacing persons in ChileCanadaZambiaMozambique,  MexicoEcuadorLibya, and many other nations over the past several months. Furthermore, The World Bank estimates that 216 million people could be displaced by climate-related disasters by 2050.

Climate change not only causes displacement, but often exacerbates the situation for those who are already displaced. This is frequently the case for individuals who have fled their country and are seeking shelter as refugees in another nation, usually in an already vulnerable area. This includes refugees who reside in a neighboring country after fleeing their home country due to violence, conflict, and human rights violations. And nearly 60 percent of displaced people live in countries that are among the most vulnerable to climate change.

The UNHCR describes climate change as a “threat multiplier” for displacement, meaning that it magnifies the impact of other issues that contribute to displacement, such as poverty and turmoil related to resource scarcity. Refugees and asylum seekers displaced by violence and conflict in Ethiopia are a prime example of climate change as a “threat multiplier.” Ethiopia is one of the largest refugee host countries in Africa, hosting 954,000 refugees and asylum-seekers mainly from South Sudan, Somalia, Eritrea, and Sudan. In recent years, Ethiopia has experienced extreme drought and floods brought on by the effects of climate change. Damaged sanitation infrastructure from the flooding has put more people at risk of infectious diseases like cholera, and access to health services is blocked by ruined roads and lack of fuel.

Notably, climate change-related displacement is a protracted crisis. And the long-term health costs, such as lasting health issues, are often not counted in the immediate data after a climate disaster, leading to an underestimation of the real human cost.

Education As a First Step to Addressing Climate-Related Displacement

In the coming years, without action, climate change impacts to migration will only continue to increase. Educating key stakeholders on sustainable development is a precursor to creating innovative solutions for global challenges related to climate change.

Additionally, addressing climate change-related disasters, such as floods, droughts, and heatwaves by using nature-based solutions is a necessary endeavor. For instance, learning from nature to create green infrastructure, such as protecting forests and using wetlands to buffer excess rainwater, can reduce the risk for additional climate disasters.

While policies that reduce inequality and poverty are necessary to protect refugees and asylum-seekers, policymakers, civil society, and government officials must also understand and acknowledge the interactions between poverty, inequality, and climate change to develop targeted and efficient solutions.

Looking Ahead

The effects of climate change on displacement are twofold. First, climate change-related disasters can directly displace people from their homes. Second, those who have already been displaced are resettled in areas vulnerable to the effects of climate change, making their already precarious living conditions more dangerous.

Stakeholders, including policymakers and civil society organizations, must begin by educating themselves on the various solutions to mitigate the effects of climate change. The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) provide solutions and metrics across 17 topics. This upcoming Earth Day provides an opportunity to reflect on the urgency of fighting the impacts of climate change and ensuring that more individuals do not fall victim to climate-related displacement in the years to come.

Source: Modern Diplomacy