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What we get wrong about migration and climate change

By Alex Randall on February 8, 2018

Mother walking with her two children in Ethiopia

Previously published on Prospect Magazine

The chance to prevent climate-linked migration passed decades ago. But there are things governments could do to help.

Most of what you know about climate-linked migration is probably wrong. The media usually report on the connections that are most dramatic or tragic, skewing the picture.

This doesn’t mean that people won’t move because of the impacts of climate change. They absolutely will. For millions of people, migration is already how they are adapting to climate change. Droughts, hurricanes, floods and sea level rise are all forcing people to move. In fact, 23 million people moved due to climate and weather-related disasters last year.

But the way people will move, and where they will move from and to, is often unexpected.

At the moment, the vast majority of climate-linked migration happens within national borders. Climate-linked migration is very often from rural areas into cities. As drought hits agricultural areas, people move into nearby cities to find other work; they’ve migrated, but not far. People also usually move on their own, often without family members. This is risky for migrants, but it means they can send money home to their family. Their migration has taken them out of dangerous climate-vulnerable places. Collectively, they are also sending a flow money back into those vulnerable areas.

That flow of money has started to play a vital role in insulating those families from some of the worst impacts of climate change. As conditions worsen, this money starts to provide something of a safety net. But, as the impacts of climate change worsen, more people will want to migrate across borders. Governments in developed countries are reluctant to engage with this reality, even as it goes on around them.

For many politicians, there seems little to be gained from championing the issue. Support for migrants and refugees is at an all-time low. Few politicians will risk making bold statements about making provision for more people. Climate change is also a low priority for electorates in developed countries. To make matters worse, it isn’t always clear what a willing politician would actually do. There is no simple law that could be passed that would “fix” climate-linked migration. There is no single global agreement that can signed and ratified.

The most common response I hear from political leaders is that climate change is being dealt with. Nationally, emissions are being reduced. Globally, international agreements are being signed and followed.

The problem is this won’t stop people moving. The climate change we’ve already experienced is creating migration. Even the most ambitious plans to halt climate change still commit the planet to more warming. That warming will continue to alter patterns of drought, flooding and sea level rise. Those disasters will displace more people in the future, regardless of how fast we cut emissions.

The choice faced by politicians is not about how to prevent climate-linked migration. That possibility is gone, several decades ago. The decisions they face are how to deal with it. And they have a stark choice between two very different options: trying to stop people from moving—which will lead to something that looks like a crisis—or helping people migrate out of the most badly hit areas. When governments prevent desperate people from moving, they will usually move anyway. Seas are crossed in tiny rubber boats, walls are climbed, lorries are boarded. Migrants usually die and traffickers make a killing.

The other option is to facilitate climate-linked migration in a legal and organised way. People are already using migration as a way of adapting climate change, with little or no help. When migration isn’t illegal there is no need to do it secretly. No need for traffickers and smugglers. And no need for migrants to hide as soon as they arrive.

Right now, migration is one of the most important home-grown climate adaptation strategies. European leaders now have to work out how to facilitate this. It will not be climate change that creates another refugee crisis. Rather, it will be attempts to stop this migration that creates a crisis.

By Alex Randall

Alex manages the Climate Change and Migration Coalition – an alliance that exists to challenge the lack of long-term strategies to support and protect people at risk of displacement linked to environmental change. Before joining Climate Outreach, he worked at the Centre for Alternative Technology. He has also worked for the Public Interest Research Centre on their Values and Frames project. He co-founded Cheat Neutral, a spoof offsetting company, and UN Fair Play, an organisation that works with small island states at international climate change negotiations.

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