Millions on the move?!

The contested issue of climate migration

May 13, 2021

A matter of justice

Two weeks ago, the German Supreme Court took a landmark decision, ruling that the climate protection law issued by the German government in 2019 was not in line with the German constitution. The court argued that not taking stricter measures to combat climate change today would compromise the freedom of future generations, since they would need to adopt disproportionately stricter measures to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

This ruling is a remarkable turning point in the global efforts to push governments towards stricter climate measures. There is no time to lose. Climate change has turned from a distant, hard-to-grasp doomsday scenario to a phenomenon that most people on the planet can feel already today. When I was a child, growing up in Munich, we used to see snow during Christmas almost every year, sometimes up to half a meter. In recent years, we haven’t been anywhere close to that – a few years ago, we were even sweating in our winter jackets as temperatures climbed up to 20 degrees Celsius during the Christmas holidays.

For me personally, snow during Christmas is little more than a nostalgic childhood memory. For people who earn the largest part of their yearly income from ski tourism in the Alps, it can become an existential question. This very simple example highlights an important aspect of justice related to climate change: Not only is the responsibility for climate change distributed unequally – with the countries of the Global North having emitted by far the largest share of greenhouse gases –, but likewise will its impacts be felt differently. The more directly a person’s livelihood is dependent on the environment, the more likely it is that her life will be significantly affected by changing environmental conditions.

In the case of Germany, this implies that farmers will be affected more directly than office workers. Taking a global perspective, Germany is in a comparatively good position. Only 1.3% of the workforce is employed in the primary sector (agriculture, fisheries, forestry). In many countries of the Global South, this percentage is at least an order of magnitude higher. In Bangladesh, for instance, agriculture alone employs 43% of the workforce. This makes it intuitively clear that most countries of the Global South are at a higher risk of severe climate change impacts, especially since their economic resources to take adaptive measures are much smaller than in the Global North.

So what?

Why should we care about this? For one thing, there are severe ethical problems arising if region A is mostly responsible for a phenomenon, while the negative impacts of this very phenomenon are mostly felt in region B. But even if we leave ethics aside, there is a more practical, secondary consequence that will also affect the Global North.

This consequence is climate migration. What if the hundreds of million people whose livelihoods will be compromised by climate change decide to pack their things and move to the Global North? Such scenarios are a welcome narrative for many (especially right-wing) populist parties and movements, fitting neatly with their agenda of pushing for stricter immigration laws. But political agendas put aside: Aren’t we indeed facing mass migration flows of an unprecedented scale, for which we better start preparing now?

As with most complex questions, the answer is neither a clear »yes« nor a clear »no«. The scientific evidence is less clear than it might appear in many reports and in the media coverage. Let’s take a concrete example. In 2018, the World Bank published the Groundswell report, estimating that by 2050, climate change could force more than 143 million people to migrate within their countries – in just the three regions of sub-Saharan Africa, South Asia, and Latin America.

Source: / Groundswell report

We can take several insights from this. First, the number is huge. Imagine the entire population of France and Germany having to shift residence in the next 30 years. Second, the vast majority of this migration will occur within the country of origin. This is simply because legal migration is heavily restricted, and illegal migration is very costly and hence out of reach for the most vulnerable parts of the population. Third, even if just a small fraction of these migrants moves internationally, it will still be a large number in absolute terms.

This implies that irrespective of the moral ground on which we are operating, we should care about climate change impacts on livelihoods and migration in the Global South. If we as the Global North accept that we have historically been the main drivers of climate change, we should care about this issue due to a moral obligation to minimize harm to those who have contributed the least, but are affected the most. Even if we reject such a responsibility, we should care about migration to prevent situations like in 2015, when a sudden large-scale influx of migrants resulted in chaotic and uncoordinated policy responses across Europe.

To stay or to go – that is the question

How can we best support countries of the Global South in adapting to the adverse effects of climate change? Both the effects of climate change and the local contexts where they are occurring are so diverse that there is no one-size-fits-all solution. This is why we need to reconsider the World Bank report mentioned above. »143 million internal migrants by 2050« sounds like a clear statement, and was hence picked up widely by the media.

But the real world is more complex than a single number. The Groundswell report mainly considered how many people live in areas that will be affected by effects like sea-level rise, droughts, or crop failure by 2050. While some of these changes might inevitably force people to move (for example because rising sea levels submerge their land), people might be able to adapt to other types of environmental change, for instance by planting more drought-resistant crops. Taking such adaptation options into account adds another layer of complexity to modelling the impacts of climate change on migration. But if we want to estimate more precise numbers, there is no way around considering these complexities*.

The core reason why it is so difficult to model climate change impacts on migration is that there is a large number of factors that influence whether a person or her household stays where they are or moves elsewhere. Imagine a farmer’s family living next to a river in Bangladesh, whose land and house gets flooded each year during the monsoon. This year, a severe flood might damage their house and destroy their crop. Many factors will influence how they will deal with this shock: Does the government provide support to compensate for the lost crop? Do they have the financial means to shift their household to another location? Do they have friends or relatives in the next town who might assist them in finding a new job? Do they have strong family ties to their current village?

Black et al
Migration decisions are influenced by a large number of factors. Source: Black et al (2011): The effect of environmental change on human migration.

Probably you can imagine that there are many more questions that play into such an existential question as a migration decision. In the end, the environmental change (in this example the severe flood) is just one among many factors. This makes it extremely complex to establish a causal link between environmental changes and migration flows.

These observations were the starting point for the research project »Climate Risk, Land Loss, and Migration: Evidence from a Quasi-Experiment in Bangladesh«, conducted by ETH Zurich and the frame in which I am doing my PhD. Through our work, we hope to shed light on the causal relation of environmental shocks on migration, as well as on various other questions related to environmental migration. As a case study, we have chosen riverbank erosion and flooding along the Jamuna River in Bangladesh. In subsequent blog posts, I will give more insight into the case study, as well as share some experiences and reflections from my fieldwork in Bangladesh.


*This does not imply that the Groundswell report is wrong, but we should be aware of its limitations. A part of the 143 million people mentioned in the report might prefer adapting at their current location over migrating elsewhere.