Millions on the move?

The contested issue of climate migration

published: May 13, 2021; last edited: December 01, 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. 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 have been happy to see just a few centimeters of snow. 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, it can become an existential question.

This highlights an important aspect of justice related to climate change: Not only is the responsibility for climate change distributed unequally between the Global North and the Global South, 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 affected by climate change. This implies that farmers will be affected more directly than office workers. In the case of Germany, only 1.3% of the workforce is employed in agriculture, fisheries, or forestry. In many countries of the Global South, this share is much higher. In Bangladesh, for instance, agriculture employs 43% of the workforce. It becomes intuitively clear that most countries of the Global South are at a higher risk of severe climate change impacts.


So what?

Why should we care about this? For one thing, there are 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 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 are we really 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.

Source: / Groundswell report

This number is huge. Imagine the entire population of France and Germany having to shift residence in the next 30 years. However, the vast majority of this migration will occur within the country of origin. But even if just a small fraction of these migrants moves internationally, it will still be a large number in absolute terms.

Irrespective of the moral ground on which we are operating, we should care about climate-related migration. Morally speaking, the Global North should help to minimize harm to those who have contributed the least, but are affected the most by climate change. Likewise, 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 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. Let’s 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 or droughts. Sea-level rise might indeed force people to move when their land gets submerged. However, people might be able to adapt to other types of environmental change, for instance by planting more drought-resistant crops. If we want to estimate more precise numbers concerning climate migration, there is no way around considering these complexities.

Imagine a farmer’s family living next to a river in Bangladesh, whose land and house gets flooded each year during the monsoon. Many factors will influence whether they stay where they are or whether they move away: 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 in the next town who might assist them in finding a new job? There are many questions that play into such an existential question as a migration decision. In the end, environmental change (in this example flooding) is just one among many factors. This makes it extremely complex to establish a causal link between environmental changes and migration flows.

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.

These observations were the starting point for my PhD research project »Climate Risk, Land Loss, and Migration: Evidence from a Quasi-Experiment in Bangladesh«, conducted by ETH Zurich. 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 chose 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.