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Rethink migration policy for the vulnerable to protect prosperity of all

Most people who move for climate-related reasons do so within their home countries, usually from rural areas to urban areas. International migration is less common, and takes place most often between countries within the same geographic region. At present, long-distance, international migration for climate-related reasons is uncommon, notwithstanding the recent proliferation of news stories about “climate refugees” appearing at Western borders.

Residents of low-income countries displaced from their homes by extreme climate events might wish they could migrate to wealthier nations but the reality is that they typically lack the financial resources and social networks needed to move to distant destinations.

Embrace migration to build resilience

Involuntary displacement will be a growing challenge in a changing climate but voluntary migration can be part of the solution. Migration generates benefits for migrants, their families, and for sending and receiving communities, when it occurs under the right conditions.

What are these conditions? They are spelled out in the UN’s Global Compact for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration agreement, and include such things as creating policies and programmes that allow people to move safely and legally within and between countries, to be allowed to enter labour markets at their destination and to remit money home freely.

In this way, migration helps to build resilience and adaptive capacity, especially in countries with weak or overstretched institutions. Unfortunately, global geopolitics is trending in the opposite direction, with countries in many regions erecting physical and legal barriers to migration. This is short-sighted and undermines the ability of all countries to respond to existing and emerging climate risks.

Beyond embracing the Global Compact, what else can be done to reduce the future risks of large-scale, climate-related population displacements?

Developing concrete, coordinated strategies for reducing greenhouse gas emissions is an important place to start. COP 26 in Glasgow will hopefully generate these, as opposed to the unfulfilled promises made at previous COPs.

The international community needs to recognize the role that migration plays in climate adaptation and ensure that national plans of action support migrants and migrant communities.

As we focus on addressing climate change, we must redouble our commitments to achieving the UN Sustainable Development Goals because the reasons that make some people more vulnerable to being displaced by the impacts of climate change – poverty, inequality, inadequate sanitation, lack of economic opportunity – undermine the future prosperity of all people.

Goal No.2 on the COP 26 agenda is: “Adapt to protect communities and natural habitats… to avoid loss of homes, livelihoods and even lives.” Better late than never, for such things are already happening.

Thirty million people around the world were displaced from their homes in 2020 by floods, storms, droughts, wildfires and other weather-related hazards. Homes and livelihoods have been lost on all continents, in countries rich and poor alike.

If no concerted action is taken to reduce greenhouse emissions and limit global warming to no more than 1.5oC over pre-industrial levels, the frequency and severity of weather hazards will grow rapidly, and so, too will the number of people on the move. This is the first goal on the COP 26 agenda.

If we continue on our current path, which leads to 2.5oC warming or more by the end of this century, the outcome will be catastrophic. The World Bank projects that by 2050, up to 216 million people in low-income countries will be at risk of displacement, while hundreds of millions of people in low-lying coastal towns and cities around the world will have to relocate due to rising sea levels.

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The risk of flood-related displacements worldwide is also expected to grow by 50% for every degree of warming. Water scarcity and shocks to food supplies are almost certain on a warming planet with a global population anticipated to exceed nine billion people by mid-century. This is not a future to bestow upon our children and grandchildren.

The COP 26 agenda frames adaptation as being a need for better infrastructure and early-warning systems, but successful adaptation requires much more than this – it means the rethinking of migration policy.

Lack of resources for victims

Researchers know a lot about climate-related population movements – how they emerge, how they play out and how to respond to them. To start, they are context-specific and multidirectional. This means that a given climate hazard may generate a variety of responses, depending on the physical characteristics of the hazard itself, the damage it causes to housing and livelihoods and on the capacity of households, communities and institutions to respond and adapt.

Floods, for example, typically generate short-term displacement and short-distance migration, with people returning home and rebuilding so long as it is feasible to do so. Droughts emerge more slowly, and allow greater time for adaptation through other means, but once these are exhausted, flows start to emerge of young, wage-seeking workers out of affected areas.

Displacement patterns following extreme storms depend heavily on the extent of damage to housing stocks and infrastructure and on the availability of institutional support for rebuilding. Yet even in the wealthiest nations, there are limits to institutional adaptive capacity, as is being experienced by people in Louisiana, who remain displaced more than one year after hurricanes destroyed their homes.