Energy & Environment

Cresting wave of migrants demands global response

Getty Images

Those of us who study birds know this time of year as a season for migration. In a spectacle of nature, millions of birds have begun long and arduous journeys — across continents and spanning thousands of miles — to wintering areas in the tropics. On the human front, we are experiencing a more sobering version of migration as well, as hundreds of thousands of migrants from Syria and elsewhere are fleeing in search of hope and better futures for themselves and their families. Even here at home, debates are raging about how we should address the challenges and opportunities associated with migration.

And yet in terms of sheer numbers, we are likely seeing only the crest of the wave. As Secretary of State John Kerry said at the recent conference for Global Leadership in the Arctic:

We as leaders of countries will begin to witness what we call climate refugees moving — you think migration is a challenge to Europe today because of extremism, wait until you see what happens when there’s an absence of water, an absence of food, or one tribe fighting against another for mere survival.

“Environmental refugees,” “environmental migrants,” “climate refugees” — these terms describe situations where environmental changes, either sudden or progressive in nature, adversely affect people in ways that compel them to leave their homes. The International Organization for Migration defines three types of environmental migrants: (1) environmental emergency migrants who flee temporarily due to an environmental disaster or sudden environmental event (e.g., tsunami); (2) environmental forced migrants who flee deteriorating environmental conditions (e.g., desertification); and (3) environmentally motivated migrants who leave to avoid future anticipated problems.

{mosads}How serious is the problem? By 2050, there are estimated to be more than 200 million environmental migrants. The Internal Displacement Monitoring Center reports that over 32 million people were displaced by environmental disasters in 2012 alone and an average of 28 million per year are displaced by storms and flooding each year. As weather patterns and sea levels continue to change, Bangladesh alone is expected to have 30 million people at risk. Some low-lying island nations, like Kiribati, are even purchasing land in other countries to house their own environmental refugees. Add to that 100 million to 200 million people affected by desertification, especially in northern Africa where 50 million people may be at risk as crops fail, water becomes scarce and land becomes uninhabitable. As the resources necessary for survival and well-being are degraded and depleted, there also is the threat of violent conflict. A study of conflicts between 1980 and 1992 by Wenche Hauge and Tanja Ellingsen showed a positive correlation between civil war and land degradation, deforestation and water scarcity. The Darfur conflict in Sudan is one of the clearest cases of environmental conflict, as analyzed in the 2007 Tearfund report.

Challenges will not only be felt abroad, as environmental migrants will likely increase at the U.S. borders as well. In coming decades, Mexico, like many nations, will face rising temperatures, falling levels of precipitation and increasing frequency and intensity of flooding and extreme weather events that threaten water, food and energy security. Indeed, a 2013 Whitehall report by Royal United Services Institute described how population movements in Mexico (in Jalisco and Zacatecas states) were linked to persistent drought, deforestation and poor water quality.

Are we ready to meet the needs of environmental migrants, even after bearing witness to the devastation that lack of preparedness brings? Few countries or international organizations are prepared to deal with environmentally displaced people. A recent report by the EU Parliament found no specific legal protection for “environmentally displaced individuals” beyond temporary measures that fail to address long-lasting or permanent environmental damage to homelands. Identifying several key “protection gaps,” the report further highlighted how current political mechanisms, such as the Geneva Refugee Convention or Lisbon Treaty, are insufficient. Though several recommendations, including adding protocols on climate-induced migration to the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change, provide good first steps, the Environmental Justice Foundation contends that a new multilateral legal instrument is needed to specifically address environmental refugees.

Ultimately, we need complementary forms of protection that address core principles of relocation and resettlement, collective rights for local populations, international assistance for domestic measures, and international burden-sharing, as called for by Frank Biermann and Ingrid Boas in a Global Environmental Politics article.

People will, as they have always done, undertake arduous journeys to meet their needs and those of their loved ones. As we change the world in ways that make homelands unproductive, dangerous and even uninhabitable, we force these journeys. The question is: How do we meet this cresting wave of migration? Do we catch that wave and ride it to a safer, more equitable, and prosperous global community — or do we crash in its surf?

Rodewald is director of conservation science at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, faculty fellow at Cornell University’s Atkinson Center for a Sustainable Future, an associate professor in the Department of Natural Resources at Cornell University, and a Robert F. Schumann Faculty Fellow. Views expressed in her column are hers alone and do not represent those of these institutions.

Tags Climate change displaced person Forced migration John Kerry migration Refugee

The Hill has removed its comment section, as there are many other forums for readers to participate in the conversation. We invite you to join the discussion on Facebook and Twitter.

Most Popular

Load more


See all Video