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July 2010, Volume 16, Number 3

Climate Change and Migration

Climate change, a significant change or increased variability in temperature or precipitation that persists for several decades, can occur because of natural factors such as changes in the sun's intensity, natural processes such as changes in ocean currents, and human activities that change the atmosphere, such as burning fossil fuels or deforestation. There are three major responses: prevention, adaptation and migration. Prevention aims to stop or reverse climate change, adaptation involves countering the effects of climate change on usual practices, and migration involves moving from places made less viable by climate change to places that are more livable.

Both climate change and migration are ongoing processes, making it hard to establish firm links between specific climate changes and particular migration flows. There are three potential links. First, climate change could increase migration pressure due to more droughts or floods, changes that make traditional activities less viable, so-called slow-onset migration. Second, climate change could lead to more displacement, as when more severe storms destroy levies and force people to move at least temporarily. Third, climate change could lead to conflict over scarce natural resources that result in quick-onset displacement.

Migration is sometimes seen as a failure to adapt, that is, people are presumed to want to remain where they are, and they migrate only when climate and other changes "force" them to move. Countries such as Bangladesh have requested international aid to build stronger levies to protect farm land and villages from storm surges that can destroy crops and salinate land, keeping farmers on the land who might otherwise move to cities. However, migration may offer a means for people to adapt in place. For example, families may encourage some family members to migrate and rely on remittances to help them cope with climate-related changes, such as stronger levies and improved housing. Remittances often increase after a natural disaster, enabling more people to stay in place and rebuild.

There is no global policy regime to manage migration due to climate change. There are Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement. The African Union in 2009 recognized that climate change may contribute to internal displacement, and laid out a series of governmental obligations to those displaced by climate change. Immigration systems usually have three major doors: for family unification, for employment, and for refugees and asylum seekers. There are policies in place that can be applied to migrants who cannot return to their countries because of climate change, such as temporary protected status. However, TPS aims to provide an opportunity to remain working and living in a safe country temporarily, not permanently.

Sweden and Finland are among the few countries that accept as refugees persons who do not face persecution but who cannot "return to his native country because of an environmental disaster."

US. A bipartisan bill introduced in the Senate in April 2010, the American Power Act, aims to reduce US carbon emissions by 17 percent over 2005 levels in 10 years. In a bid to win support from US business, the bill would exempt manufacturing and energy-intensive industries from the carbon cap for four years, provide $10 billion to the coal industry to capture and store its carbon emissions, and make loan guarantees and provide incentives to construct 12 nuclear power plants.


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