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Migration and climate

A man looks at the sea near Nouakchott, Mauritania.

Extreme weather events caused or compounded by climate change, such as storms, flooding and droughts, are turning into a sudden and direct threat to the livelihoods of many people. For example, they can cause serious disruption to infrastructure and socio-economic structures. Insidious environmental changes such as soil salinisation and the rise in sea levels have long-term consequences for people's economic situation and their health and safety. Furthermore, the impacts of climate change can cause, or exacerbate, violent conflicts. Many developing countries are particularly hard hit by these effects. They face the challenge of averting or reducing the direct consequences of climate change, despite a lack of resources and capacity to do so.

Climate change induced migration

The negative impacts of global warming affect many people's living conditions so severely that they are forced to migrate. These people use migration as a – sometimes temporary – means of adapting to climate change. This kind of migration – including displacement or relocation induced by climate change – is referred to as "climate change induced human mobility".

The factors that can lead to the decision to migrate are as complex as the consequences of climate change itself. Along with changing climatic conditions, economic, political, socio-cultural or demographic aspects can be strong push factors, which in turn can be reinforced by changes in environmental and climatic conditions.


Forecasts are difficult

Current scientific knowledge does not allow us to make precise forecasts of what kind of impact climate change will have on a given region or local area. And even if it were possible to make such forecasts, they would not help us to predict climate change induced migration movements.

Thus, while comprehensive analyses of the risks of climate change and related disasters are able to identify specific local areas that are likely to be severely affected by the impact of climate change, these analyses do not furnish any scientifically reliable data about how many of the people living in these specific areas are going to respond to that situation by migrating elsewhere.

The number of people deciding to migrate in response to climate change impacts is, in any case, not a reliable indicator of how severely a society is affected by the negative impacts of climate change. One reason for this is that many people do not possess the (financial) means to migrate elsewhere.

It is safe to assume that, in the future too, the majority of people migrating because of climate change will stay within the borders of their own countries. Furthermore, it is expected that most people will return home to their own countries or regions as soon as they can. This is the case in particular following extreme weather events and natural disasters. Between 2008 and 2016, for example, around 195 million people took refuge from extreme weather events in another part of their home country. That said, based on current data it is impossible to anticipate how the longer-term impacts of climate change, such as rising sea levels, will influence migratory behaviour.


Mitigation and adaptation

In order to ensure that people threatened by the negative effects of climate change can lead self-determined lives, we need to take determined climate action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and thereby curb the rise in global temperatures. In places where it is too late to avert the impacts of climate change, local people must receive help to adapt to the new situation. For example, they must receive help enabling them to improve their adaptive capacities vis-à-vis extreme weather events and long-term changes in the climate and to cope with the resulting negative effects.


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