Climate change will trap hundreds of millions in danger zones

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New study shows that migration away from danger areas is only part of the problem; many more will likely move into areas that are highly vulnerable to catastrophic change

A new report published by Foresight, an agency of the UK government, shows that the major challenges associated with migration and environmental change have been underestimated. By focusing solely on those that might leave vulnerable areas, we risk neglecting those that will be ‘trapped’ and those that will actually move towards danger.

It also shows that migration can have a transformative role in helping communities adapt to hazardous conditions. This is a critical finding for policy makers working to avert costly humanitarian disasters in the future.

The report, Migration and Global Environmental Change: Future Challenges and Opportunities (PDF: 6.4 Mb), outlines the findings of a two year study involving 350 experts in over 30 countries.

It examines how profound changes in environmental conditions such as flooding, drought and rising sea levels will influence and interact with patterns of global human migration over the next 50 years. These patterns of human movement, 75 per cent of which is internal, will present major challenges as well as potential opportunities for communities and policy makers at both a national and international level.

Professor Sir John Beddington, the Government’s Chief Scientific Adviser and Head of the Foresight program, said:

“Environmental change threatens to have a profound impact on communities around the world – particularly in low income countries. However, this report finds that the nature of the global challenge goes beyond just focusing on those that might try to move away from areas of risk. Millions will migrate into – rather than away from – areas of environmental vulnerability, while an even bigger policy challenge will be the millions who will be ‘trapped’ in dangerous conditions and unable to move to safety.

“The evidence is also clear that under some circumstances migration, particularly in low income countries, can transform a community’s ability to cope with environmental change. The movement of individuals or small groups, even at a local or regional level, may increase the future resilience of large communities. This will reduce the risk of both humanitarian disasters and of potentially destabilizing mass migration under high risk conditions.”

The report’s main findings are that:

  • Millions will be ‘trapped’ in vulnerable areas and unable to move, particularly in low-income countries. Migration is costly, and with environmental conditions such as drought and flooding eroding people’s livelihoods, migration – particularly over long distances – may be less possible in many situations. This creates high risk conditions.
  • People will increasingly migrate towards environmentally vulnerable areas. Rural to urban migration is set to continue, but many cities in the developing world are already failing their citizens with flooding, water shortages and inadequate housing. Preliminary estimates show that up to 192 million more people will be living in urban coastal floodplains in Africa and Asia by 2060, through both natural population growth and rural-urban migration.
  • However, migration can transform people’s ability to cope with environmental change, opening up new sources of income which help them become stronger and more resilient. For instance, 2009 remittances to low income countries were at $307 billion, nearly three times the value of overseas development aid. These kinds of income flows may actually make it possible for households, particularly in low income countries, to stay in situ for longer.

In summary, the report finds that environmental change will affect human population movement specifically through its influence on a range of economic, social and political drivers. However, because of the range of factors influencing the decision to migrate, environmental threats will rarely be the sole driver of migration, nor will the policy challenges be limited to people moving away from areas of risk.

The findings have implications for a broad range of policy areas well beyond the migration and environmental spheres. These include sustainable development, climate change adaptation, urban planning and humanitarian assistance.

Two important areas of international focus include:

  • Global policies and funding mechanisms, which will be more robust if they recognize the role of migration in helping to build long-term resilience. International adaptation and development policies will be better able to deliver if they take account of the links between global environmental change and migration, as well as recognize that migration can be part of the solution.
  • Long term urban planning, which can address critical issues such as water availability, more frequent hazards and the well-being of new migrants, who are often the most vulnerable.

Professor Sir John Beddington added:

“It is essential to do all we can to both address environmental change and make sure people are as resilient as possible in the face of hazards. This means recognizing the role migration can play in helping people cope. For policy makers – particularly those making decisions on climate adaptation – these findings will be critical.”

Professor Richard Black, chair of the project’s Lead Expert Group and Head of the School of Global Studies and Professor of Geography at the University of Sussex said:

“This report is unique in both its substantial evidence base and in its global approach, and will provide policy makers and others in the environment and development fields with a firm basis upon which to tackle the migration challenges of the future.”