Global Warming and the Rise of the “Climate Refugee”

In 2015, Ioane Teitiota of the tiny Pacific island nation of Kiribati became the first person to  apply for refugee status because of climate change. While New Zealand, where Teitota applied to be a refugee, ultimately decided against his case, Teitota represents a growing number of migrants and refugees who are departing their home nations in part due to the warming climate. The mass movement of people isn’t only relegated to the threat of sea levels c that threatens island nations such as Kiribati – climate changed-fueled droughts, desertification, and natural disasters have led to the emergence a new kind of forced migrant from Central America to North Africa to South Asia and the Pacific Islands: the “climate refugee.”

Climate Change Migration: Then and Now

Human migration due to changing climates and weather patterns has occurred throughout history. The fall of the Mayan Civilization in Central America has been attributed by some scientists as the result of a series of droughts that contributed to destabilizing the civilization, leading to the exodus of people from certain climate-hit areas. In more recent history, the migration of Gothic and Slavic tribes into Europe has been suggested to be correlated to climate-driven migration of the Huns from Central Asia into present-day Russia, while the Syrian Civil War is noted to have occurred in the shadow of a historic three-year drought.

Although scientists can look at historic climate change and make connections to past human migrations, in the 21st century it’s actually difficult to attribute certain refugee and migration patterns directly to climate change. While some estimates place the number of climate refugees as between 25 and 200 million by 2050, not all of these refugees will be immediately be able to be attributed to a certain climate-driven event. This is because human migration is often a complex process that involves several economic, conflict, and political drivers, all of which are impacted by climate change and over time lead to greater migration away from climate-affected areas.

The Sahel – an arid strip of Africa that lies beneath the Sahara Desert and above the savannahs and tropical forests of the equator – is a prime example of the complexities of climate-driven migration. Home to nations such as Burkina Faso, Mali, Chad, and Mauritania, people in the Sahel are often a mix of traveling pastoral tribes and small-scale subsistence farmers who live mostly in rural villages and towns. The Sahel is also the part of Africa that has suffered the most from desertification – as the sands of the Sahara creep further south every year – and climate fueled droughts, such as a drought in 2010 that threatened the starvation of some 10 million people.

Yet instances of climate-driven drought, for example, in fact often lead to less migration during the period, both internationally – such as to Europe – and between rural and urban areas within a given country. This is for a number of reasons: during a drought, families typically have less economic means to move far away, instead going through a period of “temporary migration” to neighboring villages and small towns less impacted before moving back after the drought. The other reason is that, despite a growth of international and rural-urban migration overall, many impacted people have deep familial and local ties to their home communities, and usually only consider permanent migration away after several repeated shocks make living in a given place no longer possible. Even then, migrants usually move within a country than internationally, and only when their own economic situation permits them to make the move. Not coincidently, migrants from the region who travel further abroad – such as to North Africa or Europe – are typically young men, who often do not have families of their own to care for back home and thus have greater economic flexibility to move. This in turn deprives local communities of many skilled workers, such as doctors, engineers, and entrepreneurs, further depressing the local economy and driving the need for people to migrate away.

Temporary and rural-rural migration during climate-fueled droughts and other natural disasters attributed to global warming – such as floods in South Asia, or increased Hurricanes in Central America and the Caribbean – also presents another driver of migration: conflict. Especially in times of resource scarcity, the movement of people from one community to another can create tensions, especially along ethnic or religious lines, leading to conflict. In the Sahel, militant activity by groups such as Boko Haram in Nigeria and al-Qaeda in Mali and Chad have recruited from people that have lost their lifestyles in fishing, herding and farming due to desertification, fueling conflict against certain communities labeled as benefiting from their misfortune. As the climate crises worsens, conflict-driven refugees may be as large of a contribution to climate migration as those who move directly from climate catastrophes or long-term ecosystem changes.

So What Can Be Done?

So what can be done? Reducing our carbon footprint and ensuring a minimum amount of warming is the first line of defense in preventing forced climate migration. According to the 2006 Stern Report compiled by the UK government, a 3 percent global temperature increase could result 1 to 4 billion people as suffering from water shortages, while up to 550 million people would additional be at risk of hunger and starvation. This temperature increase would also lead to millions temporarily displaced due to extreme weather, while rural-urban and international migration – especially of young and skilled people – would in turn increase. These effects would be felt over years, if not decades, rather than from a single event, yet cumulatively would result in a drastic shift in human migration from severely climate affected regions to wealthier parts of the globe that can more easily cope with the effects of global warming.

Even if a 3 percent increase is avoided, existing patterns of warming means that millions of people will be likely to move due to climate change by 2050, regardless of emission reductions. For these people, a political and legal obstacle lies in their wake: the concept of the “refugee,” which according to international law specifically refers to people fleeing religious, ethnic, or other forms of persecution under the threat of violence. While some climate refugees fleeing conflict might fall under this label, a sizable portion will not, leaving them in legal limbo as they are unable to return home even as they are prevented from settlement in other countries due to preexisting rules. The solution might be in a separate category of “climate refugees” or “forced climate migrants,” who are afforded protection on the level of refugees from violence by the fact of migrating from particularly heavily-impacted areas, such as the Sahel or parts of Mexico and Central America.

For More Information

Article by Devin Windelspecht

Image Credits:

  • Kiribati Map: TUBS / CC BY-SA (
  • Sahel Map – Wikimedia Commons
%d bloggers like this: