Climate change to force people into high-risk areas
- 21 Oct 2011, 17:00
- Ros Donald
The effects of extreme weather will amplify trends affecting the
movement of global populations, according to a
report released yesterday by the UK government's Foresight
The report brings together the results of more than 70 papers and
other scientific reviews from a range of disciplines.
The results run counter to previous predictions of populations'
behaviour in the face of climate change, according to Geoffrey
Dabelko, head of the Environmental Change and Security Program at
the Woodrow Wilson Center.
told the New York Times that the study departs from "very fuzzy
aggregate global figures," that predicted in the past that
"everyone who's flooded moves." He adds that the inaccuracy of
these earlier predictions was made obvious in the aftermath of
Hurricane Katrina where only the "empowered" left New
Climate change as a threat multiplier
The report highlights how climate change can both create new
exacerbate existing weaknesses. It says other changes to global
population patterns include "the growth of mega-cities, land
degradation and the profound consequences of an increasing global
population which is consuming ever more natural resources."
The report says:
"Links between migration and
environmental change are particularly important in three key global
ecological regions: drylands, low-elevation coastal zones and
Regardless of environmental change "powerful economic, political
and social drivers" mean migration will continue anyway - with, for
example, an extra 114-119 million extra people living in
floodplains in African and Asian urban areas by 2060 in comparison
But in addition, environmental change will have a greater impact
on migration in future, the report says.
In particular, environmental change may threaten people's
livelihoods, and a traditional response is to migrate.
Environmental change will also alter populations' exposure to
natural hazards, and migration is, in many cases, the only response
to this. For example, 17 million people were displaced by natural
hazards in 2009 and 42 million in 2010 (this number also includes
those displaced by geophysical events).
Overall, the research suggests that as many as 552 million people
across Africa, Asia, Latin America and the Caribbean could be
affected by climate change-related flooding, with immigrant
populations in the hardest-hit areas.
The study shows that as vulnerable populations flee areas affected
by climate change-induced extreme weather, migration patterns could
leave people stranded in ever more inhospitable environments.
Governments will have to prepare for waves of
mostly internal migrants, forced to move by extreme weather
events made more frequent and severe by climate change.
Committee chair Sir John Beddington
says one of the report's "surprising" results is that "as many
people could move into areas of environmental risks as migrate from
them". What's more, "large populations in vulnerable areas" could
become trapped, either because they can't move or because they
don't want to.
Again, climate change acts as a threat multiplier, "equally likely
to make migration less possible as more probable." So people made
poorer by the impacts of environmental change will lack the funds
needed to move.
Policy problems, policy solutions
Both conclusions have
policy implications for governments around the world, and the
report suggests that migration may not be a harmful phenomenon if
administrations plan for it and ensure the necessary infrastructure
is in place.
Cities in low-income countries are particularly vulnerable, faced
with a "double jeopardy" future.
"Cities are likely to grow in size,
partly because of rural-urban migration trends, whilst also being
increasingly threatened by global environmental change.These future
threats will add to existing fragilities, whilst new urban migrants
are, and will continue to be, particularly vulnerable."
However, the report says preventing rural-urban migration "could
lead to graver outcomes for those who are trapped in vulnerable
The study explores
four scenarios that account for different levels of economic
growth and political cooperation in the future. It concludes that
"inclusive" governance and international cooperation that engage
with migration issues is far more effective, whether the world's
economy is growing or not.
In contrast, policy responses that place "emphasis on security and
control" are likely to lead to increased illegal migration,
exploitation of migrants and insufficient international planning
for moving populations.
The report concludes that migration may help to ease the impacts
of climate change, and build resilience to future threats.
"[M]igration may not be just part of the 'problem' but can also be
part of the solution. In particular, planned and facilitated
approaches to human migration can ease people out of situations of
It identifies two priority policy areas: first, ensuring that
funding mechanisms for adaptation to environmental change take
account of migration issues and the benefits migration could bring.
Second, action should be taken to "build urban infrastructure that
is sustainable, flexible and inclusive" to protect cities from the
"twin challenges of population growth and environmental
The report warns against inaction, which it says is likely to cost
more than the measures it discusses "especially if they reduce the
likelihood of problematic displacement". It concludes:
"Giving urgent policy attention to
migration in the context of environmental change now will prevent a
much worse and more costly situation in the future."