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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 committee.

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.

Dabelko 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 Orleans.

Climate change as a threat multiplier

The report highlights how climate change can both create new threats and 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 mountain regions."

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 to 2000.

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.

Surprising results

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 rural areas."

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.

Key message

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 vulnerability."

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 change."

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."

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