Climate-Related Migration Often Short Distance and Cyclical, Not International

In low-lying Bangladesh, where populations are vulnerable to yearly flooding, climate migration has long served as an adaptive strategy and means of livelihood. (CIESEN)
 

Recent reports, as well as extreme weather events such as Superstorm Sandy, suggest that climate change, and particularly sea-level rise, may be occurring faster than earlier anticipated. This has increased public and policy discussions about climate change’s likely impacts on the movement of populations, both internally and worldwide. Research suggests that when climate-related migration does occur, much of it is short distance and within national borders, as opposed to international.

Recent research has added nuance to the scientific understanding of the potential connections between climate change and human migration. Previous studies over the past two decades relied largely on descriptive data and simplistic assumptions to put forward at-times alarmist estimates of future numbers of “environmental refugees,” ranging from 150 million to 1 billion people. But such broad-sweeping generalizations mask several central issues that are important in the development of appropriate policy responses. These include:

Environmental drivers, such as changing climatic patterns, are rarely the only factor leading to migration. Rainfall shortages and heat waves interact, for example, with persistent impoverishment and land degradation, as well as political and economic pressures. In addition, in many regions women’s inability to limit their family size, combined with the unmet demand for family planning, results in unsustainable population pressures on local and natural resources.

Environmentally related migration is not new: migration has represented a livelihood strategy for millennia. In low-lying Bangladesh, for example, migration has long served as an adaptive strategy. Over two-thirds of Bangladeshis work in agriculture, forests, or fisheries—all livelihoods that depend on environmental conditions. Natural disasters plague rural Bangladesh with regular exposure to flooding as well as crop failure due to rainfall deficits, and food insecurity abounds.

Migration comes with costs—social, financial, and otherwise. People tend to be attached to their homelands, their cultures, and their ways of life, so it is likely that they will seek to remain close to home, and to maintain their accustomed patterns, to the extent possible.

In all, climate pressures on human migration cannot be denied. Yet new data and research are shedding light on the complexities underlying migration decision making, as well as providing more precise estimates of vulnerable populations. Future estimates of potential climate-related migration must take these insights into account.

Around the world, environmental change interacts with existing challenges, including persistent impoverishment, unsustainable livelihoods, and population pressures. Such challenges can encourage relocation in some cases, but constrain it in others. Research suggests that when climate-related movement does occur, much of it will be short distance and within national borders, as opposed to international. And, like much environmentally influenced migration, people’s movements may be cyclical as opposed to permanent. More-rapid climate change, however, could increase both the overall number of individuals who are affected and the desperation brought on by a lack of viable livelihood alternatives.

Further highlights from the report:

Dr. Lori Hunter is an Associate Professor of Sociology at the University of Colorado Boulder and Faculty Research Associate of the CU Population Center in the Institute of Behavioral Science. Her research examines migration as a livelihood strategy among natural resource-dependent households.  Dr. Hunter is currently Editor-in-Chief of the interdisciplinary journal Population and Environment.

VITAL SIGNS ONLINE | November 13, 2012

Homepage image: For many in low-lying regions of Bangladesh, climate migration is a way of life. (Mohon Mondol)

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Though exacerbated by rising sea levels, climate migration is hardly a new phenomenon.