The Human Cost of Climate Change: Climate migrants (Part 1)

4 August, 2020

The new decade emerged with biblical proportions: fires swept across Australia, record breaking storms blew through Europe, swarms of locusts decimated crops in Africa, and now, a pandemic has plunged the world into the worst global recession since WWII. Unequivocally, the severity of these events was further mitigated by effects of climate change and human destruction of habitat. Leaving behind destroyed ecosystems, an unprecedented number of individuals worldwide were suddenly in tenuous situations—faced with the decision to either migrate or rebuild.

In 2019 alone, an estimated 33.4 million people were newly displaced worldwide; and while 8.5 million fled to escape conflict and violence, 24.9 million relocated due to natural disasters—of which, 23.9 million were climate-related. However, those who migrate for environmental or climatic reasons still lack any legal frameworks to fall under. This has left one of the most vulnerable populations in our societies exposed—living in liminal states and under sometimes questionable conditions. With the current Covid-19 crisis, their circumstances are only further compounded.

Although human mobility within the context of climate change is not a novel concept, developing a legal framework, starting with a legal definition of those migrating or displaced in the context of climate change, is still urgently needed. In a two-part series, I will first discuss legal definitions and adaptive responses to climate change, followed by recommendations within the context of the European Green Deal and current crisis. In a follow-up article, I will discuss practical solutions and recommendations based on a review of several case studies.

What’s in a name?

Many terms are given to those forced to move within the context of climate change—such as, environmental refugees, climate migrants, climate refugees, climate displacements, or forcibly displaced persons. This diversity highlights the growing attention towards understanding the complex causes of human mobility.

While choosing a legal term may seem arbitrary, the lack of a name accentuates complications in reaching a legal definition—and therefore, providing any legal protection. However, these individuals share a common factor: climate events forced them to relocate permanently or temporarily, either within or across borders. Some are never able to return, while others cannot afford to leave and are left living in a state of uncertainty.

Maeve Patterson from the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) explains, “the term ‘climate refugee’ creates a lot of buzz…but also a lot of confusion, as it doesn’t exist in international law”. This is, in part, due to difficulties in proving climate change as the root cause of migration owing to current gaps in data and knowledge on persons displaced within this context.

Under the 1951 Geneva Convention, refugee status is only granted to those fleeing and unable to return their home country due to persecution or violence based on “reasons of race, religion, nationality, political opinions or membership of a particular social group”. Earlier this year, Germany upheld this original definition, stating that asylum would not be granted to those migrating as a result of climate change.

On differentiating between climate migrants and refugees, Dina Ionesco, Head of the Migration, Environment and Climate Change Division at the International Organization for Migration (IOM) adds that “you cannot show persecution from climate change”. The IOM believes that including climate-mitigated migrants under the 1951 Refugee Convention could also weaken the current refugee status. In these cases, the IOM suggests the less controversial terms “environmental migrant”, “environmentally displaced person”, or “migration influenced by environmental change” as an alternative to environmental or climate refugee.

Additionally, to be granted refugee status requires crossing borders; however, the initial response to environmental degradation and climate change is often internal displacement. Although there are some laws that apply to disaster displacement, it is still mostly neglected within domestic law. The Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre notes that internally displaced persons are even less protected, as they “are often refugees in all but name…their vulnerability and visibility are less newsworthy, if only because they have not had to cross a border”.

Furthermore, climate migrants often cite multiple reasons for leaving—with some unaware that environmental causes may be the core driver. Given a complex combination of socioeconomic, political, cultural, and demographic factors interacting with acute or chronic environmental events, climate-mitigated migration (or immobility) falls on a broad spectrum between completely forced and completely voluntary.

Nonetheless, the Environmental Justice Foundation predicts that climate change and subsequent displacements will profoundly impact geopolitics, stating it “has the potential to not only undo post-war advances promoting basic human rights and development: it is increasingly viewed as a threat to peace within and between vulnerable nations and regions”. Many may suddenly find themselves as environmental migrants, with a lack of preparedness in resources and infrastructure inevitably leading to greater conflict and instability—both internally and externally—as communities struggle to survive.

As scientists warn that extreme weather events will become “the new normal‘, the Foundation calls for a legally binding, multilateral agreement to develop legal frameworks that effectively coordinate and respond to climate-mitigated migration. This requires comprehensive long-term research identifying why people relocate, remain, or return to a certain place, as well as follow-up studies of displacement-events. In the interim, Ionesco considers that current migration policies can still be part of the response, including temporary refuge for those crossing borders after natural disasters.

Voluntary or forced immobility

Whether an adaptive climate-mitigated response is manifested through relocation is heavily dependent on financial ability, with migration often used as a last resort. The UN Office for Disaster Risk Reduction estimates that weather-related disasters cost between US$250-300 billion per year—an astounding economic cost for developing countries already battling climate change. As socioeconomic inequality leaves lower-income families more vulnerable when responding to disasters and displacements, those unable to leave may be “trapped”. This immobility can also be due to family obligation, as well as psychological and cultural limitations.

Furthermore, the Human Cost of Weather Related Disasters (1995-2015) found that 89% of storm-related deaths occurred in lower-income countries (with storms as the deadliest weather-related disaster, accounting for 40% of global weather-related deaths). In this way, the UN Special Rapporteur on Extreme Poverty and Human Rights, Philip Alston, cautions that we are barrelling towards a “climate apartheid”. Additionally, lower income families are more likely to purchase cheaper land that is more vulnerable to climate-events—thus, continuing the cycle of “poverty and vulnerability”.

Often, these communities lack the infrastructure and budget to rebuild following an environmental disaster, with minimal or no financial assistance for survivors. In 2014, when devastating floods affected 1 million residents of Bosnia and Herzegovina (nearly one-third of the total population), damages to the small town of Maglaj required an estimated cost of €85 million to rebuild; however, their annual budget is limited to €4 million.

Wealthier countries are not immune either. After days of heavy rainfall in June 2013, the Elbe and Danube rivers overflowed—leading to mass evacuation across several central European countries. In Germany, eight out of sixteen German states experienced extreme flooding, with damages costing €1.3 billion in Bavaria alone (Germany’s second-richest state by GDP). Although only 21% of Bavarians had their homes insured, the Bavarian government was able to provide enough funds to rebuild for those uninsured. Unfortunately, these funds will not be available for the next event. In 2017, the Council of Ministers voted to end financial support for those affected by natural disasters and without home insurance; Bavaria adopted this policy effective 1 July 2019. However, in high-risk areas, insurance is simply unaffordable—particularly for those dependent on pensions.

Often, older or retired people are disproportionately affected; they may feel reluctant to leave their homes behind, or lack the finances and energy to restart somewhere new. When Bavarian village Fischerdorf flooded, Karl Bretzendorfer and his wife, Irina, spent thirteen days trapped in their attic and were only able to rebuild with government assistance. Now, living off his €850 a month pension and unable to afford home insurance for a high-risk area, the couple faces an uncertain future. As extreme weather-related disasters are only expected to increase with climate change, Bretzendorfer tries to not think about the next flood, “I’m 73 years old…What do you want me to do?”

Similarly, in July 2010, catastrophic flooding in Cotul Morii, Moldova led to an evacuation of all 440 resident families. While the new Cotul Morii was rebuilt 15 km outside of the high-risk flood zone, 60 families chose to stay in the original city—despite a lack of supporting infrastructure as the old town was no longer formally recognized by the government. Most who remained were elderly, explains Cotul Morii’s former mayor, Lucia Guștiuc.

Those that are immobile (either voluntarily or not) may also suffer mental trauma. In a French coastal resort devastated by storm Xynthia in 2010, Deputy mayor of La Faute-sur-Mer Laurent Huger explains, “It is like a state of war. Now the majority of the people [here] know what nature can do to their daily life…even if the state has told you the area is safe…you need to know that, one day, the water could still come”.

Reaching a tipping point

As one event may not prompt an individual or community’s displacement, multiple events will eventually lead to “tipping points”—triggering a cascade of migration. Certain weather events may reoccur in the same location at (sometimes) unpredictable intervals. The Earth’s water cycle is particularly sensitive to disruptions: warmer temperatures increase rates of evaporation and leads to more water in the atmosphere. This creates a recipe for torrential rainfall and increased flooding risk. Higher temperatures also mean drier soil less able to absorb heavy rainfall—paradoxically creating higher chances of both flooding and drought.

Ultimately, the decision and ability to leave is driven by a combination of socioeconomic pressures, whether it is an acute (e.g. flash flood) or chronic (e.g. desertification) event triggering the exodus, as well as capacities of local and international governments’ abilities to provide aid. Migration patterns also tend to further magnify gender and age differences: compared to men, women and children are more likely to be left behind; and, are more vulnerable to human trafficking if they leave.

Rural areas are more severely affected than urban areas, as livelihoods stem from the land, making them particularly sensitive to floods, droughts, and fires; while coastal residences and Island States face stronger storms and prospects of rising sea levels. Still, many displaced persons often underestimate climate as their reason for moving—citing finances, rather than a connection between a degrading environment and receding economy.

For example, Moldova is one of the top ten countries affected by climate disasters and the only one in Europe. Floods affect an average of 70,000 Moldovans per year—costing €90 million—or 1% of their total GDP. As one of the poorest countries in Europe, it is unsurprising that many of the younger generation move abroad for better opportunities—with roughly 100 Moldovans leaving every day. President Igor Dodon notes that, in nearly three decades of independence from the Soviet Union, roughly one-third of the populations has left—leading to the growing threat of brain drain.

Despite this, linking population shifts as a direct consequence of climate change is difficult; while the younger generation attributes their emigration to poverty and a lack of jobs, the older generation (at least at Cotul Morii) has “no doubt” that climate change is a key driver. In Afghanistan, Massoud Eiman of the Tadbeer Consulting and Research Organisation also notes that “increasingly, people in Afghanistan are being displaced not by conflict but by the impacts of climate change”.

For those who leave—either voluntarily, forced, or temporarily—conditions may still be precarious. Cities nearby need to prepare for both the possibility of an influx of the suddenly homeless during disasters, as well as the (sometimes slow and seasonal) trickle of those coming for work. However, many are unprepared and lack supporting resources or infrastructures. Displaced persons often live in overcrowded (and temporary) housing, with limited access to healthcare, education, food, and even proper sanitation. For those displaced, many are unable to make a living, lack basic rights, live in a state of uncertainty and may have mental traumas.

In areas with low birth rates and an aging population, migration can be seen positively by providing a work force that is highly beneficial to local economies. However, seasonal migrants are typically underpaid working physically demanding jobs (e.g. agriculture) with minimal workers’ rights. Therefore, social science must be integrated into climate policy by developing social support systems that assists fair integration into new communities, as well as offering psychological support, counseling and job placement.

Learning from a fractured response to Covid-19

The Covid-19 crisis glaringly exposed the vulnerability of migrants; as borders closed to halt transmission, lockdown measures forced millions of migrant workers home. In overcrowded refugee accommodations, coronavirus cases increased given limited space for social distancing. With the onset of the tropical storm season in the Pacific, many urge the international community to act as evacuation centers and shelters quickly fill (or remain closed due to the virus). More recently, severe flooding in the Yangtze Delta Region (China) destroyed 29,000 homes with 2.24 million emergency relocations. Humanitarian agencies and local governments currently struggle with adequate manpower and resources to provide safe havens alongside the pandemic.

Covid-19 is a reality check”, said Harjeet Singh, global climate lead for ActionAid. Referencing government responses to the pandemic, a fractured approach and distrust of experts is apparent; countries that quickly banded together were more successful at flattening the curve. Like the pandemic response, we need a unified approach to climate change; however, unlike Covid-19, “flattening the curve for [climate change] will require decades of consistent action rather than mere weeks.”

Recovery towards a just and resilient future

With renewed commitment to the European Green Deal, the Commission adopted several key initiatives (e.g. the European Climate Law, Just Transition Fund, ‘Farm to Fork’ Strategy, New Circular Economy Action Plan, and EU Biodiversity Strategy) to create a more sustainable economy, promote green industries, reduce pollution, and protect ecosystems. The Just Transition Mechanism in particular will play a key role in aiding countries reliant on carbon-intensive industries towards climate-neutrality.

As climate change and unsustainable practices also threatens food security and aggregate welfare, it is imperative that EU leaders firmly maintain green goals. These issues also jeopardizes the United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goals–therefore, rebuilding post-Covid-19 means tackling both drivers of climate change and addressing human adaptive responses.

Within this framework, the European Commission announced the EU Recovery Plan that includes a short-term €750 billion pandemic recovery fund as part of the long-term 2021-27 EU budget of €1.074 trillion. The Commission also proposed €15 billion of the fund towards the European Agricultural Fund for Rural Development, to support rural farmers’ transition to more sustainable farming practices. However, the Commission still faces criticism that the proposed budget is simply not enough to achieve climate goals.

And after four gruelling days of summit talks, although EU leaders finally reached a consensus on the Recovery Fund, climate advocates criticized climate spending as still lacking, with insufficient regulations on ensuring that funding goes towards green investments. Dutch Green lawmaker Bas Eickhout stated, “too many things that still need improvements…The deal is not over yet.”

The pandemic and summit also postponed discussions on the New Pact on Migration and Asylum—leaving Europe with a “patchwork” system as their current response. Meanwhile, with borders re-opening, asylum seekers attempting to cross into Europe test positive for the virus when countries still struggle to control infections and prepare for second waves. Therefore, the EU needs to double-down efforts to ensure the future health and safety of its vulnerable populations—and, to provide support for countries unequally burdened by the pandemic and intake of refugees and migrants.


Although 2020 began with extraordinary adversity, it has been met with unprecedented resilience—with communities coming together and countries sending support abroad. This pandemic shows that out futures are intrinsically linked and finding solutions requires a combined approach between international and national governments, along with public and private sectors. With the UN COP 26 postponed until Nov 2021, developing an ambitious roadmap of climate action guaranteeing that no one is left behind should be aggressively pursued within the EU’s short- and long-term recovery plans.

On top of creating a legal framework for climate migrants, which will take time to pass, a coordinated parallel bottom-approach is needed. Cities can create integration programs for displaced persons, while also investing in green infrastructure, sustainable building, and low carbon transport solutions. In a follow-up article, I will discuss case studies of cities and regions that Europe can learn from in managing climate migration and displacement.

Optimistically, UN Climate Change Executive Secretary Patricia Espinosa observed, “recovery from the Covid-19 crisis can steer us to a more inclusive and sustainable climate path…in addressing climate change, and building a safe, clean, just and resilient world”. However, EU leaders first need to demonstrate an ability to move past differences and take a unified approach towards (climate) action.

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