A group of three diverse woman in tailored suits facing the right and standing in front of a scene of mountains and a lake.
Image credit: cottonbro studio on pexels.com

Google the words “climate migration,” and you’ll see countries across the world, from Senegal to Iran to the United States, in crisis. By 2050, the World Bank predicts that 200 million people will become internally displaced within their countries. Still, the mass exodus of people from their homes is a misunderstood phenomenon. That’s partly because we haven’t properly defined who a climate migrant is.

United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) expert Essam El-Hinnawi first defined the term “climate refugees” in 1985. But the rapid increase in climate-related disasters displacing more and more people has moved the issue—and the term—into mainstream conversations.

Even so, for most people, the climate migration situation is obscure at best. Amali Tower, the founder of Climate Refugees, an organization started in 2015 to help those displaced due to climate disasters, says that she still meets people who have no idea of the gravity of the crisis: “I never thought I’d still be raising awareness in 2023.”

According to Tower, many people don’t understand the intersections and struggles that shape the experiences of climate migrants, experiences often lost in simplified conversations.

Tower, along with like-minded researchers and changemakers, hopes to bring to light the ways that climate migration is truly a global issue. From addressing the obligation of countries who have contributed the most to the climate crisis to comprehending the ways that global sociopolitical and economic dynamics intersect with climate change to influence migration, it’s increasingly clear that this is more than a regional problem.

It’s Not Just the Global South

Climate migration is of global concern for two major reasons. First, countries that have contributed to the climate crisis the most (generally in the Global North) are obligated to help mitigate and aid adaptation for the countries most vulnerable to climate change (generally in the Global South) through an agreement that dates to the 1990s. Tower points out that the idea of a Loss and Damage Fund, the mechanism by which this aid would occur, was agreed upon 30 years ago, but it was only at COP27—the United Nation’s official climate change conference that took place in Egypt in 2022—that a fund was finally set up. As far as current policy goes, progress has been too late and too slow.

Second, climate adaptation and resilience expert Patrick Marchman says that climate migration is increasingly happening in the Global North, but it’s often not described that way. It can be misunderstood even by climate migrants themselves, who often attribute their moves to other factors without fully understanding the role of climate change in that decision.

“People don’t expect this to happen to them, but as it continues to increase, the media will start normalizing it. We’re going to find ways to convince ourselves that these movements are not because of climate and not realize we need to find ways to adapt,” Marchman says of the trends he’s been observing in many countries, including the United States and Canada. That country lost a record 45.7 million acres in 2023 to wildfires, destroying at least 200 homes, and affecting many other people with dense smoke and persistent poor air quality.

Over one-third of Pakistan was flooded last year in the country’s most extreme climate disaster, impacting 33 million people. Meanwhile, the Horn of Africa is undergoing one of the worst droughts it’s ever seen, leading to increasing internal migration; official numbers cite 700,000 Kenyans who have left their homes. Migration in Kenya is being fueled by what the organization Climate Refugees describes as a “catastrophic food crisis,” along with a loss of homes in areas that have also seen unprecedented flooding as water movement patterns change.

Yet for most of the general population outside these countries, oversimplified media coverage presents the issue of climate migration as one exclusive to the Global South. Extreme climate disasters, much like wars, are painted as an issue that is certainly sad but removed from people who live more comfortable lives in other places.

But that portrayal is far from the reality that people across the world are facing, regardless of their location. “Climate displacement is affecting the Global North; it’s highly underreported because even the impacted people don’t quite understand how climate is displacing them,” Tower says.

Lauren Risi is the program director of the Environmental Change and Security Program at the Wilson Center. She studies how different areas are impacted differently by climate change—for example, people in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans and Syrians impacted by drought—and says, “Developing countries have limited resources with which to respond to climate impact. Existing vulnerabilities in those countries puts them at a disadvantage as compared to countries in the Global North so there’s just a structural difference there.”

In Syria, internal conflict made it much harder for climate migrants to adapt because the state was already under stress and couldn’t provide relief the same way the United States could do for survivors of Hurricane Katrina.

“The policy community has a very hard time not thinking in silos; we think about climate risk, and food security, and women and girls, but not all of them together.”

Marchman also says that in the United States, climate migration is influenced by gentrification. “As insurance increases in areas prone to climate disasters, people who can no longer afford it are being pushed out.”

According to Tower, “Last year in the US, three million people were displaced by disaster—and many of those people are still displaced, but that’s not a narrative that’s common to the US. That the US has IDPs  [Internally Displaced Persons] is not something easily accepted because that is something people expect of Pakistan or Nigeria. So it’s very important to see that it’s happening.”

Awareness is Only the First Step

Another misunderstanding around the issue is the extent of internal migrations or South-to-South migrations that are now occurring, points out Risi. She and her team look at how environmental systems intersect with existing sociopolitical realities, an area she says is still largely underreported.

“There’s been an uptick in climate and environmental drivers of migration, but I think what gets lost is how climate and environmental drivers of migration interact with political and economic drivers, so we miss the broader context of these movements,” Risi says. She adds, “The policy community has a very hard time not thinking in silos; we think about climate risk, and food security, and women and girls, but not all of them together.”

In order to raise awareness about the lack of humanity in the way migrant lives are often perceived, artist Maya Ramsay created a collection of work called countless, which features the graves of migrants who lost their lives in shipwrecks. With no way to identify them, their graves are mere numbers.

“Much of my work on the subject has involved bringing materials relating to migrant deaths at sea closer to viewers, such as rubbings from the graves of unidentified migrants, the burnt remains of a shipwrecked migrant boat, or objects found inside a migrant boat—bringing the material reality of these tragedies closer to viewers, closer than media images allow,” Ramsay says. “My works on the subject are about seeing migrants who died at sea as human beings, not as anonymous numbers.”

“There’s no such thing as an island. You can’t build a wall and hope things stay on one side of the wall.”

She adds, “Art has the ability to make the unimaginable imaginable, the unthinkable thinkable and the unknown known.”

But awareness is only the first step. According to Risi, “The severity and frequency of climate impacts is outpacing what we thought it would be.” As climate disasters increase so do climate migrants, but the places they can go are hardly becoming more accessible at the same pace. If anything, policies against migration are increasingly being used as political tools.

A Global Issue Means Global Responsibility

What’s even more important than awareness is setting up systems that help the world adapt to changing dynamics and create resilience within communities. That means, first and foremost, getting those in positions of power to change their perspective on climate migration. Countries need to look at whether past solutions are viable in the future, or if new ideas should be explored.

“Citizenships are an invisible wall,” says Marchman, adding, “There’s no such thing as an island. You can’t build a wall and hope things stay on one side of the wall.” Of course, we can hardly imagine a world without citizenship, but people can’t be asked to go back home when the home they knew no longer exists.

The politicization of migration policies has become a major barrier both in understanding climate migration, and in giving climate migrants their due rights.

Even for countries that do let people in, there often isn’t much these refugees and migrants have access to. When Marchman moved to Canada, for example, he noticed skyrocketing real estate prices as well as increased homelessness because of the lack of access to jobs and homes.

Talking about the need for funding for migrants and the role resources play, Tower says, “When I say funding, I mean grants, not loans, based on the principles of this [funding] being obligatory so people have the means to stay, and if they do have to move, they can move with dignity.”

Risi further adds that collaboration can be part of a global solution. She gives the example of how a lack of resources within many developing African countries means populations rely on fossil fuel usage. According to Risi, “It’s in the US’s interest to support renewable energy transition on the continent of Africa because if we don’t do that, the impact of climate change there will undermine the rest of the goals the rest of the world is able to meet.”

The politicization of migration policies has become a major barrier both in understanding climate migration, and in giving climate migrants their due rights. Only in truly understanding the responsibility the Global North has toward climate migrants across the globe, and being able to see the experiences of migrants across the world in their unique contexts, will we be able to push for climate migration as a way of adaptation and a right.