Friday, September 22, 2023

IPCC report: how bad is climate migration getting?

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As sea levels rise, temperatures become unbearable and disasters become more severe, tens of millions of people may not be able to stay where they are. In addition to the human toll it will take, this climate-driven migration is poised to disrupt economic and political stability, which could fuel conflict.

The latest report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the United Nations’ climate research unit, is investigating the impact of rising average temperatures on people around the world. The 3,600-page report offers one of the sharpest and most comprehensive images of a warmer world, specifically what happens when people reach the limits of what they can adapt and are forced to relocate. The report finds that most climate migration will take place within countries rather than across borders, and that some of the effects of climate change could actually reduce migration in some areas. It also disproves misconceptions about why people move.

Since the last major IPCC report in 2014, authors said they have included more social sciences in their conclusions in the latest issue, giving them much more confidence in how they think climate change will change the place where people live. “The science seems to be more convergent at the moment in terms of the kind of mobility patterns we’re talking about,” said Kanta Kumari Rigaudchief environmental specialist at the World Bank whose work on migration was cited in the IPCC report.

Climate change-induced migration is already underway and endangers people. Rising sea levels, drought and extreme weather have forced people to relocate to areas such as islands in the Pacific, sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia. See rich countries too climate change migration, and it exacerbates existing inequalities. According to the IPCC report, “Through displacement and involuntary migration from extreme weather and climate events, climate change has generated and perpetuated vulnerability.”

According to the IPCC, on average more than 20 million people a year have been displaced by extreme weather events since 2008, many of which were exacerbated by climate change. Even under the most optimistic scenarios for this century’s warming, these pressures will increase further.

But migration is a complicated phenomenon, and other factors, such as economic development and adaptation, can reduce some of the factors that drive people to move. Researchers recognize that it is difficult to predict how many people will likely have to relocate in the coming decades and which countries will be most affected.

“Climate-related migration is expected to increase, although the drivers and outcomes are highly context-specific and there is insufficient evidence to estimate the number of climate-related migrants now and in the future,” the report said.

Some scientists also warn that the ways we discuss climate migration could be misleading and lead to policies that exacerbate the damage for those most affected by climate change. The causes and consequences of migration deserve a much more nuanced debate.

The more the planet warms, the more pressure people will experience to move

Migration is the story of human civilization and throughout history people have moved for countless reasons. But what sets climate change apart as a driver of migration is that it forces people to move involuntarily and at an unprecedented rate and scale.

How much more migration will take place depends in part on how much further the planet will warm. There are several ways that researchers have studied these potential shifts. Rigaud said her work included population growth projections mapped around the world and then applying expected changes to climate. Her team examined the subsequent effects on variables such as rainfall and crop productivity, then modeled how people would move in different parts of the world. By comparing these projections with and without the effects of climate change, Rigaud and her team were able to figure out how much migration was increasing or decreasing as a result of warming.

The IPCC report highlights different projections for displacement and migration due to climate change. It is estimated that by 2050, between 31 and 72 million people in sub-Saharan Africa, South Asia and Latin America would be displaced as a result of water stress, sea level rise and crop failures, even with an aggressive effort to reduce global emissions.

The new report also analyzed migration forecasts across regions and found that the effects were not consistent or evenly distributed around the world. “Africa could have the largest scale of climate-induced migration within countries,” Rigaud said. “A whopping 85 million [migrants] could be from sub-Saharan Africa.”

Climate change made migration more likely in some places and trapped people in others. In Kenya, more rainfall is linked to reduced rural-to-urban migration, while in Zambia, more precipitation is poised to encourage more migration. In Ghana, researchers found that drought resulted in fewer residents saying they intended to move.

But researchers noted that there are other factors to consider in addition to climate change. Migration is also a function of the economy; wealthier parts of the world are better able to withstand in the face of rising heat and higher temperatures. “There are always socio-economic conditions and governance that are highly relevant to how violent conflict or migration takes place,” he said Carol Farbotkoan adjunct researcher at the University of the Sunshine Coast in Australia, in an email.

The IPCC report also notes that there are still some important gaps in our understanding of how climate change will affect migration: “More detailed local and regional models are needed, including migrant destinations and immobility.”

Myths and misconceptions undermine efforts to tackle migration

There is a subtext in many public discussions about climate change and migration that a warmer world will lead to hordes of people fleeing poorer countries for richer countries, threatening the security and economy of every place they go. settings like the US Department of Defense describe climate-induced migration as a potential security threat. Such framing has fueled media panic and xenophobia.

But this story is inaccurate and lacks crucial context, Farbotko said. For starters, the IPCC notes that the vast majority of migration, whether due to climate change or other factors, takes place within a country’s borders.

And while climate change can exert enormous pressure to move, migration is often a last resort. People often do everything they can to stay where they are, according to Gabrielle Wong Parody, an assistant professor of Earth systems science at Stanford University. That makes it difficult to keep people away from potential threats such as forest fires or coastal flooding.

“People say they’re going to move, but it’s unlikely they’ll move unless they’re forcibly moved in response to a climate-related extreme, such as the destruction of their home,” Wong-Parodi said.

On the other hand, it means that people are willing to try many different strategies to cope with the effects of warming, even in precarious places such as islands with rising sea levels. In Fiji, for example, the government is already moving coastal communities further inland. In Vanuatu, officials are integrating climate change and migration into all aspects of their decision-making, including sectors such as housing and education.

“In both cases, the focus is on in-country solutions, not international border crossings,” Farbotko said.

A student holds a sign supporting refugees during a climate demonstration.

Proponents argue that rich countries that have contributed disproportionately to climate change have a greater obligation to help those who suffer the worst effects.
Ana Fernandez/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images

That raises the thorny question of who should pay for such programs and how many countries that historically emit the most greenhouse gases should contribute. International climate negotiations have been derailed several times over disagreements on how the countries that have benefited most from burning fossil fuels should compensate those now suffering the most severe effects of warming.

Yet some heavy emitters are even seeing benefits from the effects of warming. Countries like Australia and New Zealand rely on workers from Pacific islands to grow food. But for workers from countries such as Tuvalu and Kiribati, they offer few possibilities for permanent relocation. Australia and New Zealand are also failing to meet their commitments to help these island nations adapt to climate change, Farbotko said.

“This is a form of climate nationalism,” she said.

Some researchers also say it’s worth rethinking how migration is always framed as a problem, as Giovanni Bettini, a senior lecturer at Lancaster University who studies migration, wrote in The conversation

The idea that we must ‘solve’ climate migration is rooted in the view that mobility is pathological, resulting from a failure to develop, to adapt to climate change or to be more resilient. But in reality, migration is an ordinary social, economic and political process. It is not inherently good or bad.

Such thinking points in the direction of less fear mongering and more cooperation between countries. In some cases, migration can even be mutually beneficial.

Reshaping a society’s attitudes towards migrants is much easier said than done. But understanding the actual factors driving people to move can help policymakers make more humane decisions that reduce rather than add to suffering.


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