KNOMAD  > Thematic working groups >  Environmental change and migration

Environmental change and migration

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While the long-term impact of climate change is difficult to foresee, it has the potential for greatly boosting international migration.  Climate change will potentially make dry areas dryer, increase the frequency and intensity of storms, and inundate low-lying areas that are presently home to hundreds of millions of people.  Either directly through floods, or indirectly by changing rainfall patterns and lowering the productivity of agriculture, climate change could lead to huge shifts in populations fleeing inhospitable or uninhabitable areas, or searching for opportunities where agricultural productivity may increase (in the extreme northern and southern latitudes). Brown (2008) estimates that climate change could displace some 200 million people, about equal to UN estimates of global migration stocks (although not all displaced persons will go to other countries).  

Substantial research is required to anticipate the increase in migration pressures that could arise through climate change.  In addition, there is need for clarifying trends and definitions and to have a broader discussion if states and the international community are to be prepared to support migration as an adaptation mechanism.  Separately, the reverse effects of migration on the environment remain unknown and unexplored, although they also have important development implications.  As a result, participants suggested renaming this thematic working group as "Environmental Change and Migration."

Key Questions

  1. Can generally accepted definitions for environmental migration be established? Where are “climate refugees” on the continuum between forced and voluntary migration (both national and international)?
  2. What magnitude of migration is to be expected in the future due to environmental change?
  3. How can states and/or the international community strengthen efforts concerning preparedness and coordination in order to support people who move as a result of environmental change?
  4. Under which conditions can migration be a form of adaptation and how can the positive/adaptive potential of migration be fostered?
  5. What policy interventions (like measures facilitating adaptation in agriculture and safety nets to help people cope with extreme weather events) are available to governments at various levels to deal with expected internal migration flows, especially those related to environmental change?
  6. What institutional arrangements best support capturing the knowledge base that is available in local communities, localizing weather and climate change projection data, and taking political economy and administrative contexts into account when designing policy in order to ensure coherence between actions taken by different agencies?

Planned Activities

  • Prepare at least three reports.
  • Establish a core team drawing on the United Nations University and other experts participating in the European conference on environmental change and migration.
  • Undertake a stocktaking of the literature and institutional mapping in order to identify the relevant international organizations, frameworks and councils engaged in the connected issues around the environment, sustainability, climate change, development, migration, and displacement. On environmental change, this would include among others the Foresight report, the IOM work (including the regional literature reviews) and the Bank studies underway for MENA and South Asia.
  • Initiate an interdisciplinary dialogue involving academia and identified international organizations on environmental change and migration, encompassing migration studies, livelihood studies, global / multi-level governance, and international law.  This should also involve various migrants and other stakeholders being affected by processes of environmental change.
  • Assess the cost effectiveness of various interventions related to internal migration and to migration due to environmental change, whether these interventions provide incentives to delay or accelerate changed behavior, or whether they simply accompany migration movements without influencing them directly. 
  • Develop typologies for policy makers and practitioners.
  • Assess potential areas of conflict due to increasingly scarce resources, and ways in which the risk of conflict can be mitigated.
  • Prepare case studies of institutional arrangements that have worked well to integrate the engagement of various agencies at the local and national levels.