Much of the discrepancy in media exposure between these groups of migrants is due to the difference in who is currently affected by each type of migration. Because climate-induced displacement is a relatively new phenomenon and the global North is largely buffered from the effects of climate-related disasters at their current scale, little attention is being paid to this issue. Meanwhile, because developed countries have been tasked with resettling refugees, it is all over the news. There are exceptions, of course. Thousands of people left New Orleans fleeing Hurricane Katrina, creating stresses on nearby cities and destroying the economic livelihoods of many. Nonetheless, this phenomenon is present only for climate-related natural disasters and not for the effects that are more slowly-onset.
As the world continues to warm, sea levels continue to rise, and food production becomes increasingly jeopardized, we will see a simultaneous increase in the number of climate migrants. The question of how to address the problem of climate-induced displacement will become unavoidable not just for leaders of susceptible countries like Bangladesh and the Marshall Islands, but for those in the U.S. and Europe as well.
If we stick to 1.5ºC warming as per the “stretch” goal in the 2015 Paris Agreement, the impact of migration will be moderate but probably manageable. But, taking into consideration previous international action (read: lack thereof) on climate change and the fact that a climate change denier will soon become president of the country with the second largest carbon footprint, the likelihood that we’ll see only 1.5ºC warming is becoming quite slim. However, if we hit 2ºC or more degrees of warming, the potential migratory flows could be catastrophic. In a 3ºC scenario, droughts, changing rainfall patterns, extreme weather events, sea level rise, glacial retreat, and desertification will all facilitate displacement. There will also be increased conflict and violence triggered by climate change. Much of the Middle East and Africa will become uninhabitable, and food security in these regions will be severely threatened. What’s more, extreme weather events and sea level rise would terrorize parts of Asia. In the 3ºC scenario, sea level rise alone is predicted to inundate land currently inhabited by more than 430 million people. This is more than 90 times the current number of Syrian refugees currently displaced internationally.
In order for there to be effective and preemptive action against such massive climate-related displacement, we need to have a two pronged approach.
Firstly, migration needs to become more integrated in the climate change discourse. The major annual UN negotiations in Morocco last month hosted hundreds of side events on a multitude of issues, from agriculture and food security to the potential for carbon capture and storage. Of all these events, only two were on climate-induced displacement.
If we want action on this front, displacement needs to become a more integrated part of the climate conversation among activists and negotiators. Stipulations made under the Paris Agreement will be key. At COP21 in Paris in 2015, governments agreed to establish a Task Force on Climate Change Displacement, assigned with determining recommendations in the next two years. While the creation of the task force was a step in the right direction, what is most important is what happens next. In order for this taskforce to avoid wasting away in the graveyard of failed initiatives, involved parties need to take concrete steps to ensure that displacement becomes a more integrated part of the conversation.
Secondly, climate change needs to become more integrated in the migration discourse. This will likely be the more difficult task. Thus far, the vast majority of the work done by UNHCR, the International Organization for Migration (IOM), and other migration-focused organizations has been in the context of the UNFCCC and not in migration-centric realms. This is because on a global scale, it is extremely difficult to gain traction on climate-induced displacement while people are fleeing immediate and pressing danger in Syria and other places. Climate-induced displacement is hard to measure and is not yet severe enough to be of major concern to most world leaders. The most deadly effects of climate change are not as fast acting as bullets and bombs, but have the potential to be even more catastrophic.
Nonetheless, the two-pronged approach is critical. Without successfully integrating climate in the migration regime and vice-versa, efforts to create positive change will not be comprehensive. Because climate related-displacement combines two previously existing issues that have two separate regimes tasked with combating these issues, it is vital to find a way to combine the two, before it spirals out of control.