Are We Thinking About Climate Migration All Wrong?

Apocalyptic predictions may grab our attention, but they can also stoke xenophobia and miss the full picture of what’s happening on the ground

Head-shaking and gasps emanate from the audience. I’m at a panel at the July Netroots Nation conference in Philadelphia, stacked with some of the foremost agenda setters in climate politics, and the room audibly reacts as one speaker pauses to make a dramatic point. 

By 2050, the panelist says, we could have close to a billion climate refugees. 

The speaker is not alone in this conjecture. The United Nations International Organization for Migration has also cited the gobsmacking one-billion-by-2050 figure. In 2017, Cornell University researchers estimated it could be 1.4 billion by 2060, and 2 billion by 2100.

Still, as I absorb the reaction of the audience, I flash back to what François Gemenne told me three years prior. An outspoken political scientist and lecturer at the Sciences Po in Paris, he had become one of the global media’s go-to experts as tensions mounted over the 2015 European migration crisis. In 2016, I asked Gemenne, an expert on migration influenced by climate change, what he thought of these estimates. 

They were all, he told me in a thick Belgian-French accent, “basically full of crap.” 

“I’m surprised that’s all he said,” Gemenne’s colleague Caroline Zickgraf told me a few days after the Netroots conference, as we sat down in the geography building at the leafy University of Liège in Belgium. It’s the headquarters of the Hugo Observatory, launched by Gemenne, its director, and deputy director Zickgraf in 2016. It is, they believe, the only academic institution in the world solely dedicated to the study of environmental migration. 

Popular on Rolling Stone

“It’s almost part and parcel of the job now,” says Zickgraf, an American social scientist. “When you give a talk, you get introduced with some number. Some of the numbers we don’t use in academia, ever. But then you go into a different domain, you keep hearing them.” 

One of those oft-repeated numbers came from environmentalist Norman Meyers, who in 2005 settled on a figure that Zickgraf calls up instantly: 200 million by 2050. Over and over again, this prediction is widely cited as “widely cited,” and has been held up as “the accepted figure” by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and publications like the Stern Review on the Economics of Climate Change

But all such figures have been, until very recently, “back-of-the-envelope estimates” using “fairly crude approaches,” says Alex de Sherbinin, a geographer who studies climate change and migration at Columbia University’s Earth Institute. In the case of sea-level rise, he adds, the thinking has been “if people are exposed and you assume that the probability of moving is a hundred percent given that exposure, then you would have X number of people on the move.”

Zickgraf sums up this outmoded approach another way.

Ellicott City, Maryland, considered moving its historic Main Street entirely after flash floods resulted in three deaths. Photo credit: Jim Lo Scalzo/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock

Jim Lo Scalzo/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock

“Hey, West Africa is going to be affected by climate change,” she says in a mimicking tone, drawing a circle in the air around an entire imaginary region. “So everybody living here is potentially a climate refugee.” 

Pinpointing an all-encompassing global number may be critical to achieving the political will to address an impending global crisis that intersects with just about every other pressing issue of the day. “If you don’t even try to quantify anything, then it’s really hard for policymakers to prepare,” says Miriam Traore Chazalnoel, a senior specialist within the U.N. International Organization for Migration program. Though the agency acknowledges the lack of scientific certainty behind these estimates, she says, “There is value in trying to understand the scale of the issue if nothing is done.” 

To be sure, the scale of the issue is planetary. People are, right now, leaving their homes due to the impacts of climate change — from tiny Pacific island nations like Kiribati and Tuvalu to pancake-flat Bangladesh to the coast of Louisiana, which loses a football field of land every 100 minutes. Climate displacement is headline news virtually every time another record-breaking hurricane makes landfall, as when nearly 400,000 Puerto Ricans came to the U.S. mainland in the months following 2017’s Hurricane Maria. During the summer of 2019, a flurry of reports circulated about drought-stricken Honduran and Guatemalan coffee farmers fleeing north.

But the hyperfocus by the media and well-meaning advocates on nailing down a global number of climate refugees by a specific calendar year can be problematic, conjuring images of apocalyptic invasions and fanning the flames of nationalism and xenophobia already spreading across the globe. And while these splashy predictions have a shock value that can galvanize action, they ignore nuances that could better serve public discussion and policy — like the fact that the majority of climate migrants move within their own countries, often slowly over time, and usually not very far. 

Advocates, academics, and international bodies alike agree that most climate migrants move within their own countries. There are well-known U.S. examples: the coastal Louisianans termed the “first American climate refugees,” fleeing rising seas; the indigenous Alaskan villages seeking funding to relocate inland. But this phenomenon is unfolding in every corner of the U.S., and around the world.

Tourist towns in Southern California are contentiously battling over “managed retreat” from the coast due to rising sea levels. In Ellicott City, Maryland, a proposal to move its Main Street, including homes, due to increased flash flooding “nearly destroyed the community.” In North Carolina, low-income residents have been pushed from their homes as flood-and-hurricane-damaged public housing is demolished. And it’s not only a coastal concern. The tiny Missouri hamlet of Mosby is expected to lose half of its residents, following massive flooding in the spring of 2019. In Wisconsin’s rural Kickapoo Valley, which pioneered the modern template of government-funded community relocation, a string of small towns has since moved entire neighborhoods to higher ground as river floods continue to break records. 

“I don’t think people realize that there are climate-induced relocations happening in the U.S. now,” says community psychologist Sherri Brokopp Binder, who studies the issue out of her research and consulting firm in Pennsylvania. “It’s not something in the future, it’s not something happening [only] in Tuvalu. It’s something that’s directly impacting communities now, in Louisiana, Alaska.”

Displacement is happening subtly all over the world. At the Hugo Observatory in Belgium, staff geographer and climatologist Pierre Ozer walks me through a series of satellite images on his laptop. I see with startling clarity new migrant settlements, influenced by drought, pop up over the span of just a few years and even months in countries like Djibouti and Mauritania. 

Homes along the ocean in San Diego are in high danger due to global warming. Photo credit: © John Gibbins/San Diego Union-Tribune/ZUMA

© John Gibbins/San Diego Union-Tribune/ZUMA

In the West African city of Cotonou, Benin, coastal erosion has created an average setback of 32 feet of land per year, Ozer explains. This has resulted in whole swaths of homes being lost to the sea, and a population that — though not self-identified migrants — is nonetheless highly mobile. 

Ozer pulls up two side-by-side shots of the same exact portion of coast in Cotonou, from February 2013 and November 2013. In the later image, the sea has swallowed up much of the land, and several homes with it. But new houses have also appeared, built right up against the encroaching water. When Ozer and colleagues later visited the city, they tracked down a man living in one of the new homes.

“We said, ‘Why did you build your house here?’” Ozer recalls. “He said, ‘What? I always live here.’” After some confused back and forth, the man explained that he had only just moved a short distance because of the erosion, and that he had moved at least 10 times before within this same area — in his mind, he hadn’t really been displaced. 

Though displacement following mega-disasters tends to grab all of the headlines, permanent migration is more often the result of slow-moving or repeated climate change impacts, like sea-level rise and year-after-year flooding. 

“In slow-onset degradation, you’re going to have adaptation strategies,” explains Ozer. “Plus another one. Plus another one. At a certain point, you have no choice anymore. You used all the possibilities of adaptation.”

Internal climate migrants like the man in Cotonou often find themselves in places that are just as dangerous and vulnerable as those they leave behind. “If you live in a rural area and you move to a coastal mega-city, you might be leaving drought and running right into flood,” Zickgraf explains.

This happens in the U.S., too, says Brokopp Binder. She and her research partner Alex Greer, an assistant professor at the State University of New York at Albany, are experts on perhaps the primary U.S. program that addresses climate-driven migration: government-funded home and business buyouts. 

Each buyout program is different, but generally involves states, counties, or municipalities purchasing properties at pre-disaster rates so residents can use the money to move elsewhere. 

In their study of buyout programs in New York following Hurricane Sandy, Brokopp Binder and Greer’s research team found that one in five households relocated to areas as or even more vulnerable to climate change.

And after examining buyout programs all over the country, most recently in Harris County, Texas, following Hurricane Harvey, Brokopp Binder and Greer have found that it’s consistently difficult to predict how people will move and why, and to design programs that would leave climate migrants better off. 

The remains of a home after Hurricane Sandy in November 2012. When people migrate after climate disasters, they usually don’t move very far and don’t move where it is any safer. “I’ve talked to a lot of people in New Jersey who said, ‘I’m gonna die with the sand between my toes,'” says an expert on buyout programs. Photo credit: Patsy Lynch/Shutterstock

Patsy Lynch/Shutterstock

“We have a tendency to assume that just because something sounds logical or makes sense on paper, it’s going to play out the way we think,” Brokopp Binder says. “It’s just a lot more complicated.” 

De Sherbinin, the Columbia University geographer, echoes this. After Typhoon Haiyan, which hit the Philippines in 2013, the government paid people to move away from the coast, he says, but “most people rented out housing and then moved back to the coast where they were before. That’s where their livelihoods were, that’s where their social networks were.” 

“People live where they live for a reason,” Greer puts it. “I’ve talked to a lot of people in New Jersey who said, ‘I’m gonna die with the sand between my toes.’ In a lot of cases, they’d have no interest in living away from the beach.” 

Such is the reality of climate migration right now — not by 2050, or 2100, or at some hazy point in the future when another mega-disaster wipes out a coastline. Instead it is ongoing, and has been for years — incremental changes in our environments that are subtly altering the ways we live, and even the ways we conceive of ourselves, until finally, there is nothing else to do but leave.  

There has been recent progress in accurately measuring the scope and nature of climate migration. The World Bank’s landmark 2018 Groundswell report avoided attempting to summarize the global scale of the issue and instead focused exclusively on internal migration in just three developing regions: South Asia, Sub-Saharan Africa, and Latin America.

It is “the first-ever effort to apply, at large scales, a plausible approach” to predicting numbers of climate migrants, says de Sherbinin.

His team at Columbia analyzed the study’s gravity-model approach, which overlaid a grid of 15-kilometer squares atop the three regions and used a coefficient that accounted for changes in crop production, water availability, and sea-level rise, allowing them to assess how individual squares on the grid could lose or gain population based on climate impacts alone. Adding up the net changes, they came up with the very first scientifically sound estimate of climate migration: 143 million people in South Asia, Sub-Saharan Africa, and Latin America by 2050.

While the numbers were “defensible,” says de Sherbinin, making estimates like these is still tricky. There’s a chance, he explains, that given new data sets — like one from a recent study projecting more sea-level rise by 2050 than previously predicted — the numbers they found underestimated the total. But there’s also a chance that they overestimated, he says, because they didn’t factor in how people in these places might adapt. 

The more important result, de Sherbinin explains, was pinpointing these hyperlocal “hot spots” for climate migration within these regions. And it’s this same regional-rather-than-global approach that academics and policymakers say hold the most promise for dealing with the issue. 

For cross-border migration, experts like Zickgraf point to solutions such as bilateral agreements between countries in the same region, or new visa categories tailored to specific climate impacts unfolding in different parts of the globe. 

Chazalnoel of the U.N.’s IOM program agrees. “We would recommend that the countries of a specific region work together so that they can use the tools they already have,” she says. 

Since it denied Ioane Teitoa, a Kiribati man, his claim of asylum on climate-change grounds in 2015, New Zealand has entertained a modest version of this regional approach. A 2017 proposal to allow up to 100 spots for climate migrants from surrounding Pacific island nations has since stagnated, but for a time made headlines as a “world-first” template for addressing the climate-migration issue.

At the level of international law, there is still no such thing as a “climate refugee,” and the global community remains “very far away” from creating a special designated status for climate migrants, says Gemenne. “And it may never happen.” 

Part of the problem is that it’s exceedingly difficult to sort out just who qualifies as a climate refugee — given that just about everyone is impacted by their environment. “If everybody falls under the category, in effect, nobody does,” Zickgraf says.

A woman wades through knee-high seawater that flooded her house and village in Kiribati, a tiny Pacific island being swallowed by sea-level rise. Legally, there is still no official designation for “climate refugee.” Photo credit: Jonas Gratzer/LightRocket/Getty Images

Jonas Gratzer/LightRocket/Getty Images

In December 2018, in what seemed like a step in the right direction, countries signed the first international migration agreement to mention climate change and urge countries to prepare for people moving because of it — the United Nations’ Global Compact for Safe, Orderly, and Regular Migration.

But the moment was overshadowed by a number of high-profile rejections: Switzerland, Poland, Italy, and Hungary all opted out of the agreement. The United States, after pushing for the compact under Obama, predictably pulled out of it under Trump. Even Austria, which had been the European Union’s lead negotiator on the agreement, abstained in order to “defend its national sovereignty.” 

This might be the expected position from right-wing governments, but this vision of climate migration as a massive cross-border threat has been mainstream for decades, says Betsy Hartmann, author of 2017’s The America Syndrome: Apocalypse, War and Our Call to Greatness. Alarm was raised over climate refugees when the Nobel committee awarded its annual prize to Al Gore in 2007, when politicians were drumming up support for the landmark Waxman-Markey climate bill in 2009, and when the Pew Charitable Trusts was pushing an initiative on population studies in the Nineties.

“The far right, the white nationalists are very apocalyptic,” says Hartmann. But similar arguments are made across the political spectrum, she says. “There’s a bridge there. It’s not an intentional bridge, [but] when it’s in the air, when that is the image of the future that is being promoted by progressive people, it’s dangerous.”

As with the Obama administration, climate migrants have been specifically pinpointed by the Trump government as a national security threat. “Climate-related impacts will also contribute to increased migration, which can be particularly disruptive if, for example, demand for food and shelter outstrips the resources available to assist those in need,” reads a line tucked into the National Defense Authorization Act of 2018.

Even previous IPCC reports have played into “problematic narratives” that migrants can cause disputes over resources and other conflicts in their host communities, says David Wrathall, an assistant professor of geography at Oregon State University, and a lead author of the first-ever stand-alone treatment on climate migration for the next IPCC assessment, due out in 2022. 

Wrathall says there is very little evidence that migrants cause these problems where they move, and that, if anything, it’s the behavior of the host communities that determines the outcome. “When we try to make migrants not welcome, when we discriminate, when discrimination becomes a matter of policy, that’s when real problems emerge,” he says. 

“I think the problem with policymakers is that they tend to focus too much on preventing,” says Elodie Hut, a Ph.D. candidate at the Hugo Observatory. “‘Let’s stop these inflows and influxes.’ Rather than managing it, and making way for it.” 

Hut, Zickgraf, and dozens of other experts recently co-authored a piece in Nature Climate Change that pushes back against the alarmist view of climate migration. At the high levels of the UNFCCC, which runs the annual U.N. climate talks, and the U.N. Security Council, the co-authors explain, there are explicit assertions of “mass climate migration” that risk “aggravating conflicts.” 

“This self-referencing narrative in scientific literature and policy reports has the consequence of entrenching climate migration as a looming security crisis without an empirical scientific basis,” they write. 

These issues were on François Gemenne’s mind when I caught up with him in January, following his trip to the annual U.N. climate talks. The talks, held in December in Madrid, were widely regarded as an utter failure, and, says Gemenne, involved no official acknowledgement of climate migration or displacement. 

“By consistently presenting the situation as something that would be unmanageable,” he tells me, “we’re likely to fuel prejudices and see governments reinforce surveillance. We should be extremely cautious about the words and the images that we use.”  

Alexandra Tempus has written on place, belonging, and climate change for Orion, The Nation, The Progressive, Sojourners, Vice News, Versobooks.com, and more. Reporting for this piece was supported by the Heinrich Böll Foundation’s Transatlantic Media Fellowship. Follow her on Twitter: @tempus_flies.