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Kate Zerrenner headshot

Climate Change is Fueling a Wave of Migration, Study Finds

By Kate Zerrenner
drought climate migration

Historic droughts across North and West Africa in 2020 left this lake in central Burkina Faso dry. 

Global leaders will convene in New York City for Climate Week next week, and environmental justice is again one of the main themes for discussion. The timing of the event comes on the heels of a new World Bank report that analyzes migration within countries in East Asia, Central Asia and North Africa that is fueled by climatic conditions. The issues of climate change and migration are often linked: The most vulnerable populations usually reside in the most exposed areas. It’s true in the regions highlighted in the report, and it’s also true in the U.S. As climate change continues to batter some areas repeatedly, at a certain point, it becomes necessary for people to move.

Millions of people live in areas that are vulnerable to climate change

For example, after Hurricane Katrina in 2005, hundreds of thousands of people left New Orleans. Many made a permanent home in Houston, only to be hit by Hurricane Harvey in 2017. While the population of New Orleans has rebounded somewhat from the level immediately after Katrina, it’s still less than 80 percent of what it was in the 2000 census. In 2021, Hurricane Ida swept through the region, leading to power outages lasting weeks during the hottest time of the year. Conversations have already started about whether rebuilding New Orleans is prudent under current and future climate scenarios. While those who can afford to leave before a crisis do, the most vulnerable must often remain and suffer not only the economic consequences, but also the mental anguish of repeated traumas.

While the situation in New Orleans continues to dominate the headlines, similar stories are playing out across the country. At least 4 million Americans live in areas that will become unviable due to climate change by 2070, according to research from ProPublica. A further 162 million people — nearly half of U.S. population — live in areas where climate change is expected to negatively affect quality of life. Again, the most vulnerable will likely be the hardest hit and will require assistance to relocate. The ability for those in a more stable economic position to relocate early could further widen the inequality gap.

While storms and wildfires grab headlines, the chronic impacts of climate change can be the most insidious: a slow burn that enables those that can to leave for greener, cooler pastures, leaving others behind to tough it out in the heat and drought. And deaths from heat are increasing: According to Houston Public Media, heat-related deaths of people who work outdoors has doubled in the past 10 years compared with the previous decade.

Climate change is already causing internal migration to spike around the world

While the U.S. numbers are daunting, climate-related internal migration — people moving from one part of a country to another — is unlikely to spare any region of the world. The World Bank report highlights three countries in particular that are facing increased migration: Morocco, Vietnam and the Kyrgyz Republic. All three are up against different climate challenges, but their economies make the prospect of managing the internal migration more challenging.

The Kyrgyz Republic is a mountainous, landlocked country in Central Asia, so while it doesn’t have to deal with issues related to rising sea levels, the region is prone to droughts, earthquakes, and glacial lake outbursts (flooding due to dam failure containing a glacial lake). The country is mostly arid, although some areas have also seen an increase in flooding and mudslides in recent years. A governmental disaster management strategy found that the country suffered about 200 emergencies each year for the two decades preceding 2010, costing $30 million to $35 million in direct damages each year — and it also noted those numbers have been on the rise. Further, while models have predicted up to a 15 percent increase in rainfall in extreme precipitation events, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) predicts the region will become more arid overall, intensifying the drought-flood cycle.

As with the U.S., this means the Krygyz people who are the most vulnerable will no longer be able to survive and thrive in many parts of the country. Depending on the scenario, internal migration could range from 1.6 percent to 6.8 percent of the total population, with much of that migration leading to the capital city of Bishkek and other areas in the north, further enhancing the rural to urban migration that is already underway. There is likely to be some push-pull in these areas, especially around water availability, infrastructure, and housing and job opportunities. Without appropriate planning, this could lead to further inequality as well as economic instability. Migration from climate-impacted areas could also add stress to agricultural areas, further reducing crop productivity.

The Krygyz Republic is making some strides in climate adaptation and resilience, especially in vulnerable sectors, such as agriculture. Some efforts include introducing more drought-resistant crops as well as programs that look specifically at more sustainable water management. The government will also increase its renewable energy and fuel efficiency as part of its pledged contribution to the Paris Agreement on climate change. But these migration patterns are already underway.

Governments must prepare for climate-induced migration and displacement

Climate Week convenes business, nonprofit, and government leaders to start the conversations on climate change leading up to the United Nations Conference of Parties (COP26) in Glasgow in November. As the recent IPCC report noted, we are at a critical point where action must be serious and soon to make a difference in rising global temperatures. But climate change impacts are not a future eventuality — they are already happening.

Adaptation to climate change means that some communities may no longer be viable in the way they once were. States and countries must be prepared for shifts in populations as people need to move to safer areas. Cities and regions can plan for the influx with consideration for physical and economic infrastructure. As Houston welcomed New Orleanians after Katrina, cities and regions should be ready for the fact that climate change is not just about impacts to our land and water: It also impacts people.

TriplePundit will be tracking topics like this during Climate Week next week and in the lead-up to COP26 in Glasgow. Sign up for our daily newsletter to get the latest directly in your inbox. 

Image credit: YODA Adaman/Unsplash

Kate Zerrenner headshot

Kate is a writer and policy wonk, with a focus on water, clean energy, climate change and environmental security. She spent over a decade running energy-water nexus and energy efficiency programs at Environmental Defense Fund as well as time at the U.S. Departments of Energy and Defense, U.S. Government Accountability Office, and state and federal legislatures. She serves as an Advisory Board member of CleanTX, which aims to accelerate the growth of the clean tech industry in Texas.

Read more stories by Kate Zerrenner