The link between climate change and migration

21st July 2022

Migration into the UK has been hitting the headlines again.

The government’s controversial policy of trying to send illegal migrants to Rwanda, the status of Ukrainian refugees fleeing the Russian invasion, and small boat crossings in the English Channel have led to discussions about what can be done to address the issue. While those fleeing Ukraine aren’t doing so for climate-related reasons, many others on the move have been forced to flee homes that have become inhospitable due to the climate emergency.

The link between migration and the climate emergency is well established, but often missing from discussion within the environment and sustainability profession. The IPCC’s special report on 1.5°C of global warming, released in 2018, warned that hundreds of millions of people could be forced to move if global warming hit 2°C, and researchers have found compelling evidence that the climate emergency caused droughts which led to, or at least inflamed, the civil war in Syria, forcing many to flee to Western Europe and the UK.

A US defence report released during the Obama administration described global warming as a ‘threat multiplier’. This is an appropriate way to describe the impact that the climate emergency is having on people living in areas and regions that are already experiencing desertification, seawater ingress into groundwater supplies, crop failures, extreme weather and flooding. These physical phenomena relating to climate and weather place additional pressures on human systems, such as food and water supplies and socioeconomic and geopolitical relations.

Concerns about movement of people should be rooted in an understanding of power, privilege and oppression. We should be thinking about why people are leaving their homes and working out how to provide them with safety and sanctuary. Instead, concerns are often based around a failure to acknowledge the history of colonialism, including both the violence used to oppress occupied people and the greenhouse gases used to expand empires, which today could make vast swathes of the planet uninhabitable due to anthropogenic global warming.

There are also examples of climate-induced migration closer to home.

The Welsh village of Fairbourne has been identified as unsustainable to defend due to predicted sea-level rise, and the government has declared that, by 2052, it will no longer be safe to live there, making it the first community in the UK to be decommissioned as a result of the climate emergency.

Those living in Fairbourne now won’t have to worry about UK citizenship when they do eventually leave their homes. Those coming from overseas, on the other hand, will almost certainly have to navigate Home Office bureaucracy, including asylum applications – and that’s after having made life-threatening journeys across regions such the Sahara, the Mediterranean Sea and the English Channel, the latter being the world’s busiest shipping lane.

The UK has taken in refugees from across the globe over the years, but some argue that it has not taken its ‘fair share’ of people fleeing inhospitable environments. In Lebanon, there is one refugee for every four Lebanese nationals, while Germany accepted a million Syrian refugees under Angela Merkel’s leadership.

A US defence report released during the Obama administration described global warming as a ‘threat multiplier’”

Ultimately, the environment and sustainability profession needs to spend more time and effort considering the impact of the climate and biodiversity crisis on migration. It adds a further imperative to act urgently. And if we are to act on this issue, the sector needs to be far more diverse, bringing in people who have more direct experience of what it’s like to have to flee your home due to the climate emergency.

Tom Pashby: IEMA digital journalist

Image credit | iStock


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