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‘Climate Migration primarily in middle income, agri-dependent countries: Study’

Published: 21st Sep, 2020

Human migration due to changing climate happens primarily in middle income and agricultural-dependent countries, a new study published in the journal Nature Climate Change.


Human migration due to changing climate happens primarily in middle income and agricultural-dependent countries, a new study published in the journal Nature Climate Change.


  • The environmental changes and natural disasters have played a role in how the population is distributed on our planet throughout history.
  • The human migration from the Indus Valley Civilisation is very similar to the one that would take place, or is already been happening, from regions impacted by human-induced climate change, especially in low-lying coastal regions and islands that often bear the brunt of extreme weather events and sea level rise.
  • Back in 1990, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) noted that the single greatest impact of climate change will be on human migration.
  • Experts believe that by 2050, more than 200 million people will be forced to flee their homes. They are referred as climate migrants or climate refugees.
  • A second study, World Migration Report 2020, was released by the UN in December 2019.
    • The report establishes the role of natural disasters in migration and says: “Many more people are newly displaced by disasters in any given year, compared with those newly displaced by conflict and violence, and more countries are affected by disaster displacement.”


Revelations made in the new study:

  • The research analysed 30 studies on the subject of migration and climate change from different countries.
  • It found that the strongest relationship between migration and climate-related environmental hazards was found in countries from Latin America, the Carribean, sub Saharan Africa, west, south and south east Asia.
  • Research has also shown that these populations are also most at risk from climate change disasters such tropical cyclones, hurricanes, typhoons, extreme rainfall and floods.
  • The impacts of climate change that caused migration of people were mainly changes in temperature, rainfall variability and rapid onset events like storms, cyclones and floods.

Defining Terms

  • The International Organization for Migration has proposed three categories of environmental migration. Below are their working-definitions describing these categories:

Environmental migrant

  • Environmental migrants are persons or groups of persons who, predominantly for reasons of sudden or progressive change in the environment that adversely affects their lives or living conditions, are obliged to leave their habitual homes, or choose to do so, either temporarily or permanently, and who move either within their country or abroad.

Environmentally displaced person

  • Persons who are displaced within their country of habitual residence or who have crossed an international border and for whom environmental degradation, deterioration or destruction is a major cause of their displacement, although not necessarily the sole one.

Migration influenced by environmental change

  • Where environmental change can be identified as affecting the drivers of migration, and thus is a factor in the decision to migrate”

High level of migration in middle-income regions

  • In both, low and high income countries, environmental impacts on migration are weaker — presumably because people are either too poor to leave and therefore essentially become trapped, or in wealthy countries, they have enough financial means to absorb the consequences.
  • It is mainly in middle-income regions and those with a dependency on agriculture that we see strong effects.

What role does climate change play in the decision of people to migrate?

  • Climate change is a global environmental and development challenge with significant implications related to security and migratory pressures.
  • The Earth’s climate is changing at a rate that has exceeded most scientific forecasts. Some families and communities have already started to suffer from disasters and the consequences of climate change, forced to leave their homes in search of a new beginning.
  • There are many factors that cause displacement due to climate change and cannot always be separated from the political, social and economic aspects.
    • Increasing occurrence of natural disasters: The increasing occurrence of natural disasters due to changes in climate conditions increases the number of humanitarian emergencies and therefore displacements of affected population.
  • The last two years saw a significant rise in number, intensity and unpredictability of cyclones in the North Indian Ocean region, the most severe among these being-
    • super Cyclone Amphan in the Bay of Bengal in May 2020
    • extremely severe Cyclone Fani in the Bay of Bengal in May 2019
  • Both these massive storms caused massive destruction of property, livelihoods and lives on the eastern coast of India and in Bangladesh.
  • Consequences of global warming: The impact of global warming and its consequences on living conditions, health and food in a developing area can enhance migration by worsening an already complicated situation.
  • Sea level rise: If sea level rises, many coastal areas and small islands can significantly worsen their conditions of human life until they just become uninhabitable and even disappear.
  • Scarcity of natural resources: Problems arising from the scarcity of natural resources such as water or food can lead to tense situations or armed conflicts, which force the civilian population to leave their place of origin.
  • Decline in agriculture: In countries where individuals are not extremely poor, a decline in agricultural income strengthens the incentives to migrate to cities or abroad. Decreasing agricultural productivity may encourage a mechanism that ultimately leads to economic success of migrants.
  • Climate change alters habitats and disrupts ecosystems. Displacement due to climate change is also common in other species including mammals, birds and amphibians.

Calculating human pressure on Earth

  • With increasing human activities, the consumption of resources and production of wastes are increasing simultaneously.
  • The ecological footprint helps to calculate human pressure on the planet.
  • The consumption pattern of the earth’s resources on a world map reveals that the citizens from the most industrialized countries are consuming more, and the least developed countries have less impact on the planet.
  • The bio-capacity per person on earth is currently 1.7 global hectares, which should be equal to the world’s ecological footprint.

Who causes climate change?

  • Over the past century, a sharp increase has been observed for the global average of combined land and ocean surface temperature, greenhouse gas (GHG) concentrations (including CO2, methane and nitrous oxide) and for global anthropogenic CO2 emissions mostly from the burning of fossil fuels, cement and flaring.
    • Human influence on the climate system is clear, and recent anthropogenic emissions of GHGs are the highest in history.
    • An increase in warm temperature extremes, an increase in extreme high sea levels and an increase in the number of heavy precipitation events are evident in a number of regions
    • Continued emissions of GHGs will cause further warming and it would cause increasing likelihood of severe and irreversible impacts on people and ecosystems.
    • The global mean surface temperature change for the end of the twenty-first century (2081-2100) is projected to likely exceed 1.5°C to 2°C
      • extreme precipitation events over the wet tropical regions will very likely become more intense and more frequent
      • the global ocean will continue to warm and the sea level will continue to rise at the rate of 8-16 mm/year
    • About 70 per cent of the coastlines worldwide are projected to experience significant increase in sea level rise.

Recent mass migration episodes

  • Over the past 40 years or so, both Europe and the United States have experienced a dramatic rise in immigration.
  • Recent mass migration episodes such as the Syrian refugee crisis in 2015 and the ‘migrant caravan’ from Central America to the United States in 2018 have been partly attributed to severe droughts experienced in these countries.
  • India continued to be the largest country of origin of international migrants
    • India had the largest number of migrants living abroad (17.5 million), followed by Mexico and China (11.8 million and 10.7 million respectively).
    • The top destination country remained the United States (50.7 million international migrants).

Urbanization boom?

  • Climate change will accelerate an urbanization boom that is already well underway—a trend that is frequently unmanaged and unsustainable.
  • In places like Dhaka, Rio de Janeiro, Lagos, Jakarta, Mexico City, and Cairo, migration and the resulting urban sprawl are skyrocketing.
  • In India, glitzy metropolises like Mumbai, New Delhi, Bengaluru, and Kochi are hotspots for in-migration.
    • Some of that migration will be forced by India’s climate-exacerbated cyclones and flooding.
      • Extreme and sudden climate shocks, such as the 2013 flash floods in the Himalayan state of Uttarakhand, lead to temporary, and often reversible migration.

The Global Compact for Migration:

  • In the past decade, there has been a growing political awareness of the issues around environmental migration, and increasing acceptance that this is a global challenge.
  • As a result, many states have signed up to landmark agreements, such as the-
    • Paris Climate ChangeAgreement
    • Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction
    • Global Compact for Migration

What measures can be taken?

  • Human rights-based protection measures: Solutions can range from tweaking migration practices, such as visa regimes, to developing human rights-based protection measures.
  • Coordinated approach: Most importantly, they involve a coordinated approach from national governments, bringing together experts from different walks of life.
  • Comprehensive solution: The intersection of climate change and migration requires new, nimble, and comprehensive solutions to the multidimensional challenges it creates.
  • Effective adaptation measures: For countries in those vulnerable regions of the global south, climate change adaptation must include an overhaul of cities, not only to insulate them from climate impacts but to make them a safer, more humane refuge.
  • Understanding climate-migration nexus: Mass migration and climate change are intertwined problems. Therefore, understanding the climate-migration nexus can become a key to both solving the climate crisis and the migration crisis. If we continue to treat them separately we are failing to see the bigger picture.


Today, the narrative of climate refugees is not a simple movement of people from low income countries towards high income countries but a complex process that involves many economic and socio-political factors.  As climate change impacts become more and more common globally, the triggers for human populations to move away from the most affected regions will keep on increasing. Studies like the current one will go a long way in understanding and pin pointing the future hot spots for such migration.

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