Climate Refugees

Jun. 20, 2018

The current refugee problem on the border has me thinking about climate refugees. Many of these families are escaping terrorism of powerful drug cartels. But many of them are also climate refugees. Central America is, in fact, ground zero for climate change in the Americas. Across Honduras, for example, more than 76 percent of the population lives in conditions of acute poverty. The coming climate breakdowns will only worsen that or will, as atmospheric sciences professor Chris Castro put it, be part of a global situation in which “the wet gets wetter, the dry gets drier, the rich get richer, the poor get poorer. Everything gets more extreme.”  Extreme is the key word when it comes to climate change. When men crossing the border were asked why they were heading for the United States, one responded simply, “No hubo lluvia.” (“There was no rain.”) In their community, without rain, there had been neither crops, nor a harvest, nor food for their families, an increasingly common phenomenon in Central America. In 2015, for instance, 400,000 people living in what has become Honduras’s dry corridor planted their seeds and waited for rain that never came. As in a number of other places on this planet in this century, what came instead was an extreme drought that stole their livelihoods.

According to the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre, the “impact and threat of climate-related hazards” displaced an average of 21.5 million people annually between 2008 and 2015. The growing impact of the Anthropocene—of intensifying droughts, rising seas, and mega-storms—is already adding to a host of other factors, including poverty, war, and persecution, that in these years have unsettled record numbers of people. While many of the climate-displaced stay close to home, hoping to salvage both their lives and livelihoods, ever more are crossing international borders in what many are now calling a “refugee crisis.”

In Syria, a severe drought from 2007 to 2010 contributed to the unrest that started the country’s civil war. A paper published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences provided evidence that man-made climate change increased the likelihood of a drought this severe occurring. When this severe drought occurred, it had a catalytic effect. The agricultural system in the northeast collapsed, many farmers uprooted their families and abandoned their villages, and a mass migration of up to 1.5 million from the rural areas to the major cities in Syria’s west took place. This occurred directly after the influx of one to 1.5 million refugees from the war in Iraq to these same cities. Together with a strong natural birthrate, this represented a population shock – a roughly 50% increase in the population of Syria’s cities in only eight years that placed an untenable burden on resources. Of course, the conflict is a culmination of several interconnected factors that had been steadily developing over decades- climate change is one among many other causes.  
Read more at:

In Search of Shelter: Mapping the Effects of Climate Change on Human Migration and Displacement at:

Key findings

• Climate change is already contributing to displacement and migration. Although economic and political factors are the dominant drivers of displacement and migration today, climate change is already having a detectable effect.

• The breakdown of ecosystem-dependent livelihoods is likely to remain the premier driver of long-term migration during the next two to three decades. Climate change will exacerbate this situation unless vulnerable populations, especially the poorest, are assisted in building climate-resilient livelihoods.

• Disasters continue to be a major driver of shorter-term displacement and migration. As climate change increases the frequency and intensity of natural hazards such as cyclones, floods, and droughts, the number of temporarily displaced people will rise. This will be especially true in countries that fail to invest now in disaster risk reduction and where the official response to disasters is limited.

• Seasonal migration already plays an important part in many families’ struggle to deal with environmental change. This is likely to become even more common, as is the practice of migrating from place to place in search of ecosystems that can still support rural livelihoods.

• Glacier melt will affect major agricultural systems in Asia. As the storage capacity of glaciers declines, short-term flood risks increase. This will be followed by decreasing water flows in the medium- and long-term. Both consequences of glacier melt would threaten food production in some of the world’s most densely populated regions.

• Sea level rise will worsen saline intrusions, inundation, storm surges, erosion, and other coastal hazards. The threat is particularly grave vis-à-vis island communities. There is strong evidence that the impacts of climate change will devastate subsistence and commercial agriculture on many small islands.

• In the densely populated Ganges, Mekong, and Nile River deltas, a sea level rise of 1 meter could affect 23.5 million people and reduce the land currently under intensive agriculture by at least 1.5 million hectares. A sea level rise of 2 meters would impact an additional 10.8 million people and render at least 969 thousand more hectares of agricultural land unproductive.

• Many people won’t be able to flee far enough to adequately avoid the negative impacts of climate change—unless they receive support. Migration requires resources (including financial, social, and political capital) that the most vulnerable populations frequently don’t have. Case studies indicate that poorer environmental migrants can find their destinations as precarious as the places they left behind.

Environmentally-induced migration and displacement has the potential to become an unprecedented phenomenon—both in terms of scale and scope. Its effects on the global economy, international development, and national budgets could have significant implications for almost all dimensions of human security and wellbeing, in addition to political and state security. We need humane policies in place along with plans for effective adaptation to deal with the coming tide.