Climate change and its consequences have become a fixture for many political agenda. Controversial though discussion about climate change may be, there is international and cross-party political consensus that global warming is going to be one of the greatest political, economic and social challenges for the coming years.
In social terms in particular climate change plays an increasingly important role. The consequences of global warming already present are confronting whole societies with enormous burdens, whether this is due to increasing rainfall and floods in some areas, the scarcity of rainfall and prolonged drought periods in others, or failed harvests or a shortage of drinking water. International organisations, representatives of various governments as well as experts on climate and migration all around the world are meanwhile discussing the possible effects of climate change on global migration processes.
Climate experts assume that global warming may well lead to a global shortage or at least to a displacement of cultivable land. The reasons for this are as diverse as are the impacts of climate change; rising sea levels will lead to more frequent flooding and storms in coastal and delta regions, small island states and low-lying coastal regions could disappear completely as a result. In some regions rainfall will increase significantly, provoking periodic flooding, while in other regions precipitation will quickly decrease, rapidly promoting droughts and desertification. Soil erosion caused by sandstorms and the decline in vegetation will reduce agricultural productivity in these areas – often already low – to a minimum, potentially endangering the food supply for major regions as a whole. The creeping effects of global warming and the associated increase in extreme weather events, as well as the deterioration in living conditions, may give rise to new migration streams.
This policy brief deals with the phenomenon of environmental migration. It focuses entirely on the effect of climate change on global migratory movements without neglecting the environmental consequences on the regions of origin and destination. The following paragraphs will firstly contain a comparison of estimates as to how many people will be affected worldwide and an introduction of those areas where climate change is most likely to cause migration. The brief will then examine the two main controversies concerning this phenomenon: the causality relationship between environmental factors and new migratory movements as well as the legal position of the persons concerned. The conclusion emphasises the necessity of extending the protection of people affected by the phenomena of climate change at the international level, even if it cannot be assumed that there is an exclusive causal relationship between climate change and migration.
Thomas Hummitzsch is a freelance journalist and writes for the newspaper taz, Freitag and various online media. He is a member of the Netzwerk Migration und Bevölkerung e.V. as well as the editorial board of the migration policy newsletter Migration und Bevölkerung. He lives and works in Berlin.