The effects of climate change, alongside other socioeconomic factors, are a trigger for existing and future migratory movements. In practice, however, it will be difficult to make a clear distinction between these triggers in order to identify environmental migration as demanded by some scientists.
Specialist literature is divided on the subject of environmental migration. Whereas some scientists deny its existence and speak instead of economic and poverty-driven migration, others regard climate change to be the main reason for migratory movements worldwide.
Environmental migration, like every other social process, takes place within a socio-economic context, so that attempts to draw a precise dividing line between it and other causes of migration, such as war, poverty or climate change, are, in the author´s view, doomed to failure from the outset. Nonetheless, it can be assumed that a considerable number of people will be confronted in coming decades with such phenomena as rising seas levels, expanding desert regions and a lack of fresh water. As a result, many of these people will migrate within national borders or across international borders either voluntarily or in flight. Nonetheless, economic, political and cultural aspects of migration must also be considered in order to take account of the complexity of environmental migration. It takes place under the influence of various push- and pull-factors so that answers based on a single cause are not sufficient.
It will be a great challenge in future to decide what status – and consequently what legal status – the affected people are to be granted. International legal norms provide too little protection for environmental migrants, partly due to the absence of any recognition of this new migration phenomenon. The Geneva Refugee Convention (GRC) and its additional protocols only consider some environmental migrants under certain circumstances and therefore do not offer any comprehensive protection. Only a few of today's environmental migrants satisfy the conditions of the GRC, so the majority of persons affected are not currently treated as refugees under current legal conditions. Nor do the legal instruments of nation-states or regions provide environmental migrants with comprehensive protection. It is therefore urgently necessary that regulations should recognise the phenomenon of environmental migration and be adapted to accommodate it. In order not to endanger existing categories, an additional protocol or a new convention appears more meaningful and likely of success than amending the GRC. Furthermore, new regional and national agreements could additionally protect the rights of environmental migrants.
Since the responsibility for climate change rests primarily with the western industrial nations, they are especially responsible for those suffering environmental migration. How far they are ready to meet that responsibility – whether through taking in such people or by providing considerable support in lessening the impact of climate change – will be decisive for the protection of environmental migrants. However, the countries from which environmental migrants originate also have great responsibility towards their citizens and are obliged to do their best to protect their lives. They must take preventive measures to adapt to the consequences of climate change and lessen their impact over both the short and long term.
Climate change presents the international community with great challenges, which can only be overcome if communities work together. Dealing with environmental migration is one of those challenges. If appropriate measures are to be taken, then it is vital to gather additional information about environmental migration. Research into this area should therefore be significantly intensified.