Climate Change Could Force 1.2 Billion to Move by 2050. Is the World Even Ready?

Climate migration and disaster displacement are quickly becoming the signal 21st century crisis.

Climate Change
7 min read
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  • In a world beset by rising temperatures, devastating storms, and flash floods, climate migration and disaster displacement are quickly becoming the signal 21st century crisis. The vast majority of those worst affected are in the world’s poorest and fastest warming countries. 

  • Yet, rather than step up to meet the challenges of climate dislocation, most national governments, international agencies, private sector players and non-profits are burying their heads in the sand.

  • Short-termism prevails over long-range forecasting, planning and preparation. This is dangerous, argues Robert Muggah, co-founder of the Igarapé Institute, in a new analysis.


In the years leading-up to the outbreak of genocide in Darfur, in 2003, median rainfall plummeted by a third. Already precarious pasture and grazing corridors shrank faster than communal land tenure systems could cope.

Simmering tensions between herders and farmers across Sudan turned violent after being manipulated by local warlords and power brokers in Khartoum. By the time the shooting stopped, an estimated 300,000 lay dead and millions more were displaced.

Darfur was dubbed the world’s first climate change conflict. Given the pace of global warming, it won’t be the last.

In a world beset by rising temperatures, devastating storms, and flash floods, climate migration and disaster displacement are quickly becoming the signal 21st century crisis.

While hard numbers are hard to come by, conservative estimates report that as many as 60 million people are forcibly displaced annually as a result of food insecurity and livelihoods disrupted by climate change. While the impacts of climate change are global, the vast majority of those worst affected are in the world’s poorest and fastest warming countries.

Yet, rather than step-up to meet the challenges of climate dislocation, most national governments, international agencies, private sector players and non-profits are burying their heads in the sand.

Short-termism prevails over long-range forecasting, planning and preparation. This is dangerous. The risk of sudden mass movements compounded by pre existing political, economic and social challenges is no longer theoretical.

Only urgent action, including investment in mitigating shocks and stresses and building local resilience, can prevent the crisis from becoming a calamity.

The sheer dimensions of the migratory upheaval in the making are almost unthinkable.

Depending on who is counting, by 2050, between 200 million and 1.2 billion people will face little option other than to flee across borders or be dislocated within them as withering heat waves and rising seas encroach and disrupt people’s lives and livelihoods.

The pace and scale of migration and displacement to come will far surpass even the most harrowing refugee crises of the past century, quickly overwhelming the capacities of the aid community and resettlement agencies in hosting countries.

There are several ways climate threats exacerbate migration and displacement. Warming temperatures and extreme weather events are shaping decisions about how and where people live, while also impacting communities where those dislocated turn up. In many parts of the world, there is literally no place to run.

Among the most badly affected regions are the Greater Horn of Africa, especially Somalia, Ethiopia, and Kenya, where over 30 million people already face food insecurity, with one person likely to die of hunger every 36 seconds in 2022.


Glimpses of the mayhem  to come are emerging not just from Africa. An epochal  drought in Syria between 2005-2010 devastated livestock and agricultural production, driving 1.5 million people from rural to urban areas. They in turn strained already overcrowded communities and stoked civil unrest, government crack-downs, and eventually civil war.

Meanwhile, successive droughts and floods have pushed El Salvador to the edge, contributing to devastating crop failures and pushing tens of thousands from their towns into cities. Many of the new arrivals are easy prey for violent gangs, so forcing them to flee again, northward to Mexico and eventually the US and Canada.

With world temperatures set to rise more over the next 50 years than they have in the previous 6,000, scientists agree that far worse is still to come. Today, just one percent of the planet falls within so-called “barely liveable” hot zones: by 2050, the ratio could rise to almost twenty percent.

In 2100, temperatures could rise so high that spending a few hours outside some major capital cities of South Asia and East Asia could be lethal.

Rising seas have already submerged eight islands in the western Pacific, with another 50 expected to disappear by 2100. This explains why islanders from Kiribati to New Zealand are the first peoples to apply for climate refugee status.

Yet the global response to climate migration and disaster displacement is fragmented, at best. Part of the problem is the way dislocated people  are categorized.

Generally speaking, migrants move voluntarily and their mobility across borders is managed through national emigration and immigration laws. Displaced people are different; most of them do not have the luxury to choose whether to remain or go.

Hence, internally displaced peoples often fall through the cracks of international treaties, such as the1951 Refugee Convention, the “backbone” of the global asylum system.

And despite rising awareness of their plight there is still no dedicated global legal instrument recognizing “climate refugees” much less protecting and assisting them.


As a result,  many of those most severely affected by climate change are still largely invisible to international law. At a time when three times more people are displaced by droughts and floods than by armed conflict, this is a worrisome oversight.

As was seen in the wake of the Syrian exodus of 2015, even a relatively modest influx of people into Western Europe generated massive political repercussions, not least a populist backlash. Eliminating this blind spot is important for humanitarian and development organizations grappling with the crisis.

Consider that up to 80 percent of all existing refugees and people of concern under UN supervision hail from countries poorly prepared to cope with climate-related shocks and stresses.

Fortunately, a growing roster of world leaders and aid agencies concurs with forecasters that climate migration is a major geopolitical risk. The dangers are stark in climate hotspots, where some non-state actors are weaponizing climate distress.

That includes organized gangs in Central America and extremists and terrorist organizations in parts of West Africa who exploit climate displacement to grab land or profit through human trafficking and extortion rackets.

Partisan factions in Iraq and Syria have even threatened to trigger climate displacement to terrorize communities and force the hand of governments.

Another flashpoint lies in autocratic and weak states that bungle or willfully mismanage climate disruption for calculated advantage.

That was the case in Belarus, where authorities cynically hastened waves of Iraqi Kurds, many of whom were uprooted by climate change and flawed government at home, to cross into Poland and other European Union (EU) countries.

Russia has also threatened to unleash disaster in Ukraine, including destroying water reservoirs and disrupting natural aquifers.

Most informed  decision-makers recognize that throwing up barriers to stop newcomers from crossing borders is not the answer. Instead, efforts are shifting toward managing the crisis by shepherding population movements in a more predictable and equitable manner.

While these initiatives can help, more ambitious efforts are needed to mitigate climate change, support adaptation and boost resilience in the riskiest areas.


Undoubtedly, mitigation is the first imperative. The 2015 Paris Climate Agreement laid down  a roadmap to achieve zero carbon.

Radical reductions in greenhouse gas emissions, the rapid transition to green energy and a green economy, and dramatically scaling-up nature-based solutions are key milestones.

Governments must double down on these commitments, strengthen  the Convention on Biodiversity, which will be reviewed in Montreal in December, and back their pledges with aid and finance.

These initaitives will help blunt the crisis, but far more must be done on the ground to cushion the  effects of climate migration and disaster displacement.

Climate adaptation is equally critical. Soft measures range from the deployment of early warning systems and forecasting models to developing more drought and flood resistant agriculture.

Direct support to strengthen supply chains in at-risk communities and strengthened local governance to empower communities to respond to climate threats over time are also critical.

Harder responses include designing protective infrastructure such as sea walls, restoring vast tracts of coastland and wetlands to avoid storm surges, the protection and extension of forested areas, and “biophilic” urban infrastructure and even sponge cities, as in China, to defend against rising seas.

More problematically, enhancing resilience demands the two critical assets that are in short supply: planning and innovative financing. Planning for an uncertain future must be built  into national development scenarios and subnational strategies.

Blended finance –  aid from development banks and bilateral agencies, philanthropic support and private equity – is also crucial, not least for cash-strapped national governments facing global economic headwinds and welfare liabilities exacerbated by the global pandemic.

Some governments in the Caribbean are betting on innovative tools such as “multi-country risk pools” to diversify exposure to catastrophic risk.

The most vulnerable regions cannot wait for international largesse. They are already the first responders to the climate emergency. Indonesia, for example, is relocating its capital city, Jakarta, on account of rapid sea level rise and sinking coastal infrastructure.

Bangladesh, with exposed delta areas, is reinforcing climate resilient towns and helping populations resettle from more vulnerable hamlets. The Maldives is also developing floating cities and weighing the relocation of the most vulnerable populations.

Such drastic initiatives arise from the stark perception that the costs of inertia will only mount as the climate emergency deepens. At the same time, sitting authorities must manage the climate crisis without shortchanging demands for stronger social justice through equity and inclusion, indigenous rights, accessibility and child protection.


To that end, the UN Human Rights Council recently established a special rapporteur on climate change in 2021 to draw attention to the issue.

Then there is the 2013 Nansen Initiative, by which Norway, Germany, Switzerland and the EU agreed to develop protocols among states dealing with cross-border displacement.

Meantime, the IOM has created an environmental migration portal to centralize research and data on climate migrants and the displaced. All these efforts are as critical as they are incremental.

Regional responses from the African Union, Asia , Latin America to climate migration and displacement are mostly incipient and bold on paper only.

The US and the European Union have also begun revisiting their policies on climate migration and disaster displacement.

Yet to now these mostly rhetorical gestures have not been matched with resources or structured relief, much less enforcement. None of that is likely to materialize unless rich nations pony up for mitigation, adaptation and resilience for the most vulnerable countries.

The only certainty is that surviving an ever hotter, more inhospitable world depends on these collective efforts.

(This article was originally published at Mongabay. It has been republished here with permission.)

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