Saunders: Climate migration isn’t a thing – but maybe we should make it one

Good commentary by Saunders on the reality:

The world is likely to suffer a lot of destruction, disruption, economic and political instability and death as a result of rising global temperatures and ocean levels, even if we’re able to keep atmospheric warming to 2 degrees.

One thing we’re not going to encounter, however, is mass immigration across international borders. “Climate migration,” scholars of the subject tend to agree, is not something that will happen internationally on any significant scale, even under the worst imaginable projections. “Climate refugees” are not a plausible future problem for any developed country.

You may have been led to believe otherwise. A startling range of international organizations and publications have issued reports and alarmist stories based on the assumption that the millions of people whose lands will be hurt by climate change are going to respond by fleeing to another country.

United Nations agencies have embarrassed themselves by predicting climate migrations that never materialize. One charity predicts that a billion people will be displaced by 2050; a news report last year amplified that assumption to 1.5 billion. In July, The New York Times Magazine ran a cover story that observed (correctly) that “billions of people” will have their livelihoods hurt by global warming, and then inferred that most of them will become migrants.

The renowned Dutch migration scholar Hein de Haas warned recently that these studies and forecasts lack any credibility because they “are not based on fact and scientific knowledge. They either have no scientific basis at all, or reflect extremely simplistic quasi-scientific reasoning.”

In fact, the scholarly community has come together to warn, with increasing urgency, that the notion of “climate migration” is false and dangerous.

Last November, 31 of the world’s most respected climate scholars published a paper in the scientific journal Nature Climate Change warning against “misleading claims about mass migration induced by climate change” which, they said, continue to circulate in both academia and policy circles without any scientific foundation. Although climate change will indeed threaten lives, they agreed, the notion that a warming climate and rising ocean levels will produce “climate refugees” is a “false narrative” driven by political motives.

Dr. de Haas outlined those motives: “For left-wing groups, it serves to raise attention to the issue of climate change… For right-wing groups, it serves to raise the spectre of future mass migration, and the need to step up border controls.”

Earlier this year, the world’s leading migration scholars published the sixth edition of the standard textbook on the subject, The Age of Migration. Though their work is otherwise deeply concerned about both refugees and climate change, they included a new chapter on “climate migration,” which warns that the concept contradicts everything that actually is known about human responses to climate shocks and disasters.

In the world of actual knowledge, the last 10 years have seen an unprecedented amount of serious, well-funded study into the question of what families and communities in climate-devastated places are going to do when their livelihoods turn into ocean or desert. While the answers are varied and often disturbing, one thing people almost never do under such circumstances is move far away.

The definitive work on climate migration remains the Foresight Report, commissioned in 2011 by Britain’s Government Office for Science, which commissioned more than 80 studies in multiple disciplines. It found that climate will sometimes have an impact on local migration. But that impact is quite likely to be negative – that is, climate change will often prevent people from migrating. Not only that, but it found that when regions suffer climate devastation, people are equally likely to migrate into those regions.

In 2018, the Migration Policy Institute conducted a comprehensive review of all the research evidence on climate and migration. It found that climate shocks are highly likely to reduce a community’s likelihood of moving (by hurting their ability to afford to migrate); when they do use migration as a survival strategy, it’s almost always within the local region.

None of that should have been a surprise. The one thing we’ve long known about immigrants and refugees is that they’re products not of ruin and absolute poverty but of comparative prosperity – and thus ability to move – within their communities.

There will be a lot of human migration during the coming decades – most of it regional or internal – and the small number moving to faraway cities because of climate devastation will be greatly outnumbered by those making exactly the same journey simply in order to have a better life.

The fact is that people who live in highly climate-vulnerable regions, where incomes tend to be low anyway, really ought to be migrating – and countries such as Canada could use them. Rather than spreading false alarm about desperate hordes headed for our borders, we ought to be thinking of ways to encourage and make possible climate migration. The world would be better off if it really was a thing.

About Andrew
Andrew blogs and tweets public policy issues, particularly the relationship between the political and bureaucratic levels, citizenship and multiculturalism. His latest book, Policy Arrogance or Innocent Bias, recounts his experience as a senior public servant in this area.

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