Climate Migration: The Next Global Crisis?

April 12, 2021 / Climate Change

Climate migration, resulting from global warming, is poised to significantly destabilize communities and global security. The issue must be proactively addressed as a challenge before it escalates to a crisis.

In July 2020, Verkhoyansk, Siberia – one of the coldest places on the planet – recorded an unprecedented 100-degrees Fahrenheit. For the Arctic, such rising temperatures are problematic at best. Forest fires and thawing permafrost threaten arable land and livelihoods, while displacing populations. In 2017, only 120,000 acres of land was viable for farming – half of its previous measure – due to flooding. Siberia’s 5.4 million inhabitants and its wildlife have to contend with rapidly changing conditions. As many opt to migrate from rural areas, population surges in towns and cities introduce new strains on infrastructure, resources, and social dynamics.

Understanding the impact of what lies ahead is essential to mitigating security risks. Siberia is not the only place under environmental duress. More than a quarter of Bangladesh flooded in June, displacing millions and effectively drowning crops that are the lifeline of communities. Conversely, in Guatemala, persistent droughts have decreased agricultural productivity to the extent that survival depends on migration. Such disruptions to livelihoods are pushing communities to the brink. Vulnerable communities, in some cases, become fertile grounds for recruitment by extremist, terrorist, or other illicit organizations, as demonstrated by the Islamic State (IS) during Iraq’s water shortages. Others have little choice but to do as our human ancestors did in the face of untenable environments: leave.

According to Groundswell, a 2018 World Bank report on internal climate migration, sub-Saharan Africa, Latin America, and South Asia will generate 143 million internal migrants by 2050 due to climate change. Bangladesh alone is projected to account for a third of internally displaced persons in South Asia. However, a concerted global effort to reduce greenhouse gases and alleviate environmental pressures could decrease the impact in the three regions by 80 percent. Without any mitigation, competition for better air, land, and water will widen economic and social disparities. Water shortages, rising sea levels, poor air, and diminished yields in subsistence agriculture already disproportionately affect disadvantaged communities. And as history bears witness, such economic inequalities are rife for discontent.

Escalating humanitarian crises could also result in cross-border migration and amplify security concerns. Migrants can readily spill over into neighboring countries, creating pockets of violence and instability among populations who do not recognize the needs or validity of climate-induced displacement. In fact, even in international law, the term “refugee” does not apply in the context of those displaced by climate change. It only protects individuals, who cross an international border “owing to well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion.” This can problematize existing immigration policies that do not have the bandwidth to accommodate an influx of migrants, who technically cannot be afforded the same protections as refugees, though their lives may very well be at risk.

Cross-border migrations also risk inflaming old tensions. An example is some of the anti-immigrant sentiment in the United States (U.S.), particularly vis-à-vis immigrants – legal or otherwise – from the Latin America corridor. Given the spate of recent protests from conservative and far-right groups, it would be plausible to expect a surge of climate migration to be met with hostility and social discord. With the American economy and politics still reeling from a pandemic, only hubris would preclude a more proactive, forward-thinking approach.

Acknowledging climate change consequences is the difference between a clarion call today and an alarm tomorrow. Prioritizing environmental sustainability will limit the host of issues that drive both instability and people across borders. The 2016 refugee crisis proved a useful lesson in the global capacity to manage migration. In the U.S. in particular, it exposed policy and leadership vulnerabilities that will be tested further with a massive climate crisis. Policy leaders must address environmental sustainability with a view to U.S. national and international security. Neglecting the human dimension of climate change will only compound the issues on an already-polluted horizon.