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The Climate Migration Crisis and Refugees

Updated: Jan 19, 2022

The greatest challenge of our generation is anticipated to be climate-related displacement and migration. There is an overwhelming agreement that global warming affects everyone, but we often underestimate its role in the future of human migration. Developing countries and fragile regions are disproportionately affected by climate change. The shift will likely involve the poorest people from the poorest countries moving in large numbers from rural regions to increasingly overburdened urban areas. Without prior planning, such dramatic swells of migration could lead to major disruption and instability.

Why You Should Care

Climate-induced relocation is becoming increasingly common. In December 2018, 16.1 million people were displaced as a result of desertification, rising sea levels, and adverse weather causes. It is estimated that by 2050, between 150 to 200 million people will be at risk of being forced to leave their homes.

In 2017, 68.5 million people, more than at any other time in human history, were forcibly displaced. About a third of these (22.5 million to 24 million individuals) were made to evacuate because of the "sudden onset" of weather disasters, flooding, and forest fires after droughts, and intensified hurricanes.

Global warming threatens the livelihoods of individuals to such a degree that sometimes people have to flee their homes temporarily or indefinitely, thus becoming climate refugees.

The Unseen Tragedies

The perpetrators of unexpected and widely publicized natural disasters, such as the 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake and tsunami (seen on the left), the 2007 and 2012 Pakistan floods, and the US Hurricane Sandy rely on the generosity of the government and industries to survive. But not all victims are as lucky. Often the conditions that turn people into climate refugees often take place quietly and steadily, too far from the world's focus.

Some examples of these “silent catastrophes” include the Gobi Desert, Louisiana, and Alaska. The Gobi Desert in Central Asia extends by over 10,000 square kilometers per year and threatens several villages and fertile lands. In the US, Louisiana loses roughly 65 square kilometers each year to the sea, and 213 villages in Alaska are in danger of being flooded by currents that submerge up to three meters inland a year.

Approximately 10 million people live in flood-risk areas in the UK. In Siberia, the melting of permafrost soil weakens the building ground, making it risky to build houses and threatening houses that are already built.

The Future

The globe is looking towards a future where unprecedented disasters are common. This global challenge has and always will continue to produce a plethora of significant issues the international community must address.

These concerns include:

  • Massive human migration attributable to lack of resources, elevated frequency of extreme weather events, and other variables, especially in developing countries in the low latitudinal band of Earth.

  • High prevalence and magnitude of infectious disease outbreaks

  • Increased U.S. border pressure because of the extreme consequences in areas of Central America because of climate change

  • More competition for resources such as food and water in the Middle East and North Africa

Taking Action

This conversation is not unfamiliar: in 2010, the Center for American Progress workers became part of a task force to resolve dynamic crisis situations that bypass the conventional division of labor between defense, diplomacy, and growth, introducing a "Unified Security Budget" for the United States. The need for longer-term, calculated evaluation plans and expenditures has only grown over the years.

Several tactical missions that respond to sudden climate disasters are now funded by the Pentagon. In addition, the Navy acts as an emergency hotline for foreign extreme weather events and has organized to support the Haitian people affected by the 2010 earthquake, the Filipino people following the 2013 typhoon, and the Nepali people following the 2015 earthquake.

Finally, there is a need for the international community to help create incentives to sustain skilled labor in developed countries, but also to make it easier for developing countries to capitalize on the advantages fluid labor markets can give. It's a huge ask to bring all of this together in one global arrangement considering the political sensitives in international relations today. We need to take advantage of the language and commitments already established in climate and disaster policy, putting them together in a more cohesive approach to climate-driven human mobility. Understanding the climate-migration nexus can become a key to both solving the climate crisis and the migration crisis. If we continue to treat them separately, we are failing to see the bigger picture.



Barron, Laignee. “Climate Change Could See 143 Million Displaced: Report.” Time, Time, 20 Mar. 2018,

Bassetti, Francesco. “Environmental Migrants: Up to 1 Billion by 2050.” Foresight, 29 June 2020,

“Climate Migration and Climate Migrants: What Threat, Whose Security?” Climate Change and Displacement : Multidisciplinary Perspectives, doi:10.5040/

“Environmental Migration.” Migration Data Portal,

Klepp, Silja. “Climate Change and Migration.” Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Climate Science, 2017, doi:10.1093/acrefore/9780190228620.013.42.

“Reorienting Perceptions of Climate Change, Migration, & Displacement.” Wilson Center,

United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. “Climate Change, Migration and Displacement: Impacts, Vulnerability and Adaptation Options.” UNHCR,

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