WORDS BY Yessenia Funes
A new report from the World Bank estimates that more than 216 million people may migrate within their own countries by 2050 if we don’t act on climate. The Frontline breaks it down.
I’m at that age where the people around me are doing one of three things: getting married, having babies, or buying a house. The latter is what I’m most interested in. I’ve always dreamed of my own cozy home, but the rapid manifestation of climate change has made me weary. Where is safe?, I ask myself. Shockingly, most people I know are moving down South. In fact, disaster-prone areas in the U.S. are seeing increases in their populations, according to an analysis from Redfin, a real estate research group.
What does that say about the future of climate migration in the U.S.? It seems that we’re ill-prepared for this reality. More people are moving into areas “endangered” by climate change, as Redfin put it, which they very well may have to leave again in the future once the crisis reaches a fever pitch. As for me, I want to live where there’s the least chance of impact—a place largely safe from the floods, droughts, and wildfires plaguing much of the nation. After all, these threats may only worsen in the future. Whether they do—and by how much—depends on the destiny our leaders choose.
Welcome to The Frontline, where climate migration is close to home. I’m Yessenia Funes, climate editor of Atmos. The World Bank published a report Monday internal climate migration across the globe. It found that 216 million people may migrate within their countries by 2050 without climate action. We often think of migration as a cross-border phenomenon, but plenty of folks move around within borders, too. What we see in the U.S. is nothing compared to what’s to come everywhere else.
Some disasters are quick. They roll in without warning. These are usually hard to miss because of how violent they feel. Think hurricanes and wildfires—the kind of drama that dominates headlines or evening news shows. Other disasters are slow. They take place over months or years. Take sea level rise and water scarcity, for example. These problems are barely visible to the world at large, yet their ripple effects are very real to those feeling them.
So real, in fact, that some people have no choice but to leave home and start anew. This is the reality that’s informed a recent report out Monday from the World Bank, which projected future internal climate migration patterns throughout the Global South. The report only looks at “slow-onset climate change impacts,” such as water scarcity, lower crop productivity, and sea level rise. These factors are enough to force more than 216 million people to move to different parts of their country by 2050. And this doesn’t even include North America or some European countries—or those who migrate after a rapid-onset impact.
“People move for many different reasons,” said Viviane Clement, report co-author and senior climate change specialist at the World Bank. “When you’re talking about rapid-onset events, it brings to mind the importance of compounding shocks and how those kinds of shocks can add to the vulnerability of communities and livelihoods on top of slow-onset climate change.”
In short: These numbers are probably an understatement.
“That concerted action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and pursuing green, inclusive, and resilient development are going to be critical in order to reduce that scale of internal climate migration.”
The report uses climate models that rely on the emissions scenarios and development pathways created by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. They model six regions: Latin America, Sub-Saharan Africa, North Africa, South Asia, East Asia and the Pacific, and Eastern Europe and Central Asia. Every region may see its own patterns, but the numbers are starkest in Sub-Saharan Africa, which may see as many as 85.7 million internal climate migrants. The increasingly dry climate makes it difficult for agriculture to succeed in the region, creating scenarios like the famine in Madagascar and eventual migration to wherever work and food is available.
In some cases, climate-induced migration takes individuals from one danger zone to another. While sea level rise may push some people away from coasts, an issue like water scarcity may encourage others to move into urban areas where water is readily available—even if that’s closest to the coast and, therefore, more prone to flooding and storms. This is where climate-resilient urban planning may be key, Clement said. As is development in rural areas to prevent folks from moving into more vulnerable regions due to separate impacts.
“Coastal areas are going to be both in-migration and out-migration hotspots,” Clement said. “The actions that can be taken in order to prepare those localities and make them more climate resilient are going to be different depending on the country. Those solutions are going to need to be tailored accordingly.”
Many of the places the report outlines are already experiencing a taste of what this reality may look like—despite being among the least responsible for climate change. That doesn’t mean this future is set in stone, Clement said. After all, the report is based on models that can always change should human behavior switch up. And that’s ultimately what needs to happen if we want to prevent the instability and disruption that can accompany migration like this. Our behavior needs to change—and policymakers need to incentivize it through laws that curb emissions. They also need to include climate change within migration plans. There’s enough warming baked into the planet to ensure people may continue to move around for a while.
And yet there’s no predestined outcome. The path we take will be a direct result of climate policy (or lack thereof). Adequate action can prevent up to 80% of this predicted migration.
“That window of opportunity to act is still open, so we should be doing so with urgency,” Clement said. “That concerted action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and pursuing green, inclusive, and resilient development are going to be critical in order to reduce that scale of internal climate migration.”
Presidents and politicians: This one’s on you.