Key points from the IPCC report on the connections between climate change and migration

Image: A young girl walks across a makeshift bridge over stagnant flood-water in Sindh province, Pakistan. DfID / Magnus Wolfe-Murray. (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Key points from the IPCC report on the connections between climate change and migration

Image: A young girl walks across a makeshift bridge over stagnant flood-water in Sindh province, Pakistan. DfID / Magnus Wolfe-Murray. (CC BY-SA 2.0)

The new report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) contains a significant new analysis of the connections between climate change and human mobility.

Each year hundreds of new studies looking at the connections between climate change and migration are published. They investigate different aspects of the issue, explore different locations and use different methods. It’s often difficult to see the big picture and understand what all of this research means when looked at together.

The IPCC weighs these studies and looks at the level of certainty they create. It highlights trends in research findings and allows us to see the big picture.

This is a short summary of some of the key points from the most recent IPCC report. This is not an exhaustive list of everything the report has said about the connections between climate change and human mobility. Rather, these are some of the issues which are most significant and relevant to policy makers and advocacy organisations.

New certainty

The report makes it clear that climate change is altering patterns of migration. Scientists are now more certain about this than ever before. Previous IPCC reports have often talked about the connections between climate change and migration. However this iteration of the report states that the scientific community is now more certain about the influence, and that the influence of climate events on migration is more direct than previously thought.

Strong evidence points to a number of patterns of climate-driven movement. The report states that most climate-linked movement is internal rather than across international borders. When people do cross borders it is usually between neighbouring countries. Climate related events are causing sudden displacement as people flee disasters like floods. Events like droughts are also eroding livelihoods and causing people to migrate to seek work elsewhere.

New complexity

Although the IPCC report points to new levels of certainty about the connections between climate change and mobility, it also highlights additional complexities in the relationship. Climate change usually operates with multiple other drivers to re-shape patterns of migration. It’s rare that climate events alone are responsible for someone’s decision to move or stay put.

Recent research has simultaneously increased the level of certainty that climate change is altering migration patterns, and at the same time revealed new complexities in the way this relationship works.

Difficult predictions

In spite of this new certainly about what is happening now, making predictions about the future is still difficult. The report states that there are so many other factors in the mix when it comes to migration that future projects are fraught.

This is especially true when it comes to predicting future patterns of migration resulting from slowly unfolding events like drought. Because climate change acts via the economy and labour market to drive migration – this makes predictions almost impossible.

A great deal of new research has been devoted to trying to model climate-driven migration and make predictions stretching decades into the future. Methods have improved and the World Bank’s predictive model has come to the fore as one the most coherent. However, the IPCC report points out that these predictive methods are still not a crystal ball. Unpredictable changes in the economy, labour market, conflicts and border policies could all throw any predictions off.

Trapped populations

The report also draws attention to the fact that some people may want or need to migrate in response to climate change, but can’t. The same climate-driven events that mean they may want to move could also have pushed them into a state of poverty and insecurity that actually makes moving impossible. Moving usually requires money and resources. Climate change may have eroded these to a point where migration is no longer an option.

This is often neglected from the debate about climate change and migration which tends to focus on people moving, rather than not moving. This is the reason that much of the academic research talks about “changes in mobility” rather than simply about “migration”.

Uneven consiquences

Climate change will not alter migration in an even or consistent way. Some places will be hit harder than others. The ways in which climate alters migration will be different for different people too. The IPCC highlights socio-economic factors and household resources as key forces that influence whether someone is vulnerable to being displaced by a climate-related event.

Wealthier countries have the resources to invest in systems and infrastructure that prevent displacement. Richer households are less likely to have to move. There are also factors within households that matter too. Gender, age and health play a huge role in who can and cannot move – even within the same household.

Knock-on impacts

The fact that climate change is driving new patterns of mobility isn’t the end of the story. Once people are on the move there are multiple additional risks and impacts on them as individuals. The IPCC report points to health as a key risk.

The report states that more and more evidence points towards negative health outcomes experienced by people on the move – especially amongst people who are forced to move in crises and humanitarian emergencies.

Migration as climate change adaptation

Evidence points towards migration becoming a form of climate adaptation. The report argues that in-situ resilience building may have limits as the impacts of climate-related weather events accelerate.

Building resilience is key to helping people stay put, but the report states that migrating is becoming a key adaptation strategy too. When people can move out of harm’s way safely, legally and in plenty of time they are less likely to end up in humanitarian crises.

People are already on the move as a way of coping with climate change. This is already a form of homegrown, DIY climate adaptation. Harnessing these existing patterns of migration is a key way of enabling people to use migration as a coping strategy.

Making journeys that are happening already safe and legal is likely to improve outcomes for people on the move. If people are moving as a way of adapting and coping already, evidence suggests this may be an effective way of protecting lives and helping people adapt.

The report isn’t suggesting that more conventional forms of adaptation and resilience should be replaced by migration. Rather, that migration – internal and crossborder – is potentially a powerful new tool in the adaptation tool kit.

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