The future of global migration and the impact of environmental change




Goldin, I.


The future of global migration and the impact of environmental change




Government Office for Science UK


Projections of climate and environmental change in the 21st century include scenarios of extreme weather, deforestation, declining fish stocks, pollution of water supplies and degradation of agricultural land. These scenarios are based on uncertain emissions estimates and uncertain projections of the physical effects of climate change from a range of models. The 2006 Stern Review on the Economics of Climate Change, commissioned by the British government, noted that without a reduction in carbon emissions the livelihoods of people could be affected by changes in access to water, food production, health and use of land and the environment (Stern, 2006). Climate change would have the most severe consequences for developing countries because of geography and the relative lack of economic and political resources to respond to severe environmental stress. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has noted that shoreline erosion, coastal flooding and agricultural disruption can promote human migration as an adaptive response. The debate around the implications of climate change for migration revolves around the magnitude and permanence of displacement by environmental factors. As Piguet (2011) reminds us, climate has always played a role in human migration and environmental change, prompting and facilitating the colonisation of the planet by our ancestors. More recently, excessive periods of rain were linked to the Irish potato famine in the mid-19th century and the droughts of the 1930s in the USA are permanently captured in the literature arising from the Dust Bowl experiences. However, the relationship between migration and climate change remains undertheorised and there has been little systematic research on the topic. This is urgently needed.In the coming century, climate change could make many parts of the world less viable places to live, threatening the security and livelihoods of millions of people. Constant and extreme drought could become more frequent and severe in certain regions. Extreme weather would intensify storms and floods, with more rain falling in South Asia and less falling in interior subSaharan Africa by 2050. Agricultural yields in sub-Saharan Africa and Central and South Asia could, as a consequence, fall dramatically. As a result of melting glaciers in South Asia, China and the Andes, flooding would increase during the wet season and water supplies would diminish during the dry season, potentially affecting more than a billion people. Sea-level rise could lead to the significant loss of coastal lowlands by 2050 (these statistics were helpfully summarised in Brown, 2007). Such dramatic changes will inevitably be associated with great increases in migratory pressures, with the pressure rising as climate change and environmental stresses becomes more pronounced. As Goldin, Cameron and Balarajan stress (Goldin et al.,2011), the climate and environmental change will compound the effect of other underlying structural changes which together will lead to much higher levels of migration in the future.


Goldin, I. (2011). The future of global migration and the impact of environmental change. London : Government Office for Science UK.