Climate Migration Will Be Like Nothing We’ve Ever Seen Before

by Valentina Stackl

August 23, 2019

A man floats his possessions down a flooded street in Bangbuathong area, Nonthaburi province, on the northern outskirts of Bangkok. In 2011, Thailand had the worst flooding in five decades, which killed hundreds of people and affected millions more who have had to flee their homes.

A man floats his possessions down a flooded street in Bangbuathong area, Nonthaburi province, on the northern outskirts of Bangkok. In 2011, Thailand had the worst flooding in five decades, which killed hundreds of people and affected millions more who have had to flee their homes.

© Greenpeace / Sataporn Thongma

Colonization. The free market. Violent religious and political ideology. War. Famine. Since the beginning of time, huge forces have caused upheaval, displacements, and migration. As political waves ebb and flow, so do migration patterns. Climate change isn’t like that. There won’t be an ebb and flow. It will be like all of the worst things rolled into one. And worse. Our habitable planet, and the resources we need to survive, will continue to shrink, pushing more and more people into the increasingly smaller areas that will still be able to support life. Unless we drastically change the course we are on, we will have to figure out how to survive on a dying planet. And it won’t be pretty.

Since the beginning of our time on earth, we have expanded. Our population has grown. We have settled (voluntarily and involuntarily) in all corners of the earth, from island nations to mountaintops. But what used to feel like virtually unlimited places to explore and live has started to shrink. And as livable land decreases, people are forced to move sometimes those moves will be sudden, due to storms or other natural disasters, but mostly, they will be slower. One example are the communities in Bangladesh who are increasingly affected by the daily tidal flow, forcing them to migrate away from the coasts. But eventually, massive amounts of people, especially those living in coastal regions and in the global south will have to migrate to survive. 

Almost 30 years ago, in 1990, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) wrote that the greatest impact of climate change could be on human migration. Millions of people would be displaced by erosion of our shores, flooding of our coastal cities, and disruptions to our food systems. Now, forecasts of the number of environmental migrants range from 25 million to 1 billion by 2050, with 200 million being the most widely cited estimate.

Climate change is already impacting the lives of millions of people around the world. And it won’t get better, unless we act now. 

For example, nine out of the ten hottest heat waves ever have been recorded since 2000. If temperature rise by 2 degrees, one quarter of our planet will experience desertification. More and more people will have to relocate to simply get water. 

Climate chaos, the repercussions of shrinking arable land, and decreasing availability of habitable land comes with dire problems: the powerful want access the shrinking resources and will try to control them at any cost. We can already see violence, war, and oppression connected to regions suffering the consequences of climate change. 

Take the more recent waves of migrants seeking asylum from Central America. Their reasoning for seeking asylum ranges from political instability and unemployment to repression and impending violence — but one thread that connects many of these narratives that has not received much attention is the decreasing viability of land due to climate change-induced droughts.

Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador, the countries that make up the majority of asylum seekers, are at the heart of the “Dry Corridor” where communities have experienced ongoing droughts that have devastated their agricultural production and roused the need to migrate. These drought-prone areas have only gotten worse as a result of the changing climate. Guatemala, in particular, being listed as one of the countries most vulnerable to climate change. These countries also rank as some of the most dangerous in the world.

The clock is ticking. If we don’t make a collective push to address climate change now, the increased frequency of climate migrations and conflicts will be the new face of our everyday lives. 

How we respond now will be the litmus test of our collective commitment to freedom from violence, care for our planet, and the value of a human life. If societies are judged by how they treat the most vulnerable in this world, then more than ever those are the things that must be our driving force.

Valentina Stackl

By Valentina Stackl

Valentina Stackl is a multi-lingual and multi-cultural communications specialist and storyteller. As Senior Communications Officer, Valentina works on Democracy (including criminalization of protest) and Climate for media, storytelling, and other communications projects.

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