It’s no secret that the impacts of climate change have been a driving force behind migration. As droughts, heatwaves, floods, and other climate change consequences continue to increase in severity and frequency, many climate-vulnerable communities around the globe are seeking out safer and more hospitable environments. The discussion of climate vulnerability has also made its way to the United States, where we’ve seen fires ravage the West Coast causing mass evacuations and leading some to leave the area permanently, hurricanes cause billions of dollars in damage, and winter storm Uri devastate the infrastructure in Texas with its unprecedented freezing temperatures.
What exactly is climate/environmental migration?
According to the International Organization for Migration, “environmental migration can take many complex forms: forced and voluntary, temporary and permanent, internal and international, individual and collective, of proximity and of long distance,” all in response to environmental drivers. The most common type is internal migration that happens within the country of origin, often stemming from natural disasters such as drought and flooding. In 2019 alone, natural disasters displaced 25 million people. It’s important to note that population displacement also occurs from an array of factors like poverty, resource scarcity, environmental degradation, and conflict.
The Ecological Threat Register of 2020 estimates that approximately 1.2 billion people are at risk of displacement by 2050 due to ecological threats. Moreover, the communities that will bear the brunt of environmental displacement will be in sub-Saharan Africa, Latin America, and South Asia—world regions that experience more ecological threats and have a lower capacity to bounce back from the environmental and economic stress than wealthier regions.
Environmental migration will only become more frequent in the coming years, but there are steps we can take to slow climate change and prevent the drivers that force people to leave their homes. The first thing we can do as residents of the United States is acknowledge our nation’s role in emitting more CO2 than any other country to date. Of course, addressing climate change is the responsibility of all of us sharing this planet, but it is important to apportion that responsibility appropriately to make sure high emitting nations are doing their part to slow global warming. Rejoining the Paris Agreement was a welcome move by President Biden toward assuming responsibility and committing to reducing U.S. emissions. And just a few weeks after rejoining the Paris Agreement, President Biden took a step toward addressing climate migration in an Executive Order that directs federal agencies to provide him with a “report on climate change and its impact on migration, including forced migration, internal displacement, and planned relocation.”
Leaving behind one’s home is never an easy decision. We all deserve to live in environments that are safe and sustainable.