Climate Action

The Rising Tide of Climate Migration

As spring approaches, the days get longer, the air warms up, and students are more tired than ever. Luckily, spring break is just around the corner, which means many of us will be partying on the beach, visiting beautiful destinations around the world, or just taking a much-needed break from school. 

But before you hop on a plane, think about the ways that climate change is altering our world and the way we travel. If we continue to produce more greenhouse gas emissions, more plastic pollution, and toxic waste, we won’t be able to visit these destinations anymore. But the consequences for some people are far more profound — extreme weather events are already causing millions to flee affected regions. 

For many, it’s just not possible to rebuild homes and recover after natural disasters. Those affected by climate change often relocate their entire families when their homes become uninhabitable and their crops fail. Mexico, for example, is a popular spring break destination for vacationing students. But the country’s geography, as well as its position between two oceans, makes it vulnerable to tropical storms and sea level rise. 

Flooding has already decimated the small town of El Bosque and forced its residents to relocate, but if these worrying weather trends continue, it won’t be the last community to disappear. A staggering 10.5 million people from Mexico and Central America are expected to relocate by 2050 to flee the effects of climate change. 

These “climate refugees” represent a global trend of displacement — since 2008, about 21 million people have been displaced each year as a result of weather-related events. For Kathleen Rogers, the President of EARTHDAY.ORG, it is important to remember that behind every number are real people. “Can you imagine if that was your family, your community, your town?” Rogers questions. “The data is very clear — mass migration driven by climate change is no longer a problem we will face in the distant future, but something we must address right now.”

How do rising temperatures impact people?

When the global temperature increases, it contributes to drought because water evaporates faster at higher temperatures, resulting in dryer soil and wilting plants. Warmer temperatures make already naturally dry conditions even more severe. Droughts often cause famines as crops die off and farmers cannot feed their families nor sell produce. 

Somalia and other countries in East Africa are particularly vulnerable to drought, and as these conditions persist, we are seeing the migration of people out of the region to avoid further famines and disease. As of 2023, drought has displaced an estimated 2.5 million people from Ethiopia and Somalia. 

The lack of moisture in vegetation and the air also creates another issue, as these are the ideal conditions for larger and more intense wildfires that are nearly impossible to put out before they decimate acres of land cover and human settlements. Nepal has recently experienced intense fires that tore through forests and coalesced with existing industrial air pollution to wreak havoc on the health of millions. This small, mostly rural country is expecting 1.3 million people to be forced from their homes by 2050.

Climate change also increases the potential for extremely destructive storms. More evaporation from higher temperatures results in more moisture in the atmosphere, which fuels intense rainfall and stronger storms. Areas like the Caribbean and Southeast Asia are some of the areas most impacted by storms — the Philippines, Indonesia, and India were the top three countries identified by the World Risk Index as most affected by these disasters. 

Sea level rise is threatening coastal settlements across the world. Asian megacities like Bangkok, Manila, and Ho Chi Minh City could be underwater by the end of the century. Coral atolls with very low elevations like the Maldives, Kiribati, and the Marshall Islands are suffering from problems associated with seawater encroachment, like freshwater contamination. A third of the population of the Marshall Islands is estimated to have already migrated, many to the U.S. 

Tens of millions of people displaced by climate change move to other areas within their home country, a process called internal displacement. By the end of 2022, 8.7 million people had been internally displaced as a result of natural disasters. Droughts, famines, wildfires, and storms often exacerbate political, economic and social problems in affected countries, making it even more attractive to move away for those who can afford to do so. 

But what about those who do cross borders? Currently, climate migrants have a difficult time claiming status as refugees under formal international classifications. The UN Refugee Agency has stated that climate refugees may have valid claims for refugee status in the future. Rogers believes “Governments cannot put it off any longer, because this problem is only going to get worse. They must recognize these millions of refugees and grant them protection under international law.”

Climate refugees deserve better global protocol, and far more compassion, to support them when they are forced to relocate. This phenomenon is not going away and will only become more intense if governments around the world continue to collectively ignore the importance of climate change; the world will become increasingly uninhabitable for all of us if we do not take significant steps to curb our emissions to mitigate future climate disasters.