What the New IPCC Report Says About Climate Migration

In case you’ve been living in a cave under the Empire State Building for the last decade (as a flight attendant I flew with recently quipped about the art of seatbelt fastening), you’ve probably heard about the new Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Report.

The primary claim? Even 1.5 degrees Celsius of warming will require profound changes to the way we humans live. The other big takeaway is that the difference between just .5 degrees Celsius of warming is profound.

I am surprised that everyone is so surprised.

In a world that’s just one degree Celsius warmer, we’re already seeing people desert their island homes, coasts endure¬†unprecedented storms, and conflicts erupt over drought. Way back in 2009, the president of the Maldives fought to cut global emissions calling even two degrees Celsius of warming “suicide” for island nations like his own. While the science is not necessarily new, the level of confidence and consensus from a conservative body (the IPCC) raises the stakes.

I wondered immediately what this new report had to say about migration caused by climate change. The term “migration” makes dozens of appearances throughout the report. The IPCC says that farmers are moving due to climate change and people are retreating inland or leaving islands due to rising seas.

The IPCC is cautious in binding climate change with violence, but it does conjure up some key evidence. We know, for example, that a one-degree-Celsius temperature increase (which we’ve already sustained) and more intense rain increases conflict by 14%. And since violence can also lead to migration, the assumption is that we’re looking at even more people moving directly or indirectly as a result of climate change.¬†

environmental migration
Credit: Gallup, 2011

Commendably, the IPCC treats migration as a way of adapting to climate change. This is not to be overlooked. At a time when migration is often discussed in negative terms, we need to remember that if your environment can no longer provide you sufficient water, food, a habitable, reasonably safe climate, and a livelihood, your choice is often between moving or, frankly, death, which is not a choice at all.

The report says that migration, in fact, is already used as a way to “protect livelihoods” from climate impacts. The IPCC argues that when people are unable to migrate in order to adapt, “adverse” outcomes arise. This reminds me of the concept of “trapped populations” that researcher Basundhara Tripathy of Bangladesh shared with me. In rural areas of Bangladesh, men move away to the city for work, while the women are left behind, fearing the lack of social protections available in an unfamiliar urban environment.

The IPCC does caution that it’s not sure (read: medium evidence, low agreement) whether migration actually makes sense from a financial standpoint. In other words, the migrant often finds herself or himself low on the socioeconomic totem pole at their destination. Furthermore, they may not even be able to reach their destination due to “low political and legal acceptability.” Could they be head-nodding toward Europe’s barbed wire fences and xenophobia? Or Trump’s continuous political and verbal attacks on immigrants and refugees alike?

Ultimately, while the IPCC makes numerous references to how climate change will spawn migration, it concludes that its understanding of the connections between climate change and migration are “limited.” In other words, it’s complicated and we need more research. This is no surprise, given how difficult it can be to determine migration motivations (when they’re often manifold and complicated) and track migration pathways, when many of them are often forged illegally.