In Search of Shelter: Mapping the Effects of Climate Change on Human Migration and Displacement

In Search of Shelter: Mapping the Effects of Climate Change on Human Migration and Displacement

Publication info


Governments and other stakeholders are meeting in Bonn, Germany, from June 1-12, 2009 to decide what issues to include in the world's next climate change agreement which may be settled as early as December in Copenhagen. This is the kind of detailed technical meeting that frequently gets overlooked but where, in reality, immensely important decisions get made – including whether or not to recognize the needs of people displaced by climate change.  

Therefore, CARE has released a new report to help policy makers understand climate-related migration and displacement. With better understanding, policymakers can put crucial policies in place to support the rights of people on the move. The report's key messages include:

  • The negative impacts of climate change are already causing migration and displacement. The exact number of people that will be on the move by mid-century is uncertain. However, the scope and scale could vastly exceed anything that has occurred before. The International Organisation of Migration (IOM) estimates that there may be 200 million environmentally-induced migrants by 2050.
  • People in the least developed countries and island states will be affected first and worst. The consequences for the global economy and poverty reduction efforts could be devastating. There may also be substantial implications for political stability.
  • For example: Glacier melt will affect major agricultural systems in Asia. As the storage capacity of glaciers declines, short term flood risks increase. This will be followed by decreasing water flows in the medium- and long-term. Both consequences of glacier melt threaten food production in some of the world's most densely populated regions.
  • For example: The Mekong river delta in Southern Vietnam was home to 28.5 million people in 2000. A two meter sea level rise would flood the homes of 14.2 million and put half of the region's three million hectares of agricultural land under water.
  • For example: Mexico and the Central American countries are already experiencing the negative impacts of climate change – both in terms of less rainfall and more extreme weather, such as hurricanes and floods. Rainfall in some areas is expected to decline by as much as 50 per cent by 2080, rendering many local livelihoods unviable and dramatically raising the risk of chronic hunger.
  • Most people will seek shelter in their own countries while others cross borders. Gendered roles, as well as cultural prescriptions and prohibitions, can make it impossible for women and female headed-households to migrate in response to environmental change – even when necessary for their survival.
  • From a humanitarian perspective, it is so critical for us to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to safe levels. The international community has until the next Conference of Parties to the UNFCCC, which will be held in Copenhagen this December, to agree on the right way forward. If this deadline isn't met, we will almost surely shoot past any safe emissions scenario and commit future generations to a much more dangerous world.
  • We also have to invest in building people's resilience to the impacts of climate change so that fewer are forced to migrate. This can include, for example: building water-wise irrigation systems; supporting income diversification, and actions to reduce the risk of humanitarian disasters.  
  • Climate-related migration and displacement can be successfully addressed only if they are seen as global processes rather than local crises. Industrial countries and most affected states must share responsibility for assisting and protecting displaced populations.

About the report:

  • The intention of the report is to present plausible future developments that provide decisionmakers a basis for focusing their discussions on the role of human mobility in adaptation. Until recently, climate change research and negotiations have focused on the imperative of reducing greenhouse gas emissions. It is clear now that emission reduction efforts have been too little, too late. Therefore, the challenges and complex politics of adaptation have joined the policy debate along those of mitigation. Since migration is one option of adaptation, it is crucial for the international community to improve our understanding of how environmental change affects human mobility. This report explores how environmental shocks and stresses can push people to leave their homes.
  • The report provides empirical evidence from a first time, multi-continent survey of environmental change and migration. Original maps illustrate how and where the impacts of climate change may prompt significant displacement. Policy recommendations reflect the collective thinking of key multilateral and research institutions as well as non-governmental organizations.
  • The report was written by CARE, the U.N. University's Institute for Environment and Human Security (UNU-EHS) and Columbia University's Center for International Earth Science Information Network (CIESIN). It was funded by the U.N. Refugee Agency (UNHCR) and the World Bank, Social Dimension of Climate Change Team.