Page last updated at 11:28 GMT, Tuesday, 29 September 2009 12:28 UK

Climate migration fears 'misplaced'

Cecilia Tacoli
Cecilia Tacoli

Fears of millions of "climate refugees" crossing national borders are not supported by evidence on the ground, says Cecilia Tacoli. In this week's Green Room, she says we will fail to protect the world's most vulnerable people if misconceptions about migration continue to shape policies.

Woman and children walking through floodwater (Image: AP)
The poorest and most vulnerable people will often find it impossible to move as they lack the necessary funds and social support to do so

Search the internet for "migration" and "climate change" and you will find repeated warnings of a crisis in the making; of hundreds of millions of people on the move, of countries straining to cope with the pressure on their borders, and of national security under threat.

But these fears are based on many misconceptions about the duration, destination and composition of migrant flows.

There is a real risk that alarmism will divert attention from real problems, resulting in policies that fail to protect the most vulnerable people.

The longer it takes people to realise this, the bigger the true problems will become.

Firstly, the numbers of people likely to be moving have been exaggerated. Secondly, the notion commonly expressed in rich countries - that large numbers of poor people from across the planet will attempt to migrate there permanently - is clearly wrong.

Yes, hundreds of millions of people live in places that are highly vulnerable to climate change.

They face extreme weather conditions such as droughts and floods, or they live in low-lying coastal areas that are threatened by rising sea levels. Their lives and livelihoods are threatened in new and significant ways.

But this does not mean they will all migrate.

The poorest and most vulnerable people will often find it impossible to move, as they lack the necessary funds and social support. Those who can migrate will be more likely to make short-term, short-distance movements than permanent long-term ones.

Overall, long-distance international migration will be the least likely option.

Past lessons

What can we learn from the past? In northern Mali, the drought of 1983-5 affected local migration patterns, with an increase in temporary and short-distance movement and a decrease in long-term, intercontinental movement.

Fishing village, Ghana
Agricultural and fishing livelihoods are at risk from climatic shifts

Similarly, recent research in Burkina Faso suggests that a decrease in rainfall increases temporary rural-rural migration.

On the other hand, migration to urban centres and to other nations, which entails higher costs, is more likely to take place after normal rainfall periods.

It is influenced by migrants' education, the existence of social networks and access to transport and road networks.

In all cases, migrants make substantial contributions to the livelihoods of their relatives and communities, by sending money, information and goods back home.

A surprisingly large proportion of the income of rural people in Africa, Asia and Latin America comes from non-farm activities, and much of it as migrants' remittances.

With climate change making farming more difficult, the need for these resources will increase.

Unfortunately, most governments and international agencies tend to see migration as a problem that needs to be controlled instead of a key part of the solution.

In doing so, they are missing opportunities to develop policies that can increase people's resilience to climate change.

Room for new views

Policymakers must radically alter their views of migration, and see it as a vital adaptation to climate change rather than as an unwanted consequence or a failure to adapt.

Richer countries... need to stop panicking about a mass influx of migrants that is unlikely to happen

This means that poorer nations need to prepare for climate change at home by building up infrastructure and basic services in small towns located in rural areas that could become destination hubs for local migrants.

Options include policies that promote access to non-farm jobs in small rural towns and a more decentralised distribution of economic opportunities.

To do so, they should first of all focus on increasing the capacity of local governments and institutions in small towns to support local economic development, provide basic services and regulate equitable access to natural resources.

Richer countries, meanwhile, need to stop panicking about a mass influx of migrants that is unlikely to happen and instead focus on helping the poorer countries to face climate change.

As the richer countries have emitted most of the greenhouse gases that cause climate change, they have a duty to address the problem.

This means providing poorer nations with financial support to help them adapt to climate change, which can either reduce the need for migration or enable it to proceed in a way that is sound and sustainable.

Family on a horse and cart moving to a new home (Getty Images)
People are most likely to move relatively short distances

It also means taking drastic domestic action to reduce the emissions of greenhouse gases that are causing climate change in the first place.

People are talking about migration as if it were something new, but people have always used their mobility as a means to protect themselves and escape from poverty.

The problem is not that people want to move, but that many of the most vulnerable people do not have the resources or livelihood options that will enable them to do so in a way that maintains their security.

Ironically, the failure to recognise the role of voluntary migration in adapting to climate change contributes to crisis-driven movements that inevitably increase the vulnerability of those forced to leave their homes and assets as they flee conflict and disaster.

It is worth remembering that supporting migrants can ultimately help reduce the numbers of refugees.

Dr Cecilia Tacoli is a senior researcher at the International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED)

This article is based on a research paper published on 28 September in the journal Environment and Urbanization

The Green Room is a series of opinion articles on environmental topics running weekly on the BBC News website

Do you agree with Dr Tacoli? Has the threat of millions of "climate refugees" been exaggerated? Should rich nations be doing more to help poorer nations adapt to future climate change? Are misconceptions about migration leaving the world's most vulnerable people unprotected?

When their relentlessly increasing population have eaten and burnt everything in sight, the people will migrate. They will go as far as they can. Otherwise they will die. Malthus was right.
John Lilley, Watford UK

"While human activity has speeded up Global cyclic weather patterns, there is no conclusive proof that Climate Change is solely a man made phenomena." Strawman, Paul. Nobody is saying it's solely a man made problem. But most of the problem is man made and we can at least change THAT part. "on this planet are 99% caused by the corruption of despotic leaders and the idiotic policies of leftist regimes." Ah, so Pinochet and other right-wing regimes that oversaw massive poverty (except amongst his cronies) didn't exist? False RWingnut conspiracy theory: anything "liberal" or "left wing" ***must**** be a priori evil. Get a life.
Mark, Exeter, UK

Dealing this with in current policy requires incomprehensible change with no apparent need or deadline, based on science, mass population habits and observations measured in seconds on the earths clock so far. Stands to reason wont persaude the emerging or developed nations, or the voter, if it means real cut backs In the tradition of the 1800s social geographers, I trust neccessity and individual ingenuinty, not governments, will be the mother of invention. It wont happen any other way.
am, sussex

problem being there are at least 2billion people too many on the planet,this used to be an issue but seems to have been brushed under the carpet
ron donnachie, cumnock ayrshire scotland

You may be right. However, these migration models are predicated on extreme, worst case scenarios. Your examples from history may prove completely irrelevant in he face of what is to come... Then what?
Eric Lorge, Lille, France

If only the rich overconsumers would migrate to another planet, and take all their filthy global warming habits with them, then the poor will do just fine.
daniel, Victoria BC Canada

The problem isn't just about bad harvests and short-term migration; it's about permanent loss of enormous amounts of food-producing farming and grazing land as sea levels rise and rain patterns shift. We're facing multiple, long-term, apparently irreversible crisis of permanent relocation of poor, weak populations whose members' skills are mainly those of subsistence agriculture. Where are they going to find new land to farm? Who is going to teach them -- computer skills? Nursing? I think that's the kind of question that has scientists and political leaders worried, not a variation on familiar seasonal shifts back and forth.
Suzy Charnas, Albuquerque NM USA

Yes, rich countries will be affected too, but not as much as poor countries will be. Because climate change will first affect those who survive on farming activities and who are not able to shift their lifestyle into non-farming activities. Rich countries can afford adaptation programs and livelihood of the most of their citizens are not dependent on agriculture or farming.
Uurtsaikh Sangi, Arlington, VA, US

Daft! Existing habits indicate the refugees will not move to other countries, but we haven't had the 'big' climate events yet so there is nothing to base this so called research on. What does he expect the Pacific islanders to do? What about Bangla-Desh and nearer to home, The Netherlands. Of course people will move when the alternative is drowning or starvation. Has this man not heard of existing economic refugees? "The Jungle" in Calais has just been cleared, why does he think immigration to Europe has reached millions each year? What about the massive refugee camps in Pakistan that are filled with displaced Afghans. His whole premise does not hold water!
Simon Mallett, Maidstone Kent

I wish I could share her optimism, but due to the deficient courage of civil administration and pathetic lack of individual responsibility, the population crisis that we are about to face is going to impact us all, no matter where we live or how wealthy we are. It's a terrible moment when you look at the big picture and wonder what's going to come first- mass starvation on a scale that dwarfs current crisis, unfettered epidemics that simply obliterate entire populations (how ironic that it's now the best thing that could happen to the planet!) or wars that obliterate the very resources that they're contesting. And all that's coming, no matter what the climate do or does not do.
Kelly, Dunedin, New Zealand

I am glad to see people well informed. This Dr. must be payd for the goverment. Don't do anything don't protest, don't ask, don't strike, don't demonstrate. The Point is that China and India will have 50% flooded. Maybe in 5 years. And they are poor? or we are giving them our money? We all are going to obtain what we deserve...The goverments will have to be very creative to solve this problem.

Poverty and hunger, (and I mean serious hunger and poverty as experienced in 3d world countries, not the so-called poverty of western countries) on this planet are 99% caused by the corruption of despotic leaders and the idiotic policies of leftist regimes. There is more than enough room and resources on this planet that, with ingenuity and correct ethics, can sustain a population far greater than what we now have. All of the intellectual blabber about this theory or that theory in regards to climate change, food shortages, and overpopulation is overlooking the obvious.
Michael Granger, Colorado, USA

I personally feel consumerism and urbanisation is the major culprit in climate change. With a consumerist society and rising middle class in India and China, we are expleting the world's resources and spewing more polution. Increasing migration towards cities inadvertantly result in greater crowding, pollution and labour for industries churning out goods to feed a consumerist mindset
David Ng, Singapore

So if we follow this train of thought, if the drought continues in Kenya fewer people will move to areas where there is, or is believed to be, water. Sorry, people have always followed the weather to grow better crops, improve their standards of living etc. The continuing migration to cities to find 'the streets paved with gold' (or water) continues to this day and as climate change impacts on more and more people's lives then of course this will continue. As others have pointed out population growth and conflict will only escalate this problem.
David Crosweller, Bath, UK

It is my considered opinion that Dr Stephen Quilley,of shrewsbury is closer to reality than the author of this paper. I have a personal friend who has long lived here in NZ who is the senior member of an extended family, the sole occupants on Palmerston Island in the Cook Islands group.As described by the author, for many years he has provided finacially for those still on the Island. But soon that Island will be under water and there will be no adaption, they will have to move. The logical destination will be here or Australia. There are thousands more just like them in the Pacific. When that day arrives, then what? Where exactly will they go? Rural or Urban? These people are used to working on the land but in Rural NZ today, most of the work has become highly mechanised so there's no work there for the. The cities are already congested and in these areas the call is for skilled workers. If (when) the day arrives that the land, no matter where it be on this planet, is under water, the only option for people living there will be to move. I do not think it feasible to "adapt" by doing a "Holland" and building defences around every inch of at risk coastline no matter how much "rich nations" pour funds into "poor" nations. Which brings me to a point that is really starting to "push my buttons" (and I suspect many other peoples). What exactly do you mean by "rich nation/poor nation"? Here in NZ, there are some "very" rich people. Actually. in India there are many people much richer than our "very rich" people! There are no "rich" nations or "poor" nations, there are "rich" people and "poor" people and even the terms rich and poor are relative. So it's not that simple I could elaborate much more but enough said for now. Just one final, brief comment! A former colleague of mine used to say, quote," The only thing we learn from history is that we learn nothing from history!" I wonder where that quote originated! Thanks for your time.
Mike Perkins, Whangarei, New Zealand

I didn't think I'd be back so soon! If you have read the news re the Tsunami in the South Pacific and the devastation already reported you will have an idea just how destructive the sea can be. So this was a Tsunami and I am in no way suggesting that it has anything to do with "global warming" but increased sea levels, coupled with a severe storm will have even greater destructive powers and more homes and land will be destroyed as the storm will last much longer than the Tsunami. Many Samoans living here in NZ have relatives back home in Samoa. Some have lost their relatives in this incident.How about we do some very simple, face to face research and ask them if they believe the reports referred to in this paper are "exaggerated"! They are witnessing the consequences of this type of event first hand and are already making plans. There are already reports of people waiting at the airport in Apia to get out.Some apparently are still in their nightwear. Where do you think they are headed for?
Mike Perkins, Whangarei, New Zealand

One mistake probably we are doing is forgetting that change is happening rapidly than expected. We are only considering economic means to combat climate change, rather than following more simpler means. There are very straight means for combating climate change in my view: 1) Halt any economic activities that challenge our survival. No economic agenda is important than our survival. We should dare to at least say so; 2) Simplify our lifestyle, just take basic required things from nature, do not exploit the reserves meant for future generation; 3) Make population control major agenda, as world is already overpopulated. Earth cannot support more population anymore; 4) Policymakers should stop recommending unsustainable means of combating climate change. Diplomatic means (such as cut CO2 by 5%,10%, 50% by 20, 30, or 100 years) of cutting CO2 emission are useless now or just thinking that supplying millions of dollars to adapt climate change will work, it is meaning less, just like pouring water in sand. 5) Humans are intelligent of the animal kingdom, by changing their thought and vision a change can be made. As religious knowledge (in Bible, Koran, Vedas, Buddhism) has a lot of solutions to change our thinking, controlling our desires, and showing right direction. We should seek help of religion to simplify our lives, and to show compassion to living beings; Forget about long term solution, just think for a decade plan, for me our future in 5-10 years time is not clear; If somebody can predict future of earth in coming 10 years time should get Novel prize.
Binaya, Kyoto, Japan

It is time that we stop blaming the West for Climate Change. While human activity has speeded up Global cyclic weather patterns, there is no conclusive proof that Climate Change is solely a man made phenomena. How many billionaires and millionaires in developing countries' have accumulated their wealth at the expense of ecology and humanity (often with western partners)? The majority of poor people in the world are poor because of the lack of constructive empathy from the rich within their own countries. Good examples are India and the Philippines; in both cultures, exploitation of the poor is the social norm. Is it not time that the rich Indian helped the poor Indian, the rich Filipino, helped his own poor, and so on for each country. Instead, when there is a problem these countries stick out the begging bowl and expect it to be filled with International Aid. Corrupt government and NGO officials mostly siphon off this aid and very little gets to where it is needed. It is the moral obligation of Western governments to stop the 'Aid' charade and to first spend their tax revenues upon the long-term solutions for the problems. Climate Change is bringing to their own countries.
Paul Rhodes, Manila Philippines

In the middle of New York harbor is a statue which says give us your tired, your hungry, your huddled masses on it. If we in the US truly are who we say we are we as citizens should welcome refugees and seek ways to protect those things which support the common good. Not only that but we should do it with bravery, courage and an open heart. It's hard to believe those who would deny health care or have the guts to back doing what's needed to procure right of ways for public transport let alone stop watching TV long enough to talk to their neighbor have what it takes to restore our nation but I think fear will take a back seat to necessity. It's critical to keep hope alive and do what's necessary not just to stop global warming but to reverse a lot of other trends which seem to be happening.
Dale Lanan, Longmont, Colorado, USA

The views looking so far ahead are just speculation however many models are used and many experts continue to be exposed when their scenario doesn't play out. The simple answer is population control. This is not what experts want to hear however & politicians the world over won't follow this thread as it puts them out of power. It will come though, but maybe not for many years, long after myself & many experts have departed this life.
Cant-make-it-up, Chepstow & Doha

I'm not sure I understand the article correctly. Is she saying that there's no need to worry about large scale migration because all the poor will conveniently die in situ?
Jan Deventer, Manchester

The need for migration could be somewhat alleviated by controlling population growth. All resources are finite and their 'sustainable' use can only be achieved if the population level is sustainable. The developed world does have a moral obligation to assist the developing world, but it will come to nothing if the global population continues to grow without restraint, regardless of country or degree of development.
Ironspider, Airstrip One

Indeed, where will any of us run to ?
Steven Walker, Penzance

Dr. Tacoli's thesis that environmental changes (Climate induced or other)will not precipitate mass migrations across national borders is sound. Neighbouring nations in affected regions will in all likelyhood be suffering similar or related problems and they will not allow influxes of foreign immigrants to aggravate their own problems. In addition, Dr. Tascali's key point that the poorest are the least able to travel long distances is sound. However, the problem will arise from profound sociological stresses within the nations affected and the tensions which will inevitably arise both within the nations and regionally as governments struggle to address civil strife and insurmountable infrastructure problems. Regional instability will translate into international tensions (as it always has). Look for water shortages in the Southern third of India and regions of China (the two nations presently leading the world's economic recovery)in the next 10-15 years to bring this process to the Western world's attention. The implimentation of sustainable ressource management at local and regional levels, however improbable and challenging, remains the only longterm viable solution; in other words education.
Michael Southam, Geneva Switzerland

The good doctor seems to living in a fantasy world. We have population growing without restraint...and an environment that is degrading on a daily basis. Fisheries are crashing, desertification is growing, most cities in the world are inundated with poor living in slums...and just how does she think this is going to be solved? By being 'nice'? Look, I wish it wasn't so, but the future looks pretty grim from where I'm sitting, and I'm in a fairly rich country with a fairly decent government. I can't see how the Four Horseman can be avoided. Too bad I'm an atheist or I'd end with a prayer.
Richard Posner, Canby Oregon USA

And quite how does rising sea level put fishing at risk!!! perhaps the fish will drown...
Jb, UK

90% of China's population lives in a "coastal belt" that makes up just 10% of its land area. The whole world could move to China,and there would be room for more. A similar analysis of the USA and North America would show that there is no shortage of space even if creeping migration were to be replaced by galloping migration...the question is whether the world will do it grudgingly (and thereby ensure considerable bloodshed) or willingly (peacfully and profitably). There are more Irish, Poles and Armenians living in the USA than there are in Eireland, Poland and why shouldnt Ethiopeans and Kenyans have the same "God-given" right to migrate? We have forced countries to allow international capital to move and migrate freely...let us now extend that logic to labour too. We know that more people will create more jobs, and the quality of life will improve. By concentrating more people in fewer places, we could leave more spaces for growing food and for recreation..and thereby extend life on Earth.
Babar Mumtaz, Erbil, Iraq

I think that it's correct that migration will be local and short-term, *initially*. But the scale of what may be coming down on us is such that there may be many stages of migration, and we would do well to consider the overall effects. Rather than lecturing richer nations on some moral obligation, it might be more productive to think a bit and envision some ways that such cross-border migration as *does* occur can be turned to the receiving nation's benefit without unfairly exploiting the migrants. It would also help to consider that receiving nations need for immigrants to follow their rules. We'd like to know who our new neighbors are, and that they understand who we are. We'd like to be able to manage our national resources effectively, and we can't do that without a bit of information and cooperation. And there's a great emotional distance between immigration and (real or perceived) colonization.
Mark, Indianapolis, IN, US

I like this article. A real picture have been focussed in this article. We should think that we are living in a same large room.
Engr Salam, Kushtia,Bangladesh

I am afraid I don't think this threat has been exaggerated. It just depends on your time horizons. Just because you don't like something, doesn't make it go away. The West certainly has a strong moral obligation and a self-interest in doing far more to promote development and stability in the global south. But there is a Malthusian reality here that is being denied because it is unpalatable. There ARE limits to growth. We are reaching them. The West has reaped most of the advantages of growth. And at first the global south will suffer the consequences. But fear not one way or another our chickens will come home...Unless the West is able to show extraordinary political foresight collective strength of will, we won't need to go to hell for crimes against humanity or Gaia. Hell will come to us. Unfortunately it will come to Somalia, Bangladesh and the pacific islands first...more or less guaranteeing that we fail this greatest test of our political institutions.
Dr Stephen Quilley, shrewsbury

Is very interesting to know different perspectives about this problem, but reading this article gives me the impression that climate change would only affect poor countryes. This is a global threat, and rich countryes will be affected too, the only thing we don't know is how much. And when the time comes we'll see which ones are the priorities of our governments.
JP, Fairfax, US

While governments and economists can only say that growth is good, we will continue on a path of overpopulation. If a country cannot sustain itself through drought or other natural phenomenon, then there are just too many people living there. Migration only is a short term solution. It dosn't address the fact that there are too many babies in impoverished areas with little future on a road of growth.
Joe Blow, Quanzhou China

Ms. Tacoli's contentions are only partially correct, but at the same time fraught with poor judgement. It is true that large scale migration from most vulnerable (also poor) countries to developed West/North is unlikely, but her contentions that climate refugees will migrate short distance (intra-country migration) is both premised on wrong assumptions, multiplier effects and misses important ethical issues. For instance, where do Maldivians or Tuvaluans go as their islands homes are likely to go under in 50-100 years even with some GHG emission control in place. Where do millions of Bangladeshi coastal inhabitants move when their habitats become inundated or become too saline to support a living? As it is Bangladesh is overcrowded beyond sustainability. Where will African pastoralists move when Africa become even drier? There will be some even igf limited international migration and important multiplier/ripple effects of this migration that may further exacerbate international migration. However, most important point is the ethical dimension. Do the polluters have any right to make millions homeless and climate refugees. Unfortunately Ms. Tacoli just ignores this.
Zahir Sadeque, New York and USA

Let me see: we shouldn't worry about these people because most are too poor to move anyway? Machiavelli is alive and well.
Lorene Dykstra, Ventura, IA, USA

Of course, there is a correlation between climate change and migration but the most important correlation that Dr.Cecilia Tacoli has missed is the correlation between the growth of population and the migration. The land of a farmer gets divided in many pieces when it transfers to his offspring. This process goes on for generation to generation till the size of the piece becomes very small and of no substantial use. These people can fight the climate change and poverty better if they keep the size of their family very small. Dr.Tacoli is absolutely correct that non farm jobs may be of great help in a decentralized economy. Localized green jobs may be designed for these people. The growing urbanization is occupying agriculture and forest lands very rapidly. It is pushing agricultural lands towards forest. A proper urban-rural balance is quite necessary to check the 'forced and unnecessary migration'.
Sanjay Singh Thakur, Indore,India

Dr. Tacoli asks "What can we learn from the past?" Very little -- because we will not have faced a similar situation at any time in our history. That's the part of this equation that Dr. Tacoli does not seem to get. Think magnitude, scale, momentum, reality. The three-year drought she cites is a world away from where the world will be in 2050.
Melty, West Orange, NJ, US

Though I support Dr. Tacoli's thesis, I need to point out the huge elephant in the room of her argument-- war. War is another major migratory-pattern creator. There is little likelihood of 'climate refugees' invading Canada or the US, but armed gangs, militias, 'people's armies' and such are more than likely to invade their neighbours. The kind of violence we witnessed in Rwanda could become a norm in this century, Given how powerful and profitable the international arms trade is, I despair for the future stability of those parts of the world most affected by global heating.
Joe Gibson, Victoria, BC, Canada

According Albert Schweitzer: Ethics cannot be based upon our obligations toward [people], but they are complete and natural only when we feel this Reverence for Life and the desire to have compassion for and to help all creatures insofar as it is in our power. I think that this ethic will become more and more recognized because of its great naturalness and because it is the foundation of a true humanism toward which we must strive if our culture is to become truly ethical." Country with stronger economie should no doubt help countrries that is struggling at moment. Donating money will not solve the problems. create job within those countries with miserable economie. I like the article i think it about time we help struggling countries without benefit.
Konimba, Mali, USA

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