Recent suggestions by Roderic O’Gorman, the Minister responsible for integration, that the asylum system will have to be expanded to include a new category for people fleeing the effects of climate change produced a mixed reaction. It drew both criticism and support from across the political spectrum but there was general agreement that – in the words of TD Christopher O’Sullivan – “astronomical” numbers will have to leave their homes because of climate change
The idea that that there will be large-scale international climate-related migration is a popular one but it is a flawed one, as prominent migration scholars such as Hein de Haas and Stephen Castles have pointed out. With anti-immigrant sentiment finding fertile ground in popular anger at government failures, it is important to base these conversations in fact.
The usual argument linking climate change and migration is this: the sea will rise or such and such a place will become uninhabitable (for example, through desertification), and then everyone who previously lived in those places will flee and come as refugees to Europe or another traditional destination country. This leads to predictions of massive numbers of ‘environmental refugees’ which are based on a headcount of people who live in areas likely to be affected by climate change, according to Castles.
The first flaw in the argument is the link between climate and international migration. When we examine how people actually react to changing climates, we find that climate-related disasters (floods, wildfires, desertification) overwhelmingly lead to internal migration, rather than international migration. Where the disaster is temporary, the migration is usually also temporary. The barriers to international migration are significant, and climate change usually affects only one area of a country, meaning that internal migration is possible and usually preferred – most people don’t want to migrate internationally.
While this can cause significant challenges for governments of these countries, as well as significant human suffering, and can even lead indirectly to conflict when it intersects with underlying tensions around land, ethnicity and governance, it means that it is highly unlikely to lead to the kind of large-scale international migration that is often predicted.
The second flaw in the argument is the link between a natural phenomenon and people being displaced from their homes. This assumes that the government or people in question will do absolutely nothing about the change. For example, a recent article predicted that the entire population of the Netherlands would be forced to move as a result of rising sea levels. Of course this is highly unlikely, as the Dutch have the most sophisticated water-management system in the world to keep the sea at bay from a country 26 per cent of which is below sea level. In fact, the Netherlands preparations are based on the being ready for the worst storm in 10,000 years.
This shows the logical problem with the argument that a natural phenomenon equals mass displacement: people adapt, and governments can ensure that climate change does not mean that people are permanently forced out of their homes or their country. This is particularly true because many aspects of climate change are slow-onset, meaning that there is time to adapt. The government of Fiji moving villages to higher land while investing in sea walls is a good example, as are irrigation programmes for areas affected by drought, strengthening storm defences, or building and improving water-management systems.
The crucial issue, therefore, is how well governments react to disasters. We would all prefer that nobody had to make these adaptations, and this adaptation cannot excuse not taking action to tackle the root causes of climate changes. But the fact that we can adapt and that many governments are doing so disrupts this direct causal link between climate change and migration.
As a result of these simplistic understandings of migration, past predictions of mass climate-induced migration have not been borne out and have often been quietly retracted, with some embarrassment. This does significant damage to the reputation of legitimate climate science.
One example of this was the United Nations Environment Programme’s prediction in 2005 that 50 million people would become environmental refugees by 2010. However, when these numbers didn’t materialise, the UN removed the prediction from its website and distanced itself from the prediction with much embarrassment. Instead of mass displacement from these places, there was evidence that the population had actually increased in the areas identified.
In addition to factual inaccuracies, the focus on migration takes away from the fact that the most vulnerable people to climate change will be those who cannot move – because they can’t afford to, because they don’t want to or because countries have made it increasingly difficult to do so. Preventing this should be where we focus.
Climate change is a complex issue and so is migration. Drawing simplistic links between them benefits nobody. Migration resulting from climate will likely be a result of several factors such as land-management policies, ethnic conflicts and how governments handle crises – in short, it will not be inevitable. Supporting countries to become more resilient to these changes will be crucial to prevent human suffering.
It is particularly irresponsible to raise this spectre at the moment in Ireland, with so much fear and and so many false narratives currently circulating. As self-interested actors exploit people’s worry and uncertainty about housing, the cost of living and the inadequacy of basic services, it is the responsibility of all of us not to feed the flames with speculation that is not based in fact.
Keire Murphy is policy officer at the European Migration Network in the Economic and Social Research Institute