Climate Change Will Create 200 Million Migrants By 2050

BY Georgina Ustik

People wearing colourful clothes carrying buckets to fill with water.


While awareness of the climate refugee crisis is growing, the effects of climate change are quickly becoming more severe, and many criticise the international community and governments for not doing enough.

A less talked about aspect of climate change is the effect rising temperatures and sea levels will have on the global refugee crisis. Since 2010, 21.5 million people have been displaced by climate change, and more than 200 million people globally are estimated to be displaced by 2050. 3 billion people could live in unlivable heat conditions by 2070, and some sources put these estimates at much higher numbers.

So how exactly does climate change make the refugee crisis worse? Who is most affected, and what can we do to address it?


What’s the connection between the climate and refugees?

A climate refugee, or environmental migrant, is someone forced to flee over weather events, such as natural disasters, rising sea levels, desertification, land degradation or droughts.

But there are international protections for refugees, right? Climate refugees are often referred to as “forgotten victims of climate change”, because official data is virtually nonexistent, and there isn’t a clear definition or institution dedicated to address the problem. Climate change refugees are also not protected by the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, which protects refugees with fear of persecution on racial, religious or other grounds.

There are some protections — in 2018, the UN adopted the global compact on safe, orderly and regular migration, which says migrants forced to leave their countries due to environmental degradation must be given protection by governments in the countries of their arrival. This means they should help with planned relocation and visa options if it’s not possible people can return to their home countries.

But there are many forced migrants who do not fit the definition of 'refugee', the human rights legal system is inadequate and many climate refugees are still deported or repatriated illegally.

While awareness of the climate refugee crisis is growing, the effects of climate change are growing more severe quicker, and many criticise the international community and governments for not doing enough.

Climate Change in Panama climate change will create 200 million migrants by 2050
Climate Change in Panama climate change will create 200 million migrants by 2050

Who’s most affected?

To put it bluntly, the people most at risk for becoming a climate refugee are the world’s poorest populations, those who face oppression, including women, and those in conflict-affected regions. Because of racial wealth gaps and colonialism, this means people of colour are by far the most affected globally.

3 out of 4 people in poverty globally rely on agriculture to survive, something which is becoming increasingly hard to maintain due to rising temperatures and natural disasters. Increasingly occurring hurricanes, wildfires and droughts drive people from their homes, and jeopardise crops, livestock and water sources with drought.

Countries like Haiti and Timor-Leste, which are considered amongst the world’s poorest, are geographically placed alongside earthquake fault lines and surrounded by water, making them not only vulnerable, but also without the financial resources to cope.

In Niger, the ‘hunger gap’ is the dry season in between when food stores have been consumed and the next harvest is ready; climate change has increased this period, meaning families must go without food for longer.

And this trickles down to create further inequalities within communities; Angela Baschieri, population dynamics policy adviser for UNFPA, says global warming disproportionately affects women: “The reality is that when intense rains fall more frequently causing floods, or spells of drought last several years causing food insecurity, or landslides, hurricanes or cyclones hit threatening lives, livelihoods and natural resources, those with the fewest resources are most susceptible to the negative effects – particularly women, the majority of the world’s poor.”

Women still have unequal access to finances, land ownership education and reproductive healthcare globally. This means they’re more susceptible to gender-based violence; as climate change limits access to food and access, women have to walk farther distances, making them more vulnerable.

Suffering begets suffering, and it’s a global pattern; the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) also found that sex trafficking spiked in Asia-Pacific after cyclones and typhoons, and domestic violence rose during droughts in East Africa and tropical storms in Latin America. Domestic violence, sexual abuse and FGM also grew during long droughts in Uganda.

Climate Change In Senegal will create 200 million migrants by 2050
Climate Change In Senegal will create 200 million migrants by 2050

What’s at stake?

Climate change is putting natural environments, wildlife and people’s lives all at risk — and it also poses a huge threat to cultural heritage.

While culture is formed between people and communities, it has an important tie to physical spaces — whether that be sacred landmarks or culturally important landscapes.

“Damage to cultural heritage that comes from severing a community’s attachment to a place is demoralizing in the short-term and hinders long-term recovery and resilience,” Victoria Herrmann, managing director of the Arctic Institute, wrote for the scientific American. “Severing social ties, dislocating local knowledge on how to absorb shocks and weakening cultural practices like food, faith and music — practices that could be vital in building friendships in new hometowns if they were preserved — all erode the adaptability of individuals and social safety net of communities.”

We can already see this happening in the U.S., where the country’s first official climate refugees — the IDJC Biloxi-Chitimacha-Choctaw tribe — were forced to leave Isle de Jean Charles in Louisiana due to rising sea levels. They were forced to move there in the first place due to the Indian removal act of the 1830s, but a mix of climate change and land subsidence accelerated by the fossil fuel industry has eroded the island by 98% since 1955. “Our families are moving off,” IDJC chief Albert Naquin told NRDC. “One family moves here, and another family moves there. And you start not knowing people. It’s very sad, I can tell you that.” While several families insist on staying despite the land being almost completely eroded, the tribe's identity, food, and culture are eroding with it. It’s also the tribe’s historical burial ground for almost 200 years.

What can you do?

You can also donate to institutions like Urban Refugees, which aids refugee-led organizations in 40 countries by working directly with local refugee leaders to help them better serve, and sustain, their communities and achieve long-term sustainability.

Climate refugees need a home and work like any other; donate your time to volunteer at local refugee centers and shelters, or build your own campaign or fundraiser.

Climate change in Panama By Greta Rybus
Climate change in Panama by Greta Rybus

Photography from Greta Rybus' series 'Climate Change in Senegal' and 'Climate Change in Panama'