Illustration by Ahmed Bilal

On The Move: A Climate Future of Displacement

A hallmark of the imminent climate crisis will be the increasing numbers of people forced out of their homes and livelihoods due to extreme weather conditions. How is it currently being analyzed and who is it most likely to affect in the future?

Dec 12, 2022

Humanity has played host to a number of “great migrations” throughout history. Voluntarily and involuntarily, humanity has never had a stable footprint. Over a journey that spans millennia, settlement has brought humans to the newest frontiers: places with resources, food, and nascent political systems. Globalization has seen that today no land is properly untouched by the interconnections of global trade and politics. What happens in one place has ripple effects throughout the rest of the world.
Today, the world faces an unprecedented threat from the climate crisis that will leave no place untouched. It will present incredibly different challenges and opportunities depending on where it is viewed. Enter the world of climate migration. As the planet warms, climate catastrophes may uproot hundreds of millions of people from their homes over the coming decades. While many may move within their own borders due to natural disasters, entire countries and regions will become uninhabitable, forcing international migration.
Under the United Nations’ 1951 Refugee Convention, climate migrants forced out of their countries are not afforded refugee status. This status is only given to people fleeing persecution due to their race, religion, nationality, political opinion, or particular social group. Because no comprehensive international framework currently exists for climate-related population movements, climate-displaced people are uniquely vulnerable to exploitation, being under few legal protections.
Migration also threatens to overwhelm countries’ social safety nets and inflame political tensions in a world where even rich countries are not entirely immune to the crisis. The world is facing very divergent fertility trends, with some developed nations like South Korea suffering incredibly low fertility. While poorer countries fuel global population growth, they are also the most vulnerable to climate impacts. On account of climate impacts, the world is at risk of a further declining fertility rate in the course of time.
The book “Nomad Century” by Gaia Vince presents environmental migration as a potential opportunity, as something to capitalize on within the existing global economic system so that rich countries can still benefit. Because an ever-increasing percentage of the working age global population will come from vulnerable countries, these people will solve the Global North’s demographic crisis by fleeing their hot, flooded, or dry countries. At 4 degrees of global average warming, which is entirely possible and at the current slow pace of emissions reductions, “the vast majority of humanity will live in high latitude areas.” Vince advocates for the creation of an international organization to oversee refugee resettlement as needed, in numbers that would overwhelm the native-born populations of these far northern and southern lands.
There are many political flashpoints in such a proposal. When their own job security is threatened, citizens are unlikely to accept such movements being overseen by an opaque, top-down “globalist” body. That is how we get more Giorgia Meloni- or Viktor Orban-like characters as leaders, who use migrants as a scapegoat for domestic issues. And climate migrants should not be “made use of” in any sense, especially if intended to fill working-age population gaps in the countries that caused the migration through their cumulative carbon emissions.
In the local context, much of our region will face uninhabitable hot conditions in the coming decades. It is already brutally hot for a large percentage of the year, where most of us are fortunate enough to rarely venture outside of our air-conditioned bubbles. That will only get worse, further increasing the energy strain and the “indoor season” — and that’s our fate as relatively fortunate people in an economically fortunate country. Hot countries lacking the resources to limit outdoor work and provide air conditioning will suffer far more heat stress casualties, creating mass movements to places that have the food, water, and temperature conditions necessary to survive.
People have always left the places they live in search of a better life. Over the course of history, we have been a profoundly mobile species. Amidst a context of profound growth and globalization, worldwide interconnectedness has fostered new narratives surrounding migration and how people should move between countries. But the world is facing the biggest threat to its existing institutions yet, as millions of people will be forced to flee lands that become too dry, too hot, or sink below rising sea levels. Their stories will define the migratory narratives we hear for the rest of the century, and the landscape of global politics.
Ethan Fulton is Senior Opinion Editor and Satire Columnist. Email him at
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