Migration, Environment and Climate Change

By Andrea Milan

An introduction to the topic

The relationship between migration, environment and climate change is complex and multifaceted. Migration in the context of environmental and climatic changes takes many forms (internal/international, seasonal/temporary/circular/permanent; regular/irregular) and in a spectrum ranging from forced displacement to voluntary migration.

Particularly in rural areas of the global South, environmental drivers of migration have a strong influence on people’s decisions to migrate (or not). In the context of climate change, the influence of these environmental drivers is increasing over time. How environmental changes precisely drive migration depends heavily on their context-specific interaction with other social, political, economic and demographic factors – however, the fundamental linkage is clear.

In fact, the adverse effects of climate change on human mobility are already manifesting themselves in two main ways.
First, climate change is intensifying existing climatic and environmental pressures to migrate through its impact on sudden events (including floods, landslides, earthquakes, tsunamis and hurricanes) and slow-onset changes (including rainfall variability and unpredictability, droughts, desertification and sea level rise).

Second, climate change is exacerbating climatic and environmental stressors that influence migration patterns through their interrelationship with other drivers of migration. The pressures to migrate associated with environmental and climatic factors are often exacerbated by widespread poverty and conflict as well as a number of political and governance-related challenges.

The evolution of the debate over the past twenty-five years

Research on the interaction between migration and global environmental change dates back to the late 19th century, when many of the ‘founders’ and early scholars of migration studies included environmental and climatic considerations among determinants of migration decision-making.

Between the 1920s and the 1980s, economic and political drivers of migration took center stage in the development of migration theories and policies. However, public interest in the environment-migration nexus started growing again in the 1980s and 1990s both because of a general growth in public interest on migration as well as the publication of few influential studies specifically on migration and the environment.

The years 2006 and 2007 marked a turning point for these debates as climate change became a more prominent scientific issue, and the number of methodological, conceptual and empirical articles on environmental change and migration began to increase substantially.

Nevertheless, until the publication of the Foresight Report on Migration and Global Environmental Change in 2011, the literature on migration and global environmental change remained undertheorized and characterized by a number of context-specific case studies with limited comparability to other case studies.

The state of knowledge today

Four key points emerge from the academic literature on climate change, environmental change, and migration published over the past five years.

First, in the context of climate change, environmental change is expected to have an increasing impact on migration in the future. Nevertheless, migration decision-making is always complex and researchers should be careful to establish that any direct relationship exists between climatic and environmental stressors and migration decision-making.

Second, most migration in the context of environmental change is and will be within states and relatively short-distance, rather than international, with the notable exception of border areas (including mountains) and small states (particularly small island developing states).

Third, while migration is often understood and framed as a failure to adapt to environmental and climatic changes, it can also be part of successful livelihood risk management strategies.

Last but not least, in the upcoming decades, in addition to a high number of forced migrants, climate change will also affect millions of people who may be trapped in vulnerable environments because they lack the means to leave.

Way ahead – possible improvements

Particularly over the past three years (2015-2017), the international community has made good progress in establishing policies to address short-term humanitarian needs associated with climate change-related and disasters-related displacement. This has been particularly evident through the creation of the Nansen Initiative and its follow-up (the Disaster Displacement Platform), as well as through the recent establishment (through the 2015 Paris Climate Change Agreement) of a Task Force to develop recommendations for integrated approaches to avert, minimize and address displacement related to the adverse impacts of climate change within the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC).

Progress on long-term solutions and on facilitating safe, orderly and regular migration in the context of climate change has been slower, despite the growing empirical and academic evidence that points towards the potential for migration to benefit households that are under climatic/environmental stress.

In December 2018, two global intergovernmental processes will offer a unique opportunity to enhance the global policy framework to address migration in the context of climatic and environmental changes.

First, the 24th session of the Conference of the Parties (COP24) to the UNFCCC, which will take place in Katowice, Poland, will be a key strategic opportunity to ensure progress on the question of human mobility in relation to climate change. In fact, COP24 will consider the recommendations produced by the recently established UNFCCC Task Force on Displacement (TFD) for integrated approaches to avert, minimize and address displacement related to the adverse impacts of climate change.

Second, through the New York Declaration for Refugees and Migrants, adopted in September 2016, the UN General Assembly decided to develop a global compact for safe, orderly, and regular migration in 2018, at the end of a preparatory process that started in May 2017 and will culminate in an intergovernmental conference to adopt the compact in Morocco in December 2018. The global compact for migration will be the first intergovernmentally negotiated agreement prepared under the auspices of the United Nations to cover all dimensions of international migration in a holistic and comprehensive manner.

Building on language already adopted in the New York Declaration, the global compact could recognize that climate change and environmental change are key drivers of human mobility, particularly in the global South.

Both the UNFCCC COP24 and the global compact could allow UN Member States to make progress towards greater policy coherence to maximize benefits and minimize risks associated with migration through synergies at three levels: policy objectives, policy instruments and implementation practices. This would entail a whole-of-government approach involving institutions working on issues as diverse as migration, climate change, disaster management, environment, development, land and oceans (where applicable).

Lastly, maximizing synergies between these two processes and other recent developments on climate change, environmental change and migration will be key to their success. In particular, these processes could build on the Agenda for the Protection of Cross-Border Displaced Persons in the Context of Disasters and Climate Change resulting from the Nansen Initiative, as well as the Guidelines to Protect Migrants in Countries Experiencing Conflict or Natural Disaster produced by the Migrants in Countries in Crisis initiative.

Andrea Milan

Andrea Milan

United Nations University MERIT- Maastricht Graduate School of Governance
PhD Governance and Policy, Analysis, Migration Policy
Migration and Rural Development Advisor, FAO (UN Food and Agriculture Organization)


1 For an in-depth analysis of the evolution of the debate over time, see Piguet, E. (2013). From “primitive migration” to “climate refugees”: The curious fate of the natural environment in migration studies. Annals of the Association of American Geographers, 103(1), 148162.

2 Foresight (2011). Migration and Global Environmental Change, Final Project Report, London, UK: The Government Office for Science.