Climate change will fuel greater displacement

What can we do to reverse the trend?

A family is seen on a boat during heavy flooding in Brazil
In recent weeks, thousands of families have been uprooted as Brazil suffered catastrophic flash flooding and landslides, writes Bilak [Laura Lopes/Getty Images]

For the first time, there is high confidence among scientists that the impacts of climate change are increasingly driving displacement in all regions of the world. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC) latest report, published on February 28, recognises that climate change is one of several multi-dimensional factors contributing to forced movement today, and that “peace and mobility” are at significant risk from its effects. Without global efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and better adapt to the effects of climate change, say the authors, the number of people displaced will grow in the coming decades.

The past several years have been some of the warmest on record, with above-average rainfall, unusually active storm seasons and devastating wildfires. The Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre (IDMC), whose data and analysis feature in the report, measured 30 million displacements triggered by extreme weather in 2020. In recent weeks, thousands of families have been uprooted as Brazil suffered catastrophic flash flooding and landslides, and Madagascar was hit by four tropical storms in as many weeks. Climate change will make natural events such as these more frequent and more intense in the future.

Some people are able to return home after a short time to recover and rebuild, others remain displaced for months or years, or never return home at all. Two years after Cyclone Idai struck Mozambique, for example, more than 120,000 people are still homeless. While most stay within their countries and don’t cross a border, the impacts of climate change touch every region, so it is a global challenge that must be addressed collectively. The most vulnerable can become trapped in a vicious cycle whereby the effects of climate change erode resilience to withstand natural hazards or environmental stressors, pushing people into displacement, which further amplifies their vulnerability.

Responding to these risks will not only require concerted efforts to reduce emissions and limit global warming, but also sustainable investments in the countries most affected to help prevent and respond to displacement in the face of a changing climate.

Fragile or developing states, which have often contributed the least to global warming, bear the brunt of the impacts of climate change, so it is right that they are financially supported. Industrialised countries must honour their promise to provide $100bn annually to support mitigation and adaptation measures in developing countries, a commitment that is yet to materialise. While the costs of displacement are not explicitly accounted for, a fund to cover “loss and damage” failed to garner sufficient support and Scotland was the only nation at last year’s COP26 in Glasgow to pledge anything towards compensation. Greater commitments must be made across the board at the upcoming COP27 in Egypt, and the world will be watching.

With flexible and predictable investment, local, adaptive and sustainable measures can be developed. Urban planning, land reform, resilient infrastructure, disaster defences and early warning systems, for instance, can all help to reduce vulnerability and avoid loss of homes, livelihoods and lives.

Identifying alternative means of making a living that are not reliant on the land could prevent future forced migration but when disasters or climate impacts render a place unsafe or unhabitable, planned relocation or resettlement may be the only suitable options. A 2021 report commissioned by the Platform on Disaster Displacement found that planned relocation is a global phenomenon occurring in all regions of the world. Multiple hazards and diverse drivers prompt decisions to relocate, according to the report, but around two-thirds of cases surveyed were linked to climate-related hazards.

Given present trends in sea-level rise, the number of communities requiring assisted relocation or resettlement to another country will grow significantly in the years to come. These approaches must include participation from the people at risk and be led by strong local governance. In a world made more isolated by the COVID-19 pandemic, investment in locally owned solutions will be more important than ever.

The world is waking up to the threat of climate change for the planet but the challenges of human mobility in this context require far greater global attention if years of hard-won development progress are not to be lost. To build a strong case, we need a strong evidence base. IDMC, for our part, will continue to monitor the phenomenon and highlight best practices around the world. I also use this opportunity to call for a dedicated IPCC report on the link between climate change, forced migration and displacement. A scientific investigation into how climate change interacts with other social, economic and political factors to influence human mobility is necessary to lay the foundations of effective action and sustainable investment.

Solutions exist but more reliable and robust data is needed to focus our actions. The number of people forced to flee, their conditions, needs and aspirations, the duration and severity of their displacement and the risk of future forced movement must all be better quantified so that governments and the international community can plan and respond accordingly.

As we look ahead to COP27 later in the year, when leaders will be given a final chance to act before it’s too late, we hope that this report inspires urgent, renewed commitment. As the authors conclude: “The scientific evidence is unequivocal: climate change is a threat to human well-being and the health of the planet. Any further delay in concerted global action will miss a brief and rapidly closing window to secure a liveable future.”

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.