This article is written by Kayla Soren.
The consequences of climate change are not felt equally across the world. The brunt of its impacts fall on the poor and vulnerable: indigenous peoples, mothers in rural areas, laborers working outside, and slum dwellers. With increasing extreme weather tendencies such as floods and desertification, sea level rising, and other environmental hazards, people are being forced to migrate. This is leading to exponential increases in the amount of climate migrants, people forced to move due to climate change. In a 2010 Gallup World Poll, 12 percent of respondents said environmental problems would require them to move within the next five years.
Tina Ngata is an indigenous activist on the remote East Cape of the North Island of New Zealand. In addition to people moving, her people’s infrastructure and native species have been forced to migrate as well. The coastal communities face inundation and every year, as the intensity and regularity of the storms increase, they experience more flooding, more devastation. Their burial grounds and traditional meeting house sites are being washed away, forcing them to hurriedly plan how and where to move these sacred spaces. They also are already experiencing species migration – many traditional foods are climate-sensitive and so their subsistence traditions face imminent disruption, with many species already having migrated out of their region, and new ones arriving.
For Ngata’s people, in isolated areas, resilience requires a dependence on their local ecological systems. When they are disrupted, it causes urban migration.
But her community is doing everything they can to slow down migration. They have partnered with research groups and overseas at risk communities (especially indigenous) to better understand disaster resilience. They are slowing the tide through planting and coastal erosion mitigation projects. However, Ngata stresses that these measures only buy time; they don’t reverse the problem. Her people will eventually have to migrate. They are looking toward traditional alliances and genealogical ties within inland communities to explore further opportunities for relocation. In the long term, they are developing and incorporating indigenous education resources around climate change so that future generations can progress the conversation and take further action.
Ngata is in good company. According to NASA’s Common Sense Climate Index, there are nearly “64 million persons of concern.” A common way people cope is through migrating from rural to urban areas, since rural areas often lack the necessary resources to respond to natural disasters. A major impact of climate migration is its political implications. We saw this in Syria, where a drought forced thousands to move into the city, instigating further political tension and contributing to the refugee crisis. Climate change did not directly cause Syria’s civil war, but combined with increased population and political instability, the drought significantly worsened the already vulnerable Syria.
The political effects of climate migration are also apparent with Lake Chad, which shrunk over 90% since 1963. This caused people to move due to increasingly less access to safe drinking water and proper sanitation. With people losing their jobs and livelihoods due to the lake, the vulnerability has been a key contributor to the Boko Haram Insurgency crisis, which led to the displacement of 3.5 million people. Like Syria, climate change was not the direct cause of political tensions, but it only made a bad situation worse.
The obvious preemptive strategy toward reducing climate migration is to better protect our planet. But is there anything else we can do? There is always individual action that we can take. For example, CliMates Youth on the Move initiative has created a web documentary that provides a platform to share stories of climate migrants. The UNHCR has been working on brainstorming for recommended relocation strategies. Although it is a last-resort-strategy, it eases the process for citizens relocating domestically due to climate-related issues.
It’s easy to feel helpless when we see millions struggling from a seemingly unattackable issue like climate change. We must fuel that concern into action and inclusiveness toward climate migrants. With both proactive investments in infrastructure to prevent the impacts of climate change and reactive assistance programs for climate migrants, we can create an adaptable world.
About the author : Kayla Soren is a student at the University of Southern California studying International Relations and Environmental Science. She is the Executive Director of the International Environmental Coalition and on the Negotiations Tracking Team of CliMates.