Floods and hurricanes, droughts and desertification, rising sea levels and salinization of groundwater—all can force people to leave their homes, either temporarily or permanently.
Climate change, which most scientists agree is taking place, likely will exacerbate these environmental processes and events, possibly even causing violence as people fight over scarce resources. It also will lead to migration (some say contested water supplies have contributed to the ongoing violence in Sudan's Darfur region). Estimates of how many people could be displaced vary from as little as 25 million to 1 billion by 2050, according to a recent policy brief on climate change from the International Organization for Migration.
Talk of climate change and migration ramped up in 2009, in large part due to a number of conferences and reports surrounding the highly anticipated United Nations (UN) Climate Change conference that begins next week in Copenhagen.
In June, a group including the UN University, CARE International, and Columbia University published a report intended to help policymakers and development specialists understand the links between environmental change, displacement, and migration. In Search of Shelter noted that climate change already contributes to displacement and migration, that most movement is internal, and that the least developed countries and island states will be affected "first and worst."
When 182 countries gathered in Bonn in June to work on language for Copenhagen, they included text that calls for protecting people whom climate change displaces (the United States objected to the inclusion of "climate refugee," however, because refugees have specific rights under international law and climate migrants are not persecuted).
UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon, speaking at the Global Forum on Migration and Development in November, said, "Negotiations have recognized that migration is a likely consequence of climate impacts."
What does or does not happen in Copenhagen surely will not mean the end of the discussion. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees pointed out in an updated policy paper in August that it believes "the need for advocacy on climate change issues will remain in various fora into 2010 and beyond."
Some might credit Mohamed Nasheed, president of the Maldives, a nation of small islands in the Indian Ocean, with giving climate-induced migration new visibility. On the eve of his inauguration in November 2008, Nasheed declared that he would try to find a new homeland, as rising sea levels could eventually submerge the country.
In February, Anote Tang, the president of Kiribati, an archipelagic nation in the Pacific, made a similar statement about buying land for future relocation. Already, the Kiribati government is training its people so they can find jobs in countries like New Zealand, which allows a small number of working-age Pacific Islanders to settle permanently each year.
These leaders, as well as those in Bangladesh, Malawi, and other developing nations confronting climate change, all want the Copenhagen conference to result in major carbon emission cuts. Nasheed went so far as to hold an underwater cabinet meeting in October to draw attention to his country's situation and call for a deal in Copenhagen "that will ensure that everyone will survive."
Not surprisingly, Pacific Island countries would like to cooperate with Australia and New Zealand in making long-term plans. In November, Tong told an Australian newspaper that his larger neighbors had offered little response to his requests. He noted, though, that the president of East Timor said his country might be able to accommodate some of Kiribati's people.
Indeed, one member of Australia's parliament came out this fall in favor of admitting displaced people from the Pacific Islands through an expanded refugee program — but in the context of less migration to Australia overall.
Developing countries are pushing forward with their own plans. In October, the African Union adopted the Kampala Convention, which promises to protect millions of internally displaced persons in African countries. Notably, the convention recognizes natural disasters as a factor in displacement.
The chairperson of the Commission of the African Union said the decision to mention natural disasters was due to the global debate on climate-induced migration.
Bangladesh's Climate Change Strategy and Action Plan 2009 states that climate change will most affect the country's coastal region. As outlined in the plan, the government intends to collect data on the displaced and their numbers in cities and then ensure they have employment.