Why Financing Responses to Climate Migration Remains a Challenge
Climate change is already shaping migration and displacement, affecting who moves, where, and when. More frequent and severe extreme-weather events worsen disaster displacement, while slow-onset events such as sea level rise and droughts disrupt habitats and trigger even more movements. Climate change also exacerbates many of the existing drivers of migration, making conflicts more common and livelihoods less secure. Many people choose to move as their climate-vulnerable communities become less livable (primarily within their countries), but others are trapped in places without the resources and the legal pathways to move.
Although the exact number of people who will be forced to move (whether internally or across international borders) is impossible to predict, most experts estimate that it will be in the hundreds of millions over the next decades. The World Bank, for example, estimates 216 million people could be internally displaced by 2050 without action to address environmental change. Its modeling also finds, however, that inclusive, green development, which means cutting carbon emissions and helping people adapt to climate events, could cut the number of internal climate migrants by up to 80 percent.
Despite years of alarmist, even apocalyptic, discourse that climate change would lead to hundreds of millions, if not billions, moving to the Global North, funding the scale of efforts needed remains a persistent challenge. While climate donors, primarily governments in high-income countries, have pledged hundreds of billions of dollars for climate action, these increasingly ambitious financial commitments have not extended to funding climate migration-related projects.
The upcoming COP27, the United Nations’ annual climate conference being held November 6-18 in Egypt, could offer an important opportunity to bridge the gap between climate financing and climate migration programming. Engaging climate donors to fund projects to help manage climate migration—for example to build flood barriers in climate displacement hotspots or to help people leaving climate-vulnerable areas find livelihoods in their new communities—is essential to meet the scale of the challenge. But this can be a hard sell.
Failing to coordinate climate financing and climate migration projects is more than just a missed opportunity; it can at times have negative consequences. Climate donors are funding projects that can in some cases exacerbate (or at least fail to prevent) displacement, or miss opportunities to support moving people safely. For instance, investments in making infrastructure more climate-resilient may attract migrants (or encourage people to stay) in areas that remain highly climate-vulnerable, even in cases where helping people to move would be a more sustainable solution.
Climate donors have proved reluctant to fund climate migration projects due to two main challenges: migration is highly politicized and therefore comes with more risks, and it remains unclear which approaches are successful. Because these challenges are often misunderstood, migration and climate actors have struggled to work together to implement much needed programming.
Climate Donors Fear the Politics of Migration
For years now, migration actors and advocates have used dystopian predictions of waves of displacement to drive action and fundraise, warning that unless donors fund projects that tackle climate migration, they will be overrun by unmanageable inflows of climate migrants. This argument, however, is unevidenced, and more importantly, ineffective.
Leaning on this alarmist narrative can turn off climate donors. Governments and development agencies looking to finance a transition towards greener economies work hard to avoid politics. The politics of climate change are tricky enough. With the rise of right-wing governments and xenophobia across North America and Europe, many climate donors do not want to be seen as working on migration or displacement issues.
Even when invoking fears of mass migration towards North America and Europe does convince donors to fund projects at this nexus, it often leads to misguided projects with unrealistic goals. As donors support projects out of fear that millions of climate migrants will head north, they fall back on the tackling “root causes” type of programming, using development assistance to stop migration. But researchers have shown repeatedly that this development approach is simplistic and misleading. Many people who want to move to the Global North cannot afford visas, transportation, or in some cases, the services of smugglers. As development projects support increases in incomes, skills, and human capital, they actually give people the resources they need to move and in turn, can lead to more migration.
Take, for example, the African Union-led Great Green Wall initiative, funded by European donors and multilateral development banks, which seeks to curb migration by restoring degraded land and creating 10 million green jobs by 2030 in the Sahel. While some forms of climate displacement can be prevented—for instance, better preparation for extreme-weather events can minimize disaster displacement—climate projects cannot stop people from moving. By creating climate-resilient livelihoods, the Great Green Wall is just as likely to help more people migrate as it is to stop people from moving, because those who would otherwise lack the resources to migrate now have secure livelihoods.
A more evidence-based and nuanced conversation by migration practitioners with climate donors would support well-managed, safe migration and aim to prevent forced climate displacement. Most people who move because of climate change move internally, meaning more funding is needed for migrant-inclusive urban development, infrastructure, and social services. But because the objective of most existing projects on climate migration is to stop movement, there is little funding for projects to help people move away from climate-affected regions, and to prepare communities to integrate climate migrants.
Uncertainty over Which Projects to Fund
Many donors, from the United States to the European Commission, now see the importance of tackling the intersection between climate change and migration, but most are still puzzled about where to start and some lack the operational know-how to design relevant projects.
At this point climate migration projects tend to focus on data and knowledge building, or policy development and capacity building, which are crucial first steps. These projects can help climate-vulnerable countries develop policies on climate migration, which in turn can facilitate partnerships with donor countries. Similarly, these projects can build the capacities of climate-vulnerable countries to propose projects directly to private financing sources, multilateral development banks, or international trust funds such as the Green Climate Fund or Global Environment Facility. Getting money from these climate financiers is a painstaking, costly process, and building national capacities can support these efforts.
Beyond research and policy development, however, climate donors should fund development projects that seek to address climate migration. They can do this in two ways: by targeting the drivers of forced climate displacement, and by supporting climate migrants and their host communities. The good news is that some projects that model these two approaches are already underway. For instance, donors are working to target flood-resilient infrastructure to hotspots of flood displacement, which can minimize the number of people forced to leave their homes (even if people may still choose to leave), or to empower migrants to channel their remittances for climate adaptation. But whether these projects are effective, replicable, and scalable is unknown, because they have not been routinely evaluated, and lessons learned have not been shared. This means that climate donors lack a systematic evidence base and so do not know how to allocate their funding.
The Implications of Missing Climate Migration Finance
Given lack of knowledge on what programs are effective and concern about being pulled into torturous politics on immigration, climate donors have not prioritized addressing migration and displacement. Without this funding, most programming is small scale (though useful), such as connecting migrant returnees with green jobs, rather than the systemic solutions needed to prevent displacement and prepare host communities for climate migration.
So how can migration actors convince climate donors to work on climate migration, without relying on apocalyptic warnings that billions will move without these projects? To start, they can understand that climate donors are not blind to the challenge of climate-induced migration: they know this will become an ever-growing problem, and in the future, they are likely to scale up relevant programming. To get there, however, climate donors need better evidence on the state of play of climate migration programming. They need enhanced, better-coordinated modeling of areas at risk of climate displacement and transparent, in-depth evaluations of existing approaches to climate migration. This will take time and effort, and importantly will have to rely on strong partnerships with climate-vulnerable countries to ensure development projects respond to local needs. But the right place to start is through good-faith engagement to break down silos between climate donors and migration actors.