Potential Human Migration Caused by Climate Change Pressures International Conference Attendees

Climate change represents a slew of looming global crises: the destruction of ecosystems, extinction of species and rising sea levels, just to begin. And a warmer planet can also be expected to cause upheavals in human settlements that will lead to mass migrations from heavily impacted countries and thus, often, immigration into countries less adversely impacted.

Migration induced by weather phenomena is nothing new in the history of the planet. In 2008, for example, 20 million people were displaced by extreme weather events. By comparison, in the same year, 4.6 million people were forced to relocate due to conflict and violence. And when one analyzes a longer period of time, gradual environmental changes can have an even greater impact; in the last 30 years, to take one example, 1.6 billion people have been affected by droughts.

And the forecasts for future migrations blamed on the weather are bleak. Indeed, it has been estimated that there will be 25 million to 1 billion environmental migrants by 2050, with 200 million migrants being the most frequently cited figure. Whatever the eventual total turns out to be, these environmental migrants will be moving either within their own countries or across borders on a permanent or temporary basis. Strikingly, the 200 million figure is equivalent to the current estimate of international migrants in the world.

Immigration motivated by climate change was high on the agenda at the 20th Conference of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, which was held in Lima, Peru on December 1-12, 2014. At the Lima conference, nearly 200 countries met and drafted an agreement on climate change. By its terms, every participating nation will be required to produce, in the next six months, a detailed domestic policy plan for reducing emissions of planet-warming greenhouse gases from hydrocarbons such as coal, gas and oil.

While the Lima agreement is set to be signed in Paris in December 2015, the new country-specific plans under the accord will not be enacted until 2020. Most climate experts estimate that at best, the actions will cut emissions by about half of what would be needed to halt a 3.6-degree Fahrenheit rise in temperature.

To put that temperature in perspective, scientists say that, at a 3.6 degree increase, the planet will experience irreversibly dangerous effects, such as melting sea ice, rising sea levels, extreme weather events, and food and water shortages — all of which will trigger mass migrations of people as well as environmental degradation.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, who attended the Lima conference, expressed guarded optimism over the accord that was reached: “Nobody here thinks an agreement will be a silver bullet that eliminates this threat. But we can’t get anywhere without an agreement.”

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