On 14 September 2023 the House of Lords is due to debate the following question:

Lord Harries of Pentregarth to ask His Majesty’s Government what consultations they are having with European and other partners on how best to manage the likely migration as a result of climate change.

1. Climate change-induced migration

Establishing a clear and direct link between climate change and migration is not straightforward. As explained by the International Organization for Migration (IOM), there are “so many other social, economic and environmental factors at work” that it is difficult to establish a “linear, causative relationship between anthropogenic climate change and migration”. A 2011 UK Government Office for Science report on the issue made a similar point, arguing that “migration is a multi-causal phenomenon and it is problematic to assign a proportion of the actual or predicted number of migrants as moving as a direct result of environmental change”.

However, the UNHCR—the UN’s refugee agency—does estimate the number of people who are “forcibly displaced” by “weather-related sudden-onset hazards” each year. In 2022 it estimated this to be 31.8 million people, with the displacements largely the result of floods (19.2 million), storms (10.0 million) and droughts (2.2 million), with wildfires, landslides and extreme temperatures forming the remainder. This figure varies significantly each year. For example, from 2008 to 2021 it fluctuated between 13.9 and 38.3 million. However, there is a consensus that climate change is increasing the frequency and intensity of the kind of extreme weather events which lead to forcible displacements. For example, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) notes:

It is an established fact that human-induced greenhouse gas emissions have led to an increased frequency and/or intensity of some weather and climate extremes since pre-industrial time […] The occurrence of extreme events unprecedented in the observed record will rise with increasing global warming, even at 1.5°C of global warming.

In addition to sudden-onset hazards, climate change can also spur migration through ‘slow-onset impacts’. The IOM summarised this process in their 2022 ‘World migration report’:

Ecosystems are increasingly endangered by slow-onset environmental events and processes. For instance, heat waves might lead to loss of agricultural land and decrease in productivity, while sea-level rise and saltwater intrusion might threaten freshwater resources. The depletion of ecosystem services due to slow-onset processes might impact human security directly, for example through the reduction of essential resources such as food and water; and indirectly, such as when conflicts erupt over scarce natural resources. Threats to human security might in turn drive people to migrate in search of alternative income and ways to meet their basic needs.

While there is no agreed upon way of reliably forecasting future flows of migration which result directly from climate change, the numbers are likely to be significant (in the absence of further mitigation of climate change and adaption to its impacts). For example, in 2021 the World Bank produced a scenario-based analysis which estimated that “as many as 216 million people could move within their own countries due to slow-onset climate change impacts by 2050”, with 86 million predicted to be displaced in Sub-Saharan Africa alone.

These estimates represent a pessimistic scenario, and the World Bank argues that the precise trajectory of climate migration over the next half-century will be determined by “our collective action on climate and development in the next few years”. It notes that “climate change impacts will hit the poorest and most vulnerable regions the hardest” and suggests that more inclusive development, which increases the capability of vulnerable nations and regions to adapt, could reduce climate-related displacement by almost 60%. More significantly, it suggests its headline estimate could be reduced by up to 80% in a more “climate-friendly” scenario, where greenhouse gas emissions are sharply reduced. However, it predicted that even in this scenario there would still be tens of millions of people “who need to move away from unavoidable climate risks” and that “policy makers will need to enable mobility by creating supportive environments for planned and orderly migration into areas of low risk and high opportunity”.

2. International collaboration

On 13 June 2023, Robert Jenrick, minister of state at the Home Office, addressed a written question about the discussions held with international organisations on the “impact of climate change on levels of migration to the UK”. He said:

The UK has been involved in a range of international conversations and discussions around climate change. These include the Global Forum for Migration and Development (GFMD), International Dialogue on Migration (IDM) and the International Migration Review Forum (IMRF).

2.1 Global Forum for Migration and Development

The “impact of climate change on human mobility” was chosen as the overarching topic for France’s chairing of the GFMD for 2022–23. A series of preparatory meetings and workshops have been taking place since last year. A “high-level summit” is scheduled for January 2024, where the group’s findings will be presented.

2.2 International Dialogue on Migration

The IDM is an initiative of the IOM which aims to “[bring] together all migration stakeholders, at a global level, for open discussions on the opportunities and challenges which migration presents”. In October 2022 the dialogue focused on “the impacts of food insecurity and climate change on migration and displacement”. The report on the conference noted that speakers and member states “agreed on the need to intensify efforts at addressing the root causes of displacement: land degradation and water scarcity”. It also said that “a more preventive, rather than reactive approach is needed both regionally and globally”.

2.3 International Migration Review Forum

The IMRF serves as the “primary intergovernmental global platform” to discuss and share progress on the implementation of the ‘Global compact for safe, orderly and regular migration’, which was adopted by UN member states in Marrakesh in 2018. The UN says the compact is the “first-ever UN global agreement on a common approach to international migration in all its dimensions”. According to its founding document, the compact presents a:

[…] non-legally binding, cooperative framework […] it fosters international cooperation among all relevant actors on migration, acknowledging that no state can address migration alone, and upholds the sovereignty of states and their obligations under international law.

The IMRF takes place every four years, with the inaugural IMRF taking place in 2022. It consisted of four interactive multi-stakeholder round tables, a policy debate and a plenary. The summary report of these discussions notes that “governments and stakeholders shared examples of progress made in implementing the global compact”. Speakers highlighted the “importance of shared responsibility” in finding solutions to challenges, while noting that the pandemic had “revealed gaps in migration governance”.

On 20 May 2022, Greg Houston, head of migration at the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office, delivered a statement to the IMRF on behalf of the UK. He noted that the impact of climate change had worsened since the compact was adopted in 2018 and that it was:

[…] the right moment for us to come together and reaffirm our collective ambition, to make migration safe, orderly and regular, to maximise the huge opportunities it presents for countries and for people, and to mitigate the risks.

He said that the UK had “valued the opportunity to bring together so many governments, experts and civil society, for a truly global dialogue” and had “particularly valued the emphasis on climate” following its recent presidency of COP26 (the UN Climate Change Conference held in Glasgow in November 2021). As part of its contribution to the IMRF, Mr Houston said that “the UK has pledged to share data publicly about migration flows along key global routes”.

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Cover image by Md. Hasanuzzaman Himel on Unsplash.