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Who are the Next Climate Change Refugees? by City Tech Blogger Sean Denice

This past summer, I had finally done something that I have been planning on doing since I was a child: I bought a house. After years of saving money, I was ready for my biggest accomplishment in life thus far. In fact, by pure happenstance, the closing date fell on my birthday, and I looked at this purchase as the biggest, most expensive birthday present one could get themselves. However, researching my topic for this assignment, climate change refugees, has given me a whole new perspective on homeownership. What if one day I could no longer live in my home due to the rise in sea level or if it was completely destroyed by a super storm? These scenarios could in fact become my reality if not enough is done to combat climate change. Unfortunately, for some people, this is already their current situation, and they are being forced to migrate in order survive.

Some of the hardest hit regions that are laden with climate change refugees lie in Latin America. In these regions, many people rely on farming to provide for their families and to survive. However, due to climate change, drought or flooding events have rendered previously successful farming practices useless. Some haven’t been able to cultivate crops in years. “Climate change is bringing more extreme and unpredictable weather to the region: summer rainfall is starting later and has become more irregular. Drought fueled by El Niño has gripped much of Central America over the past four years, but the period has been occasionally punctuated by disastrous flooding rains. As a result, more than 3 million people have struggled to feed themselves” (The Guardian). Due to these struggles people head to the cities. These urban centers are their best chance to find work, but once there they encounter a new hardship.

“Farmers first migrate to urban areas, where they confront a new set of problems, which in turn prompt them to consider an international odyssey. “There’s an internal movement where someone will go to, say, Guatemala City and then perhaps get extorted by a gang and then move to the US,” said Leutert. “When they get here they will say they’ve moved because of violence – but climate change was the exacerbating factor.”” (The Guardian). Since the climate changes role in migration is downplayed, it may not be getting the attention that it needs. It is guised as more of a crime problem and maybe prompting officials to think that these areas just need better policing and less corruption. Refugees may also think that their chances of being granted asylum may be better if they state that escaping atrocities rather than climate change. This is because “The 1951 UN refugee convention sets out clear criteria for the granting of asylum, such as persecution and war, but climate change is not on the list.” (The Guardian). A case can even be made that some of the asylum criteria can be a byproduct of climate change. Some global civil wars can be attributed to food and water scarcity.

Latin America will not be the only place to suffer from these effects of climate change.  A recent study by the World Bank concluded that “Climate change will transform more than one hundred and forty three million people into “climate migrants” escaping crop failure, water scarcity, and sea-level rise. Most of this population shift will take place in Sub-Saharan Africa, South Asia, and Latin America—three “hot spots” that represent fifty five percent of the developing world’s populations.” (National Geographic). At the heart of their research were case studies on Ethiopia, Bangladesh, and Mexico and each region will bear the burden of climate migrations. These case studies detailed how climate change could affect the populations and concluded the following:

  • “Declining rainfall in Ethiopia’s northern highlands, for example, may drive people out of the country in search of new areas where they can grow rainfed crops. And lack of rainfall in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia’s largest city, may slow its growth.” (National Geographic)
  • “Sea-level rise and storm surges will prompt growth in the major cities of Bangladesh, including the capital city of Dhaka. Bangladesh, the study predicts, will experience greater shifts and changes to population from climate change than any other event.” (National Geographic)
  • “Mexico, the wealthiest of the trio profiled, is less vulnerable to climate change and better prepared than Ethiopia and Bangladesh. But “it needs to pay close attention to pockets of poverty,” The central plateau around Mexico City and Guatemala City, which may offer better climate conditions, may attract climate migrants.” (National Geographic)

Also, abundantly clear from the report, is that the cities migrants most likely to flea to must be ready for them. Proper infrastructure and non-climate dependent jobs will be necessary to cope with the influx in population.

In the end, it is a sobering fact to learn that so much of the world’s population is at risk of becoming a climate refugee. The Earth isn’t made up of an infinite amount of land and there is a specific carrying capacity. Eight billion people cannot congregate in only a few places. If we continue down this path “without cuts to greenhouse gases and other preparations, climate migration will most likely rise through 2050, and then accelerate.” (National Geographic). Or “if the world acts in time to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and engages in “robust development planning,” the flood of “climate migrants” could be reduced by 80 percent to a mere 40 million people.” (National Geographic).


Milman, O., Holden, E., & Agren, D. (2018, October 30). The unseen driver behind the migrant caravan: Climate change. Retrieved November 8, 2018, from https://www.theguardian.com/world/2018/oct/30/migrant-caravan-causes-climate-change-central-america

Parker, L. (2018, March 19). 143 Million People May Soon Become Climate Migrants. Retrieved November 8, 2018, from https://news.nationalgeographic.com/2018/03/climate-migrants-report-world-bank-spd/

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