Has the Great Climate Migration begun?

Recently the New York Times Magazine (NYT) in partnership with ProPublica published a story with quite an eye catching headline: “The Great Climate Migration has begun”.

The argument is that the projected increase in temperature driven by climate change will cause massive urbanization and migration to the Middle East, Europe and North America. This will excacerbate resources in the receiving countries, cause conflict, death, an chaos. The author calls for policymakers in wealthy countries (in particular the US) to invest in climate mitigation efforts, keep their borders open, fund developments to modernize agriculture and water infrastructure, and generally support countries that will be more negatively impacted by climate change. If they fail to do this, millions of people will suffer and die. The report was shared and praised multiple times on my social networks. However, as this story circulated in my professional network – where people study complex human-environmental systems – many shared my feeling that this work was somewhat disingenous and could even be counter-productive.

I am part of a research team formed by social and climate scientists that studies the potential links between climate and migration. Finding those links is very complex as there are multiple interconnected causes that can drive the decision to migrate. There is extensive scientific literature on the subject (Borderon et al., 2019; Abel et al., 2019; Wesselbaum, 2019; Piguet, 2010), and many studies have contradicting results (Zeitoun,Mark et al., 2016). There are so many situational factors to human mobility that primarily attributing global temperature projections to migration is in a way, irresponsible. The NYT/ProPublica report acknowledges the difficulty in predicting migration, but it goes back and forth between attributing migration almost solely to climate change, and mentioning other contributing factors.

Climate change is real, but there is danger in embracing the idea that climate change is behind all evils. Particularly when it comes to migration, media reports are feeding into the narrative that the Guatemaleans are coming, the Asians are coming, the Africans are coming – driven mainly by climate change – and that “wealthy” cities will be flooded with migrants, destabilized, and chaos will follow. This apocalyptic view of mass migrations have political resonance, and drive the implementation of really wrong policies that do not address the real problems. The intention behind the NYT story is good in that it aims to reduce suffering for people that are foced to migrate from developing countries, but it fails in its call to action to tackle the most relevant causes. As a colleague mentioned in a recent webcast, “you cannot put all your eggs in the climate change basket”.

I grew up in Guanajuato, a largely agrarian state in central Mexico that has a long history of migration to the US. Many of the migrants in the 1980’s and 1990’s moved to the US in search of better economic opportunites, as the Mexican government failed to support farmers with effective agrarian policies. Now, on top of the economic hardships, people are fleeing violence. The drug cartels (and other extorsion groups) have taken over, so anyone who can afford to leave is doing so. This is not a climate change story. It may be hotter in Texas than in Guanajuato. So while climate change is an issue, allowing global climate change discourse to distract from local mismanagement limits accountability, and can utimately hurt real people (Doss-Gollin et al., 2020).

The collaboration between a journalist and a geographer for the NYT/ProPublica piece is an interesting one. They created a model to simulate different scenarios of when and where people will move using climate change projections and other socio-economic variables, and tested some policy scenarios (e.g. open borders or walls). As I mentioned previously, the social science community has been trying to do that for almost two decades, without reaching a consensus on how to do it. But regardless, in their simulation results, migration increases dramatically as the climate changes and closing US borders increases misery (poverty, starvation, conflict, and death) in Central America and Mexico. The role of local governments to battle corruption, improve the economy, improve infrastructure and services, provide opportunities to their citizens, control violence, and yes, increase climate resiliency is not mentioned. As a Mexican, I want accountability from my own country and it angers me to see such over-simplification.

Andrew Revkin hosted the authors of the report and other scientists in his Sustain What? series. The episode was titled Science in the NewsRoom - Exploring a Novel Report on Climate and Migration. Angel Muñoz, one of the invited panelists and who has studied climate and migration in Guatemala, argued that the main issue there is political not climate change-related. He mentioned that in any case the main drivers of precipitation variations in the region are El Niño and La Niña, and that the climate models used do not reproduce them well. This is an example of how the climate change narrative can be counterproductive; mixing climate variability with climate change leads to different actions for the resiliency of local communities.

One last point that kept me thinking was a comment in the Sustain What? episode. The author mentioned that if a journalist tries to report on complexity, there is a big yawn in the editorial room and the story does not get published. Reporters need a big headline. However, the same person said that journalists have room for experimentation, just to start the conversation, even if what they say is wrong. How are we comparing as scientists? perhaps that is something to explore in the next post.

Works Cited

  1. Doss-Gollin, J., Farnham, D. J., Ho, M., & Lall, U. (2020). Adaptation over Fatalism: Leveraging High-Impact Climate Disasters to Boost Societal Resilience. Journal of Water Resources Planning and Management, 146(4). https://doi.org/10.1061/(ASCE)WR.1943-5452.0001190
  2. Abel, Brottrager, M., Crespo Cuaresma, J., & Muttarak, R. (2019). Climate, conflict and forced migration. Global Environmental Change, 54, 239–249. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.gloenvcha.2018.12.003
  3. Wesselbaum, D. (2019). The Influence of Climate on Migration. Australian Economic Review, 52(3), 363–372. https://doi.org/10.1111/1467-8462.12345
  4. Borderon, M., Sakdapolrak, P., Muttarak, R., Kebede, E., Pagogna, R., & Sporer, E. (2019). Migration influenced by environmental change in Africa: A systematic review of empirical evidence. Demographic Research, 41(18), 491–544. https://doi.org/10.4054/DemRes.2019.41.18
  5. Zeitoun,Mark, Lankford, B., Krueger, T., Forsyth, T., Carter, R., Hoekstra, A. Y., et al. (2016). Reductionist and integrative research approaches to complex water security policy challenges. Global Environmental Change, 39, 143–154. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.gloenvcha.2016.04.010
  6. Piguet, E. (2010). Linking climate change, environmental degradation, and migration: a methodological overview. WIREs Climate Change, 1(4), 517–524. https://doi.org/10.1002/wcc.54