One of the most important issues in a new report by the Intergovernmental Panel
on Climate Change (IPCC) is the impact on migration flows – a phenomenon not
limited to the world’s poorest regions, warns a Swiss migration expert.
Thousands of Americans, fleeing the intense cold, are seeking refuge in Mexico.
OK, that’s science-fiction, but the scene from 2004 Hollywood blockbuster The
Day After Tomorrow illustrates a
very real issue: climate migration.
By 2100, hundreds of millions of people will have abandoned coastal zones as a
result of rising sea levels, highlights
the IPCC in the report published
Etienne Piguet, a professor at the University of Neuchâtel, tells swissinfo.ch
that the impact of the climate on population behaviour is well known. But his
latest research has produced surprising – and paradoxical – results.
swissinfo.ch: One tends to think that climate migration is a relatively recent
phenomenon. Is it?
Etienne Piguet: Since 2007, when the IPCC published its fourth assessment
report, we have witnessed a sort of revival in the notion of climate migration.
In reality the idea’s been around for ages. The “dust bowl” of the 1930s comes
to mind: dust storms and wind erosion of the soil forced many farmers on the
Great Plains to move to California.
Going back further, there’s the Irish potato famine [in the 1840s], which
encouraged migration to the US. Sure, the cause was the blight that affected the
harvest, but this was in turn promoted by the climate and the succession of very
wet and humid seasons.
swissinfo.ch: So climate is a driving force of migration?
E.P.: Yes and no. Unlike in the past, today the climate is considered one of
many factors which influence migration. The dust bowl occurred after the
economic crash of 1929, which had already made the situation precarious for
farmers. Also in Ireland British policy encouraged people to leave. So in
addition to the climate, there are also political, social and economic factors.
Studies show a strong impact of the temperature and of periods of drought on
agricultural productivity. There are two reasons: some plants are less
productive than others, and above a certain temperature physical labour becomes
difficult. Populations are therefore vulnerable. But will they really emigrate?
Hard to say. If their governments help them change economic activity, maybe they
will stay where they are.
Think of the Netherlands and the rising sea level – had the government not had
the resources to build dykes, people would have been forced to leave.
swissinfo.ch: When one talks of climate migration, one automatically thinks of
the poorest countries. A justified association?
E.P.: Poor countries have greater difficulty, for technical and political
reasons, coping with the challenges created by climate change. But our most
recent study revealed, slightly surprisingly, that migration also concerns the
In terms of the population, it’s these countries that are really in the front
line. Just think of China and the millions of people who live along the coast.
Furthermore, a few catastrophes – either sudden or sustained – together with
changes in economic activity could generate significant movements in Europe and
North America, as we saw with Hurricane Katrina in 2005.
I want to emphasise a crucial aspect. We have established that the zones
under greatest threat, for example from rising water levels, are also those
which are booming demographically. Despite their vulnerability, coastal
cities in China and Africa continue to attract more and more people. It’s a
paradoxical and potentially explosive situation.
The migrants are often aware of the danger, but they have different time
frames. Their strategy is to survive and feed their families today. They
don’t consider the risk that, tomorrow, the waterway on which they have
settled could flood because of a hurricane.
swissinfo.ch: And Switzerland? According to one study, entire alpine valleys
risk becoming uninhabitable because of melting permafrost and landslides.
In 2012, natural disasters forced 32.4 million
people to leave their homes.
98% of these displacements were caused by climate
and meteorological events such as floods, storms
The most affected countries were China, India, Pakistan, the
Philippines and Nigeria.
In northeastern India alone, repeated floods during the monsoon
season caused 6.9 million evacuees (almost the entire population
In the United States, almost 800,000 people had to flee from
(Source: “Global Estimates 2012”, a
report by the
Norwegian Refugee Council’s Internal Displacement Monitoring
E.P.: Switzerland, like other developed countries, is not sheltered from the
economic and social consequences of climate change. In any event the country
will not be confronted with waves of climate migrants.
Some alpine valleys are very vulnerable and could become uninhabitable. But
we’re talking of a few hundred people. Sure, for the people who live there
it’s dramatic, but we have to put things in perspective: we can’t compare
the situation in Switzerland with that of a province in Bangladesh where 95%
of the population, who live from agriculture, are exposed to the risk of
increasingly common periods of drought.
swissinfo.ch: In future it will be necessary to define the statute given to
those fleeing their homes owing to the climate. Will we soon have ‘climate
E.P.: It’s a much-debated issue. There are basically three schools of
thought: one says that it’s necessary to create a new convention
specifically to protect people who have to relocate in cases of
environmental catastrophe and gradual environmental changes.
Then there are those who would like to expand the existing definition and
include climate-related reasons in the refugee convention. This is already
the case to a small extent regarding the convention of the Organisation of
African Unity, where the concept of refugee incorporates environmental
The third option is to improve the capability of humanitarian aid, to work
on prevention and to insist on solidarity mechanisms in the zones most at
What is certain is that many, many people will be unable to flee from
catastrophes. Only people who are healthy and have financial resources are
able to flee. The immobile population on the other hand risk finding
themselves in a humanitarian situation even worse than those who emigrate.
(Translated from Italian by Thomas Stephens)
IPCC’s Fifth Assessment Report
On March 25, government representatives and scientists opened a five-day meeting
of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) in Japan to finalise a
report assessing the impacts of climate change on human and natural systems,
options for adaptation, and the interactions among climate changes, other
stresses on societies, and opportunities for the future.
This report, produced by the IPCC’s Working Group II, deals with impacts,
adaptation, and vulnerability. It is part two of a four-part assessment. The
first part, by Working Group I, dealing with the physical science basis of
climate change, was finalised in September 2013. The Working Group III
contribution, assessing mitigation of climate change, will be finalised in
April. The Fifth Assessment Report will be completed by a Synthesis Report in
The IPCC is the international body for assessing the science related to climate
change. It was set up in 1988 by the World Meteorological Organization and the
United Nations Environment Programme to provide policymakers with regular
assessments of the scientific basis of climate change, its impacts and future
risks, and options for adaptation and mitigation.