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Environmental migration

    • The increasingly widespread use of terms such as climate refugees is both scientifically and legally problematic.
    • Actual IPPC statements (confirmed by other studies) in notable contradiction to the summaries for policy makers (produced by governments) are highly sceptical of any relationship between environment related migration.
    • Internal displacement within countries, are as likely to show a country’s resilience to extreme weather events as they are their vulnerability regardless of the cause being climate change related or not.

    In 2005, the United Nations claimed that by 2010 there would be 50 million ‘climate refugees’. This claim has been a mainstay of the argument for global climate change policy, and is based on the belief that climate change will compound the ‘effects of poverty and war’.

    However, by the mid 2010s, this estimate of people’s vulnerability to climate change was revealed to be a significant overstatement. The 2014 IPCC AR5 ( said that ‘It is difficult to establish a causal relationship between environmental degradation and migration’, and that ‘the current alarmist predictions of massive flows of so-called “environmental refugees” or “environmental migrants”, are not supported by past experiences of responses to droughts and extreme weather events and predictions for future migration flows are tentative at best’. This strong statement of scepticism, from within the UN, of the idea that climate change is causing migration included an even more definitive assessment of the evidence: ‘There is widespread agreement in the scientific and legal literature that the use of the term climate refugee is scientifically and legally problematic’.

    Nonetheless, despite the IPCC’s clear statement in the main body of AR5, the Summary for Policymakers (SPM) contradicted the evidence, stating that ‘Climate change over the 21st century is projected to increase displacement of people’, and that ‘Displacement risk increases when populations that lack the resources for planned migration experience higher exposure to extreme weather events, in both rural and urban areas, particularly in developing countries with low income’.

    More recent studies have agreed with the IPCC’s assessment of the evidence, rather than its conclusion in the SPM, which was produced by governments. In 2020, the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre (IDMC) showed that the link between climate and involuntary migration is a myth, which misleads attempts to establish peace, provide humanitarian assistance and help vulnerable populations build their economies and society. Yet the 2022 IPCC AR6 WGII cites the IDMC, claiming ‘an annual average of over 20 million people internally displaced by weather-related extreme events, with storms and floods the most common drivers’.

    But things which are weather-related are not necessarily climate change-related, and data showing large numbers of internally-displaced persons may in fact reflect a reduced vulnerability to extreme weather, regardless of whether those extreme weather events are caused by anthropogenic global warming. For example, evacuating an area in advance of extreme weather arriving may be an adaptive policy that reflects better policy and forecasting, rather than an increase in the frequency or intensity of extreme weather. Moreover, it may even be affordable and reliable energy that makes such evacuations possible, and the consequences of denying energy to people living in areas that are prone to extreme weather must be considered before claiming that climate change is a global risk factor. Limiting access to energy creates risks.