Climate Change Inertia, Inequality, and the Travel Freedom Gap

Over the past few years, climate-induced migration has increasingly come to the attention of the international community. This follows repeated warnings from international bodies that major disruptive migration patterns will be experienced worldwide if long-term and holistic action is not taken to address climate change.

Since the early 1990s the UN sponsored Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has noted that human migration caused by shoreline erosion, coastal flooding, and agricultural disruption may be the single greatest impact of climate change.[1]

Today, climate change is already affecting migration patterns. This can be seen through extreme weather events, which have been increasing in frequency and intensity as global temperatures increase. Mass displacement triggered by extreme weather events is becoming the norm. In 2018, 17.2 million people were displaced due to national disasters, according to the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre (IDMC),[2] and a further 7 million by mid-2019, with South Asia, East Asia, and the Pacific being the most affected.[3] The World Bank projects that by 2050, 143 million people in Sub-Saharan Africa, South Asia, and Latin America could move within their own countries if no action is taken on climate change.[4]

A significant challenge for quantifying and accurately projecting climate-induced migration is the slow-onset nature of climate change. As a long-term phenomenon, climate change amplifies existing migration pressures and drivers in addition to causing immediate displacement due to catastrophic climate-related weather events.

Where mitigation and adaptation to the climate change factors that might displace people are not possible, greater movement of people can be expected. Climate-induced migration will involve people in environmentally vulnerable regions moving within their own countries and also attempting to move to wealthier countries as their capacity to survive in their places of origin deteriorates.

Despite broad international frameworks that address the issue, holistic policies enacted by governments are few, and widespread environmentally-induced migration can thus be expected in future, with a trend towards greater movement of people as global temperatures increase. Both wealthier countries and poorer countries will face disruption from such movement.

While climate mitigation, adaptation, and some level of relocation will be needed, the widening gap in travel freedom between citizens from developed and developing countries of the world will make it increasingly difficult for those most affected by climate change to move.

A significant barrier impeding international resettlement is that environmental migrants and environmental or climate refugees are not well defined in international law. The current legal definition for a refugee, based on the 1951 UN Refugee Convention, does not include environmental or climate refugees; those forced to flee due to loss of livelihood or habitat.

A major source of inequality is the relationship between responsibility and impacts. Those least responsible for emitting greenhouse gases into the atmosphere are often most affected by the adverse impacts of climate change. They are also less able to move and travel.

Planning for likely patterns of both internal and international migration induced by environmental pressures will be needed in 2020 and beyond.

[1] IPCC (2008)

[2] IDMC (2019)

[3] IDMC (September 2019)

[4] World Bank (2019)


IPCC (2008) Migration and Climate Change

World Bank (2019) Groundswell – Preparing for Internal Climate Migration

Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre (September 2019) Mid-Year figures: Internal Displacement from January to June 2019

Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre (2019) Global Report on Internal Displacement 2019

Register to receive the digital version of each edition of the Global Citizenship Review