Inequality, Race and Climate Change-Related Migration
Climate change is a reality. All around the globe, temperatures are rising, weather patterns are shifting and sea levels are rising. As a result, many people – particularly those living in areas already affected by poverty, violence and war – are being, or have already been, forced to leave their homes due to severe weather and ecological disruptions. This forced migration, caused by environmental degradation and the consequences of climate change, is known as environmental migration, environmental displacement or climate change-related migration.
Recent research shows that those living in the Global South are disproportionately affected by the effects of climate change.1 Already marginalized populations, including people of color, women, and those living in marginalized communities, are also more at risk of being displaced due to extreme climatic events such as floods and droughts. As a result, climate change-related migration is increasingly becoming a focal point for politicians, activists and policy-makers, who are taking action to address these issues.
In this article, we will examine the intersection between inequality, race and climate change-related migration. We will look at how the effects of climate change are compounded for those living in marginalized communities and how race and ethnicity have affected patterns of climate migration. We will also consider the various approaches being taken by governments and international organizations to respond to this issue.
Climate Change and Migration
The World Bank estimates that by 2050, more than 200 million people will be forced to migrate due to climate change-related issues.2 This increase in environmental displacement is being driven by the effects of climate change such as rising temperatures and increasingly severe weather patterns, which have already affected people’s ability to access food and water. As a result of these changes, people respond differently – with some staying put, some adapting to their new environment, and others being forced to migrate to different parts of the globe.
However, it is important to note that these migratory patterns are far from random. Environmental displacement is a complex phenomenon, taking into account factors such as socio-economic status, gender, ethnicity and race.3 In particular, research has shown that those living in areas already affected by poverty are far more likely to be affected by climate change-related phenomena and pushed to migrate.4
Inequality and Race Affecting Migration Patterns
The effects of climate change on human migration are further compounded by pre-existing socio-economic inequality. Research has shown that those living in poverty are much more susceptible to the impacts of climate change, such as droughts, floods and extreme weather events.5 In addition, those from marginalized racial and ethnic groups are also more likely to bear the brunt of climate-related displacement.6 In developing countries, there is often a stark contrast between indigenous and rural communities and those living in urban areas. For example, in Africa, millions of people in rural areas lack access to basic health care and services, meaning they are more vulnerable to the effects of climate-related displacement.
Not only is the Global South home to a disproportionate number of the world’s climate refugees, but the people affected by this issue often have little or no resources or legal framework to protect them.7 Women and children are also particularly vulnerable to the effects of climate change-related displacement, as they often lack access to basic services, such as food and water, which are so essential to human survival.
Governments and International Organizations Responding to Climate Migration
In an effort to address the effects of climate change-related displacement, international organizations, governments and NGOs are doing their part. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), for example, is working to protect the rights of climate refugees and ensure they have adequate access to shelter, food and other basic services. The International Organization for Migration (IOM) is also taking action, raising awareness about the issue of climate migration, and advocating for governments to ratify the Global Compact for Migration8 in order to ensure a human-rights based approach to migration.
Governments, too, are taking decisive action to address climate migration. For example, Germany put in place a new law in 2019, allowing climate refugees from threatened regions to stay in the country on a short-term basis while their exact circumstances are assessed.9 In the US, several states have passed legislation allowing those affected by climate-related disasters to apply for temporary residence.10
Climate change is a global issue, and its effects are increasingly being felt by people who are already marginalized and vulnerable. In light of this, it is essential to consider the various intersections of inequality, race and climate change-related migration in order to protect the rights of those affected.
Fortunately, there are efforts being made by governments, international organizations and NGOs to protect climate refugees, although more needs to be done to ensure that these vulnerable populations are adequately supported.
It is clear that climate change-related migration will be an increasingly important issue in the years to come, and we must all – no matter where we are from or what we look like – work together to ensure those affected receive the help and protection they deserve.
1. “Environmental Migration.” International Organization for Migration. Accessed July 8, 2020.
2. Ramprasad, S., Branco, M.C., Damuse, J.B., Perez, M.E., Rama, L. et al (2020). “Climate Change-related Migration: Learning from the COVID-19 Crisis.”
3. Hair, P. “Environmental Displacement: Race and Representation in US Climate Migration Discourse.” Briefing Paper, Columbia Center on Sustainable Investment, April 2020.
4. Vanags, A., Orlowsky, B., and Levy, M. “Unpacking Climate-Migration-Resilience Vulnerabilities in a Changing World.” New York: Hamilton Climate Action Group. June 2020.
5. Dabelko, G.D. “Impacts of Climate Change on Migration and Displacement.” Environmental Change and Security Program, July 2010.
6. Stith-Jenkins, A., Lake, S., and Moon, Z. “Climate Change and Human Displacement: Assessing the Intersection of Race and Economic Inequality.” Georgetown Law International Refugee Assistance Project, November 2019.
7. Carrera, S. (Ed). “Climate Refugees, Migration and Human Security.” International Organization for Migration, 2021.
8. “Global Compact on Migration.” United Nations. Last modified December 10, 2018.
9. “Germany Passes New Law to Help People Fleeing Climate Change.” Deutsche Welle. Last modified September 28, 2019.
10. “State Approaches to Climate Change Displacement.” United Nations University Institute for Environment and Human Security. Accessed July 8, 2020.