By Megan Rowling
LONDON (Reuters) – Migrants uprooted by climate change in the poorest parts of the world are likely to only move locally, contrary to predictions that hundreds of millions will descend on rich countries, a study said on Wednesday.
The research from the International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED), a non-profit London-based think tank, challenges the common perception in the developed world that waves of refugees will try to move there permanently to escape the impact of global warming.
For example, many farmers struggling to grow enough food as seasons change will leave their homes to look for work in nearby towns for short periods only, the study said.
“It seems unlikely that the alarmist predictions of hundreds of millions of environmental refugees will translate into reality,” said the paper, presented at a conference on climate change and population organized by IIED and the United Nations.
“Past experiences suggest that short-distance and short-term movements will probably increase, with the very poor and vulnerable in many cases unable to move.”
The study said uncertainty about the expected consequences of global warming — including more extreme weather and rising seas — and weak migration data make it difficult to forecast accurately how many people will be displaced by climate change.
Frequently cited estimates range from 200 million to 1 billion by 2050, it noted.
IIED researcher Cecilia Tacoli, the paper’s author, said there was a risk that alarmism about climate-related migration in the developed world would lead to policies that fail to protect the most vulnerable people.
“No one seems to have a perception that (migration) is an essential part of people’s lives,” Tacoli told Reuters. “For some people, (it) is an extremely good strategy to move to better jobs, to better lifestyles.”
The paper said that, because most governments and international agencies view migration as a problem they need to control, they are missing opportunities to develop policies that could increase people’s resilience to climate change.
These include helping local governments and other institutions in small rural towns create jobs, provide basic services and share out natural resources more fairly.
Even in small island nations and coastal regions threatened by rising seas, the numbers leaving their homes will depend on government and community measures to adapt land use and improve infrastructure and construction methods, the paper said.
Hasan Mahmud, Bangladeshi state minister for foreign affairs, told a conference in Geneva on Tuesday organized by the Global Humanitarian Forum, that millions had already been displaced by floods and encroaching seas in his country.
In response, the government is investing in more resistant crops and helping local authorities and communities respond quicker when disasters strike.
(Editing by Alison Williams)