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Climate migrants

A warming planet will drive millions into exile. Canada must be ready to welcome them.

By: /
29 September, 2021
A refugee man and child in the Awaradi refugee camp in eastern Niger. Giles Clarke/Getty Images

Climate change is forcing people to migrate. Without planning and support from privileged nations like Canada to both mitigate and adapt to this escalating crisis, immense hardship will be felt by those who bear the brunt of it.

In 2020, climate-related events such as floods, droughts, storms or wildfires impacted 50 million people globally. Sixty per cent of those people had to leave their homes.

Unless there is a serious shift in global climate action, the number of climate migrants — those displaced by climate-related events — will increase. In 2018, a World Bank report estimated Sub-Saharan Africa, South Asia and Latin America could see more than 140 million people migrating within their countries by 2050 due to slow-onset climate change impacts, including decreasing crop productivity, shortage of water and rising sea levels.

Climate-forced migration happens in Canada too. During summer months, Canadians face evacuation orders because of forest fires at their doorsteps. But Canada will likely experience less devastating climate change impacts than countries to its south, including the United States.

Today, extremely hot zones where it is difficult for people to safely live make up just one per cent of land on earth. By 2070, they could cover up to 19 per cent of the world. There will be an exodus from these newly uninhabitable areas.

Sarah Kamal, a project researcher at the Climate Migrants and Refugees Project, a Canadian non-profit, says this is unfair. “When we’re talking about who’s being the most exposed [to climate change], it’s unfortunately, the people who have contributed the least, whether it’s the Pacific Islanders or small island, developing states or Indigenous communities in Canada,” she told Open Canada.

Canada, however, is uniquely positioned to help climate migrants. It’s a large and wealthy nation with only 38 million people living in it. It has also profited from oil and gas and is the tenth-highest greenhouse gas emitter, according to the World Resources Institute, an NGO. In other words, not only does it have the capacity to resettle climate migrants, it has a moral obligation to do so.

But according to Kamal, Canada doesn’t have any kind of plan for climate migration: “Things are dealt with when they come up.”

Canada has the capacity to resettle climate migrants and a moral obligation to do so.

Current climate migration trends

Climate change on its own is rarely the reason people migrate, but it exacerbates other issues that make them do so. Economic hardship, for example, influenced by climate events such as floods or droughts, often pushes rural farmers to leave their homes in search of better opportunities.

Robert McLeman, a member of the Environmental Migration to Canada research team, a project funded by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council that looks at how environmental factors influence migration to Canada, has spoken to immigrants across Canada to learn whether environmental events in their home countries influenced their decision to move here. Most came for other reasons, such as family reunification or job prospects, he said in an interview.

The majority of environmental migration takes place within a country’s borders. Those displaced by climate-related events like floods, storms or forest fires typically live in rural areas and then move to larger cities.

“And then what happens is you have this influx of people in the city and competition for resources and not enough shelters or jobs, and it just erodes the quality of life,” McLeman said.

The ability to immigrate is often an indicator of wealth. As climate migrants flow into major cities, people who had previously contemplated starting a new life in another country and have enough assets or family connections in Canada will make the final decision to do so. Those most affected by climate change, on the other hand, are often the most marginalized. They don’t have the resources to adapt to their changing environment or to leave it.

Canada should think about how it can support future climate migrants. But climate-induced migration might also be reduced through two preventative measures: curbing greenhouse gas emissions and providing development assistance for climate adaptation.

Curb Canada’s greenhouse gas emissions

There is still a window of opportunity to avoid the worst impacts of climate change, but it requires global action to cut greenhouse gas emissions now. If this is done, the World Bank estimates as much as 80 per cent of the 140 million potential climate migrants from Sub-Saharan Africa, South Asia and Latin America could be avoided.   

“That’s the root cause of all of this. So, if the international community, including Canada, got together, and met the Paris Agreement [targets], we could probably prevent a lot of hardship in the coming decades,” McLeman said, referring to the international treaty adopted by 196 countries in 2015 to limit the global temperature increase to 2.0 C, with an ambition of 1.5 C, by 2100.

McLeman has met with residents from small island countries in the Pacific that may one day be submerged by rising sea levels. “When you talk to people from those countries, they say: ‘Relocation is not an option for us, we don’t want to relocate. We want to stay where we are. We want you to reduce your greenhouse gas emissions,’” he said.

Island nations and other low-lying countries are part of the reason 1.5 C was the targeted temperature increase at the 2015 Paris climate negotiations. Canada, like most countries, is not on track to meet its Paris Agreement targets.

The difference between 1.5 C and 2.0 C could mean 10 million fewer people lose their homes from rising sea levels, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the UN body that evaluates climate change science. But in 2018 the IPCC concluded the global community is unlikely to keep global warming below 2 C, let alone 1.5 C.

Invest more money in overseas development assistance for climate adaptation

Canada should also increase the amount it spends on development assistance for climate change adaptation, both overseas and at home.

While more costly upfront, investing in climate adaptation will save money down the road, according to the Global Commission on Adaption, an international non-governmental organization. It claims investing US$1.8 trillion in five areas of climate adaptation — early warning systems, climate-resilient infrastructure, improved dryland agriculture crop production, global mangrove protection and water security — could bring about US$7.1-trillion in net benefits by avoiding future losses, promoting economic growth through innovation, and providing further social and economic benefits.

Current global climate adaptation financing is insufficient. According to the UN Environment Programme, the UN body that sets a global environmental agenda, annual adaptation costs in developing countries are around US$70 billion, but multilateral and bilateral development assistance was US $30 billion in 2017-2018, far short of what is needed.

In 2015, to deliver on commitments Canada made under the Paris Agreement, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said Canada would provide $2.65 billion over five years to help developing countries tackle climate change by supporting transitions to low-carbon economies and climate adaptation. Canada fulfilled this pledge and pledged another $5.3 billion over the next five years at the 2021 G7 Leaders’ Summit. While this recommitment is promising, far more investment is necessary if developing countries are to meet the adaptation challenges climate change will impose on them.

Canada’s immigration programs should innovate to support climate migrants

Finally, Canada must be ready and willing to accept climate migrants.

To successfully prepare for climate migration, Canada should build partnerships now with countries that are at high risk from climate change. Such partnerships might include deals that make it easier for students and other young people from those countries to study and work in Canada. “They develop more of a connection with Canada,” Kamal said. “And then, should it be necessary down the line with [a climate] disaster, those communities would have an easier time transitioning.”

Canada could also accelerate immigration applications from climate migrants with family in Canada, something it did after the 2010 earthquake in Haiti.

Climate change has the potential to be a devastating humanitarian crisis that drives millions into exile. If Canada acts now, it can help avoid much of the coming adversity. If the problem is left until it can no longer be ignored, the least Canada can do is ease the suffering of those most affected by preparing homes for them here.

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