‘Climigration’: when communities must move because of climate change



Flood damage in Bundaberg, Queensland, in 2013. Most communities are at some risk from extreme events, but repeated disasters raise the question of relocation.
srv007/Flickr, CC BY-NC

Tony Matthews, Griffith University

This story is part of Covering Climate Now, a global collaboration of more than 250 news outlets to strengthen coverage of the climate story.


Climate change increasingly threatens communities all over the world. News of fires, floods and coastal erosion devastating lives and livelihoods seems almost constant. The latest fires in Queensland and New South Wales mark the start of the earliest bushfire season the states have ever seen.

What happens when climate change causes extreme events to become chronic, potentially rendering some communities unviable? This question is fuelling a new strand of global research focused on “climigration”. Climigration is the planned relocation of entire communities to new locations further from harm. And it has already begun.

The Isle de Jean Charles community is the first to receive US government funding to relocate because of climate change.



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It takes a lot to convince a community to move. But extreme events disrupt communities socially, economically and physically. Buildings and infrastructure are damaged, as are community cohesion and morale. Lives may be lost; many others are changed forever.

When extreme events disrupt communities, responses usually occur in one of two ways. We can try to repair damage and continue as before, which is known as resilience. Or we try to repair and fortify against future damage in a process of adaptation. Climigration is an extreme form of climate change adaptation,

This article draws on our recently published research, which investigated how land-use and strategic planning frameworks can prepare for climigration.

From imagination to reality

Climigration is no longer a concern for the future; it is a challenge today. The notion of strategically relocating entire communities has quickly moved from imagination to reality.

For instance, in 2016 the US Department of Housing and Urban Development provided US$1 billion to help communities adapt to climate change in 13 states. The grants included the first direct allocation of federal funding to move an entire community.

Isle de Jean Charles in Louisiana is the first US community to undergo federally sanctioned climigration. The move has been forced by the loss of coastal land to rising seas and storm surges. Last December, the state bought land at residents’ preferred site to develop their new community.

Property damaged by extreme weather and later abandoned on Isle De Jean Charles.
Maitri/Flickr, CC BY-NC-SA

Climigration options were previously considered in Alaska. Climate-induced coastal erosion has threatened the viability of the village of Newtok for many years. Its residents voted in 2003 to relocate to higher ground but the relocation looks unlikely to be completed before 2023.

In Australia, more than 100 households in Grantham, Queensland, were relocated to higher ground with government assistance after devastating floods caused by an exceptionally strong La Niña in 2011.




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Moving Grantham? Relocating flood-prone towns is nothing new


Critical factors in climigration

Climigration is, of course, not a phenomenon restricted to the US and Australia. It is a growing concern for many countries.

Our research sought to establish a framework for effective climigration planning. We systematically reviewed international case studies of community relocations undertaken because of environmental hazards. As part of this we developed a hierarchy of influencing factors in planning for climigration.

We found that the degree to which a community agrees on the need to relocate is a crucial influence. Consensus generates social capital, which supports action and improves the prospects of successful outcomes.

Perception of the timing and severity of risks is another critical factor. Immediate, obvious risks are more likely to motivate action. Motivation can be low if risks are seen as a problem for the distant future, even if impacts may eventually be devastating.




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Political, economic and logistical support from government moderately influences the success of community relocation. Relocation may still occur without government support, but this is not preferable and the chances of success are lower.

Strong local leadership can improve the capacity of communities to face the reality of relocation and then to resettle. Strategic leadership from outside agencies is a complement to local leadership, not a substitute.

How to plan successfully for climigration

Strategic and land-use planning systems will be central public agencies in many climigration cases.

Planners already have relevant skills and training. These include community consultation, mediation and stakeholder engagement. Planners can coordinate land acquisition and development applications. They can provide temporary housing, infrastructure and transportation.

Planning for climigration also requires other professional input, including disaster management, social psychology and engineering.

Strategic planning for climigration should begin as early as possible. Vulnerable communities can be identified using risk mapping.




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Alternative sites can then be shortlisted and potential logistical demands identified.

Securing land for relocation may place planners in the middle of competing forces. They need to be careful and deliberative to balance the expectations of residents, government, and the market.

Consultation is vital to secure community consensus in the event of climigration. It is a key tool for planners to explain risks and engage residents in crucial decisions.

Specific policy frameworks for climigration are preferable but not essential. When used, they can improve coordination and reduce the risk of negative outcomes.

A confronting concept

While climigration is not yet a common planning issue, it is likely to become an increasingly urgent agenda. Climigration events like those in Louisiana, Alaska and Queensland are just the first wave.

There are limits to the feasibility of climigration. It might only be viable for small towns and villages. Undoubtedly there will be cases where climigration is rejected as too much of challenge.

Triage-based planning could be helpful in deciding which communities to relocate.




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Accepting the notion of climigration may be the biggest challenge for planners. The idea that the only viable future for a community is to be relocated elsewhere is unusual and confronting. Managing climigration through planning practice may prove more straightforward than adjusting to the idea in the first place.The Conversation

Tony Matthews, Senior Lecturer in Urban and Environmental Planning, Griffith University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

How the warming world could turn many plants and animals into climate refugees


Matt Christmas, University of Adelaide

Finding the optimum environment and avoiding uninhabitable conditions has been a challenge faced by species throughout the history of life on Earth. But as the climate changes, many plants and animals are likely to find their favoured home much less hospitable.

In the short term, animals can react by seeking shelter, whereas plants can avoid drying out by closing the small pores on their leaves. Over longer periods, however, these behavioural responses are often not enough. Species may need to migrate to more suitable habitats to escape harsh environments.

During glacial times, for instance, large swathes of Earth’s surface became inhospitable to many plants and animals as ice sheets expanded. This resulted in populations migrating away from or dying off in parts of their ranges. To persist through these times of harsh climatic conditions and avoid extinction, many populations would migrate to areas where the local conditions remained more accommodating.

These areas have been termed “refugia” and their presence has been essential to the persistence of many species, and could be again. But the rapid rate of global temperature increases, combined with recent human activity, may make this much harder.

Finding the refugia

Evidence for the presence of historic climate refugia can often be found within a species’ genome. The size of populations expanding from a refugium will generally be smaller than the parent population within them. Thus, the expanding populations will generally lose genetic diversity, through processes such as genetic drift and inbreeding. By sequencing the genomes of multiple individuals within different populations of a species, we can identify where the hotbeds of genetic diversity lie, thus pinpointing potential past refugia.

My colleagues and I recently investigated population genetic diversity in the narrow-leaf hopbush, a native Australian plant that got its common name from its use in beer-making by early European Australians. The hopbush has a range of habitats, from woodlands to rocky outcrops on mountain ranges, and has a wide distribution across southern and central Australia. It is a very hardy species with a strong tolerance for drought.

We found that populations in the Flinders Ranges have more genetic diversity than those to the east of the ranges, suggesting that these populations are the remnants of an historic refugium. Mountain ranges can provide ideal refuge, with species only needing to migrate short distances up or down the slope to remain within their optimal climatic conditions.

In Australia, the peak of the last ice age led to dryer conditions, particularly in the centre. As a result, many plant and animal species gradually migrated across the landscape to southern refugial regions that remained more moist. Within the south-central region, an area known as the Adelaide Geosyncline has been recognised as an important historic refugium for several animal and plant species. This area encompasses two significant mountain ranges: the Mount Lofty and Flinders ranges.

Refugia of the future

In times of increased temperatures (in contrast to the lower temperatures experienced during the ice age) retreats to refugia at higher elevations or towards the poles can provide respite from unfavourably hot and dry conditions. We are already seeing these shifts in species distributions.

But migrating up a mountain can lead to a literal dead end, as species ultimately reach the top and have nowhere else to go. This is the case for the American Pika, a cold-adapted relative of rabbits that lives in mountainous regions in North America. It has disappeared from more than one-third of its previously known range as conditions have become too warm in many of the alpine regions it once inhabited.

Further, the almost unprecedented rate of global temperature increase means that species need to migrate at rapid rates. Couple this with the destructive effects of agriculture and urbanisation, leading to the fragmentation and disconnection of natural habitats, and migration to suitable refugia may no longer be possible for many species.

While evidence for the combined effects of habitat fragmentation and climate change is currently scarce, and the full effects are yet to be realised, the predictions are dire. For example, modelling the twin impact of climate change and habitat fragmentation on drought sensitive butterflies in Britain led to predictions of widespread population extinctions by 2050.

Within the Adelaide Geosyncline, the focal area of our study, the landscape has been left massively fragmented since European settlement, with estimates of only 10% of native woodlands remaining in some areas. The small pockets of remaining native vegetation are therefore left quite disconnected. Migration and gene flow between these pockets will be limited, reducing the survival chances of species like the hopbush.

So while refugia have saved species in the past, and poleward and up-slope shifts may provide temporary refuge for some, if global temperatures continue to rise, more and more species will be pushed beyond their limits.

The Conversation

Matt Christmas, ARC Research Associate, University of Adelaide

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Most Kiribatian households are mulling climate migration – and that’s just the start


Andrew Geddes, University of Sheffield

The Paris climate summit has come too late for Ioane Teitiota from the Pacific island nation of Kiribati, who made history when his case for asylum in New Zealand was rejected in September.

His claim for protection was based on the effects of climate change. Kiribati president Anote Tong has argued that his citizens should be able to migrate with “dignity”, and a survey released at the Paris summit suggests that people in more than 70% of households in Kiribati and Tuvalu, and 35% of those in Nauru, would consider migrating because of climate stresses.

Kiribati’s president Anote Tong addresses the opening of the Paris talks.
EPA/Etienne Laurent

Hundreds of millions of people across the globe are exposed to environmental risk and this number is likely to grow. UK government research has developed alternative scenarios to identify populations living in cities on floodplains who are potentially exposed to environmental risk. In Southeast Asia numbers were projected to rise from seven million in 2000 to between 30 million and 49 million by 2060. In Africa, a similar exercise projected a rise from two million in 2000 to between 26 million and 36 million by 2060.

To go, or not to go

But being at risk does not necessarily mean these people will migrate to escape it. Even if they were to move, these findings say nothing about the distance people would travel. Most migration is internal within states or, when international, to the next safe place – typically a neighbouring country.

Perhaps more seriously, many people who are especially vulnerable to the effects of climate change lack the physical, financial or social resources to move. The result is potentially hundreds of millions of people effectively trapped in places where they are exposed to significant environmental hazard.

It’s a mistake to imagine that climate change is simply a trigger mechanism that causes people to migrate. Trapped populations, including the elderly or children, are more vulnerable to the effects of climate change and less able to migrate. They are more prone to humanitarian emergencies or future displacement. Relocation away from risk could help, but should respect the rights and dignity of migrants. Facilitated migration could also help avoid future displacement and emergencies, but this requires significant political will and international cooperation.

Political responses have lagged behind the problem. Research suggests that decision-makers’ views are mostly shaped by past responses to refugee issues – meaning climate change is seen as something that could shape the future migration rather than something that is happening now and will only intensify in the future.

Displaced people need to be protected. Since 2008, one person per second – or more than 26 million a year – have been displaced, mainly by extreme weather events. Some 97% of this has happened in developing countries in Asia and Africa. In October, the Nansen Initiative led by the Swiss and Norwegian governments, was endorsed by 114 nations, who have agreed to enhance the humanitarian help available to people who cross borders as a result of climate-related disasters.

An effective migration and mobility agenda means recognising that migration is a key way for people to protect themselves and their families from climate change. The benefit of such an approach is that provisions for mobility can offset the future risk of forced displacement. This requires safe channels that can enable both permanent and temporary migration while protecting migrants’ rights. It requires access to services for these migrants and their family members, while also enabling them to send money and resources back to their family members.

We must think of migration as not always being a crisis and migrants not necessarily as victims, but recognise instead that migration can be a potentially positive and powerful force that helps people to make choices to sustain their livelihoods. Doing this means seeing migration not as part of the problem, but as an important part of the solution to the effects of climate change.

The Conversation

Andrew Geddes, Professor of Politics, University of Sheffield

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Climate refugees: in the too-hard basket?


Cathy Alexander, University of Melbourne

Climate change will force people to flood from poorer regions to Western countries in the coming decades. As many as a billion people will end up on the move as floods, droughts, rising seas and climate-related conflicts spread across the globe, sparking political crises in the countries they head to.

This is one of the narratives we hear about climate-related migration. But a panel of experts has told the Paris summit it is wrong-headed. They called for a fresh way of thinking about an issue they concede is so major that it may be beyond the scope of these COP21 climate negotiations.

The panel of seven academics from European universities, who have been studying climate change-related migration, spoke at a packed side event at the conference centre on Tuesday. They agreed that climate-related migration is happening and will increase; people move for safety (in response to climate-related disasters), and because they’ve lost their livelihoods (such as farming).

One study found there could be 180 million climate refugees by 2040; others have estimated one billion people could be affected. Climate change caused higher food prices which contributed to the Arab Spring uprisings, while major droughts in Syria probably contributed to the devastating civil war (although the panellists emphasised that this was not the major cause of the conflict). Climate-related migration is also an important issue for Australia because vulnerable areas of the Pacific and South Asia are in this region.

But rather than treating climate refugees as a threat, as something to be feared and perhaps excluded, the panellists suggested different approaches.

Debunking myths

First, they pointed out that migration is complex and climate change is just one factor that prompts people to move.

Second, Dr Angela Oels from Sweden’s Lund University cited research from the Pacific (their islands are vulnerable to sea-level rise) that found most people don’t want to relocate. Dr Koko Warner from the United Nations University countered by saying that her research on three Pacific nations, Vanuatu, Kiribati and Nauru, found that 40-70% of residents thought that migration would be needed because of climate change. Almost 100% thought climate change would impact their country. But Warner pointed out that only about a quarter of people could actually afford to migrate, even if they wanted to. Oels’ research also found that many people are trapped by a lack of resources and could not migrate.

Third, the experts suggested that climate refugees be seen as rational people adapting to climate change, not as victims.

Should ‘climate refugees’ be recognised?

There is technically no such thing; the UN classifies refugees as fleeing political persecution (this is controversial and has been tested legally. Dr Francois Gemenne from Sciences Po University in France strongly criticised the idea of defining refugees on political, rather than climate or economic, grounds.

“Who are we to distinguish between the good and the bad refugees?” he asked. “Climate impacts are just another form of violence that we inflict on people.”

Gemenne said the Syrian asylum-seeker crisis in Europe, which hung heavily over this panel session, showed how nonsensical it was to treat economic and political refugees differently.

But Oels raised issues with the idea of “climate refugees”, saying many people did not want to become refugees; they wanted heavily polluting nations to cut their greenhouse gas emissions, so they could stay in their homes.

Can the UN climate summit handle this issue?

Climate-related migration is not a big part of these Paris talks. Some panellists called for a greater focus on the issue, and pointed to areas of the draft Paris text which could focus on human mobility. They said rapid action was needed and the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (the UNFCCC, which is running the Paris summit) should lift its game. An audience member from Bangladesh, which is particularly vulnerable to climate change, said the UNFCCC should deal with the issue. (His comments were welcome given that all seven panellists were from wealthy Western nations; there was no voice representing those at risk of migration due to climate change.)

But Dr Giovanni Bettini from the UK’s Lancaster University said climate migration was such a difficult issue that it was probably beyond the UNFCCC. “Migration is all too political,” he said. “Is migration too controversial for this stage of climate diplomacy?”

Next steps

All the panellists agreed climate migration was going to become a very big issue over time, and the world was simply not prepared to deal with it. The Syrian asylum-seeker crisis showed how unprepared many countries were for these kinds of events, they said.

In terms of a broad principle to apply to climate-related migration, Warner summed it up like this: “We can no longer afford to wait for crises. People should be able to move in safety and dignity … we have a lot of work ahead of us.”

This post was originally published on the Melbourne Sustainable Society Institute’s COP21 blog.

The Conversation

Cathy Alexander, Research Fellow, Melbourne Sustainable Society Institute, University of Melbourne

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.