A recent blog post by Michael Wertz and Laura Conley at thinkprogress.org provides an excellent overview of the inter-connections between climate change, population migration, and conflict. The authors address crisis scenarios in the 21st century, providing a stark picture of the challenges ahead, and reminding governments around the world that the problems are real and require attention.

According to the authors, the UN’s recent Human Development Report states that there are already an estimated 700 million internal migrants—those leaving their homes within their own countries— worldwide, a number that includes people whose migration is related to climate change and environmental factors.

While the blog post is targeted toward responses in the US, it includes startling facts from other nations. India, for example, will contribute 22 percent of global population growth and have close to 1.6 billion inhabitants by 2050. The authors argue that these demographic developments are certain to spark waves of internal migration across the country.

In Africa, concerns are widespread, with the Nigerian government in 2010 referring to climate change as the “greatest environmental and humanitarian challenge facing the country this century,” demonstrating that climate change is no longer seen as solely scientific or environmental, but increasingly as a social and political issue, cutting across all aspects of human development.

In light of these challenges, the authors recommend that the global community and the US create a sustainable security situation designed to deal with climate change, migration, and conflict. Their recommendations include:

  • Develop strategies to strengthen intergovernmental cooperation on transboundary risks in different regions of the world
  • Ensure better information flows and more effective disaster response for early-warning systems
  • Support the best science to expand our understanding of specific circumstances such as desertification, rainfall variability, disaster occurrence, and coastal erosion, and their relation to human migration and conflict
  • Identify regions most vulnerable to climate-induced migration, both forced and voluntary, in order to target aid, information, and contingency-planning capabilities
  • View migration as a proactive adaptation strategy for local populations under pressure due to increased environmental change

The fourth bullet, on identifying vulnerable regions, has received a lot of attention in international development and economics. Some economists, for instance Berkeley’s Edward Miguel, support strategies like Rapid Conflict Prevention Support, which provides agriculture-dependent countries suffering temporary income drops due to poor weather or commodity price declines with immediate funding relief to avoid conflicts from breaking out.

The challenges facing those who have been forced to move and in doing so have lost their cultural and spiritual attachments to their sense of place are enormous. Support services and innovative employment schemes will be key, as will housing options and education.

In Canada, we may see Inuit and other northern communities displaced as permafrost melts and they experience a huge influx of people ready to do business as the Northwest Passage becomes ice-free. Our country may become a destination for millions of international environmental migrants who have lost their homes and livelihoods due to extreme weather and coastal erosion. Pests and new health risks may displace communities here and abroad.

ACT will study climate change adaptation and population displacement as its seventh session in 2013. The time is coming for Canada to prepare for this new reality at all levels of government, so that we can seize opportunities, as well as offset the problems that may arise.