How will climate change impact on migration?

Published 15 November 2011 / By COMPAS Communications

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By: Ida Persson, Events and PR Officer

With climate change at the forefront of everyone’s mind these days and with migration being the focus of COMPAS research, we thought it appropriate to arrange a COMPAS Breakfast Briefing on the subject, coinciding with the launch of the Foresight report “Migration and Global Environmental Change – Future Challenges and Opportunities” by the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills.

Allan Findlay, Professor of Population Geography, from the School of Geography and Geosciences at the University of St. Andrews, one of several contributors to the Foresight report, spoke at the COMPAS Breakfast Briefing on Friday, November 11 at The Diana, Princess of Wales Memorial Fund. Will climate change cause increased movement to the UK, he asked. The short and very concise answer was – No.

The impact of climate change on migration, commented Sarah Spencer, who chaired the meeting, is an area shrouded in a large amount of alarmist predictions. What is needed, and what COMPAS hoped to provide through the Breakfast Briefing, is facts on and analysis of what effect of global environmental threats will have on migration – particularly with regards to movement to the UK.

What is the relationship between mobility and environmental change?
Professor Findlay stressed that it is important to turn around the traditional way of looking at climate change and migration. The approach he took was to look at migration itself and how its drivers might be affected by global and environmental change, rather than starting with environmental change and looking at what it does to migration. By making mobility itself the starting point, one can recognise that it is a complex thing, but that environmental change might be a part of that complexity.

He also looked at destination rather than origin of movement and thus asked what countries might be affected by movement cause by environmental change.

Who is affected?
With significant climate change predicted over the next 50 years, will this lead to increased migration and population displacement? Various reports have suggested that up to 200 million people will be displaced by the year 2060.

Different forms of environmental change or hazards will affect different people and stimulate different forms of movement. A drought, with a slower onset, for example, will cause a different kind of movement than a sudden onset disaster such as flooding.

Allan Findlay showed that the groups most likely to be affected by environmental change are the populations that are already most vulnerable, generally poorer populations and other exposed groups (such as, in the example of hurricane Katrina, the elderly).

Will more people from around the world come to the UK?
There are places in the world more affected by environmental issues than others (eg flooding in India, drought in Africa etc.). Concerns exist that environmental events in these places might result in large flows of people moving from the global south to the global north. As a result Allan Findlay and others have undertaken research projects to determine whether or not such concerns and fears are justified.

Generally people wish to remain rooted, even if there might be other, safer, more attractive places to move to, but are displaced by environmental change. However, there are a number of reasons why it is unlikely that they would move the UK. As Allan Findlay states “The socially most vulnerable groups consistently encounter the greatest difficulties in moving in response to environmental hazards. Rootedness and immobility are dominant features even where adverse environmental circumstances prevail.”

As mentioned, many people affected live in more vulnerable, less affluent conditions. Being struck by an environmental hazard does not mean that they will suddenly have the financial means to uproot to a different country. Most people are displaced within their own country.

Professor Findlay suggests that it is this immobility that should be the main concern for policy makers when there is an environmental threat.

When there is cross country movement, Professor Findlay states that we need to look more at cultural connections and proximity. It is more likely for people to move to places with which they have a cultural connection – eg from North Africa to France, or to which they are physically closer. Movement from the global south will therefore not affect the UK. It is more likely, he states, that issues in Eastern Europe, such as agricultural decline, will cause an increase in movement to the UK because there is already a pattern of movement to the UK from this area. Movement, Allan Findlay concludes, is more likely to be proximate and relate to already existing flows.

This is a brief overview of Professor Findlay’s talk, but a briefing document and podcast will be available online soon.

For details on future COMPAS Breakfast Briefings, please visit