Climate Migration In The News

Climate Migration and Cities: Preparing for the Next Mass Movement of People

This article first appeared on the New Security Beats website. MMC engages in content partnerships with several organizations, and cross-posting does not indicate an endorsement or agreement.

Amid the COVID-19 pandemic, communities across the globe are experiencing unprecedented climate disasters.

According to modeling by ProPublica, the Pulitzer Center, and The New York Times Magazine, in the event that governments take “modest action to reduce climate emissions, about 680,000 climate migrants might move from Central America and Mexico to the United States by 2050.” That number leaps to above a million people in a scenario where no action is taken. The impacts of climate change on people’s decision to move are not constrained to the developing world, or even across borders. A recent study found that one in 12 Americans currently residing in the southern U.S. will move to California and the Northwest over the next 45 years because of climate influences.

Across the world, we are facing the likelihood of increased numbers of both internal and cross-border migration. And it is highly likely that cities—with their potential to offer jobs, education, and health care access—will be the favored destination.


Climate migration is complicated to unpack. Decisions to move are often made as a result of numerous factors, and those factors—political, social, economic, and environmental—interact in complex ways that confound definitions and lead to confusion and debate among academics and practitioners. 

But one thing is clear—climate change will increasingly drive migration. This includes migration due to climate-induced food and water insecurity, increasingly severe weather events, and more severe and frequent disease outbreaks. And much of that migration will be to cities across the globe.

Decisions to move are often made as a result of numerous factors, and those factors—political, social, economic, and environmental—interact in complex ways.

According to the UN, half of humanity—3.5 billion people—live in cities today; 5 billion people are projected to live in cities by 2030. And according to UNHCR, cities are increasingly the prime destination for forcibly displaced persons, refugees, and migrants as they offer the potential for housing, employment, health, and safety. 

Take San Salvador, for example. Since 2000, El Salvador city’s population has grown by more than 30 percent to 1.1 million, largely as a result of migration from rural areas driven by widespread drought, food insecurity, and violence, a trend which is likely to continue in the coming years.

Cities across the world are experiencing the rural-to-urban migration seen in El Salvador. And not just to mega-cities like Cairo and Rio de Janeiro, but also to smaller cities like Buffalo in the northern United States—a city less likely vulnerable to the effects of climate change. 

A lack of planning and preparation for receiving cities could have devastating consequences. City and local governments will have to prepare for increased flows of climate-affected migrants—from water, sanitation, and housing, to electricity and healthcare provision. This will become particularly important in the event that a massive natural disaster forces an entire city to move location. Many large cities already have large numbers of urban poor residents living in peri-urban areas that lack infrastructure and access to services.

Beyond this, migrants are often stigmatized as the “other” and subjected to racism and hate. Such issues can result in increased crime and retaliatory incidents. And migrants who cannot find jobs are often at higher-risk of joining criminal gangs or more radical movement.


Cities across the globe are preparing for the future through a combination of approaches, which include redesigning cities, sharing best practices, and scaling innovation. 

Cities’ call for a Global Green New Deal comes in response to stalled efforts at the international level because of inaction on the part of national governments, like the United States.

One important avenue to tackle climate change is through city networks. In October of last year, C40 Cities—a coalition of 94 global mayors representing more than 700 million people—announced support for a Global Green New Deal in recognition of the urgency of climate impacts on cities. A broad coalition—including youth climate activists, and representatives from labor, business, and civil society—also announced their support. This call for a Global Green New Deal comes in response to stalled efforts at the international level because of inaction on the part of national governments, like the United States.

C40 Cities helps cities secure more finance from global bodies to support climate action and implement programs that enable cities to share data. In collaboration with the Mayors Migration Council—a group of city mayors working to empower cities to prepare and manage migration—C40 Cities is using their networks of leaders to influence international policies and improve urban planning and innovation to prepare for climate change.

Mitigation efforts are also taking place at the city level. The impacts of COVID-19 and climate disasters have resulted in new locally-led innovations to lower carbon emissions, develop workforce pathways for the green economy, and create more parks and open spaces that address climate change by reducing carbon emissions, improving air quality, and providing a buffer to sea level rise. 

For cities in the developing world, upgrading informal settlements has led to health and social benefits, economic gains for residents, and even reduced carbon emissions. Take Mukuru, for example—an informal settlement in eastern Nairobi, Mukuru faces severe environmental, health, and disaster risks and it is anticipated that heat spells will heavily impact this community of 100,000 residents. Through a process of community engagement with local government and civil society, an initiative was developed in Mukuru to address waste management, implement cooler housing design, create more green spaces, provide solar power energy for street lighting, and increase pedestrian and cycling accessibility. 

Migrants are also playing an increasing role in helping cities to respond to climate impacts. With the increasing frequency and impact of disasters in the southern and western United States, immigrant workers have become an important component of disaster recovery, helping to rebuild, for example in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, Houston after Hurricane Harvey, and North Carolina after Hurricane Florence. Lacking documentation, however, many of these immigrant workers are left vulnerable to exploitation “by employers who do not always pay what they are owed, or landlords who charge exorbitant rent for their temporary quarters.”

Amid this trend, Resilience Force is an example of a national initiative in the United States to improve the U.S. response to emergencies by organizing and boosting the capacity of migrant groups. Working with community advocates, governments, and the private sector, Resilience Force is innovating the way recovery happens by creating a resilient workforce that includes firefighters, construction workers who fortify buildings in preparation for disasters, and health care workers who help those impacted by disasters.


The growing momentum of groups like C40 Cities, innovative local governance like that seen in Mukuru, and the efforts of organizations like Resilience Force illustrate that inclusive and climate resilient communities are possible. By addressing inequities through workforce development projects, and including diverse stakeholders in the solution, local economies have a better chance of thriving.   

Climate change is already affecting migration patterns. And action is needed now—not just in the United States but across the world. For progress to be made, local innovations like those in Florida, where Resilience Force is working, and Mukuru will be pivotal in preparing for future city influxes. But more than ever, there is a need for international coalitions that include a range of stakeholders—from city mayors to urban planners and climate scientists—to help design models that can be scaled up and across the world.


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