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The impacts of climate change are driving displacement and migration around the world and are set to get much worse. Between 25 million and 1 billion people are expected to move because of the changing climate by 2050.1The low estimates are likely to be too optimistic – climate-related disasters displaced 30 million people in 2020 alone. This not only has huge implications for people, but for the places they leave behind and move to.
Most climate migrants will move to cities. In this article, we look at what cities should know, and how your city can begin planning today.
Climate migration and displacement is impacting people and cities now
There is unequivocal evidence that global warming and its impacts are increasingly forcing people to leave their homes in search of safety and better livelihoods, as confirmed by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change Working Group II (IPCC WGII) report. Cities are impacted by climate migration challenges as people either leave, arrive or transit through them:
- Most climate migration journeys occur within countries, and towards cities. Of the people displaced today, most don’t travel across national borders and 70% have settled in cities – both patterns are set to continue.
- The biggest causes of climate migration are extreme storms, floods, drought and extreme heat, along with damage to livelihoods and critical infrastructure. In Dakar, Senegal, for example, flooding has already displaced tens of thousands of people since 2005. Sea level rise will become an increasingly important driver in the coming decades.
- Cities in all countries are likely to be affected, but Global South cities will experience the greatest impacts. To date, rural agricultural communities in South Asia and sub-Saharan Africa are seeing some of the heaviest climate impacts, displacing households towards cities.
- Climate migration is contributing to rapid and unplanned urbanisation in areas that are highly exposed to climate change, especially on the coast: an additional 2.5 billion people are projected to live in urban areas by 2050, of which 1 billion are expected to move to cities and settlements in low-elevation coastal zones (less than 10 metres above sea level). This increases the risk of future displacement, and puts pressure on local services and infrastructure.
- Climate-induced displacement is where people are forced to leave their home permanently or temporarily, driven mainly by a sudden-onset climate-related disaster event(s).
- Climate-induced migration is more complex, with the decision to move often linked to multiple drivers (including climate risk and slow-onset climate events) and, to some degree, voluntary.The line between migration and displacement can be difficult to define. We use ‘climate migration’ to refer to both.
- Climate migration is a climate justice issueLow-income households are disproportionately affected by climate migration – particularly in the Global South – and will be most vulnerable as climate impacts increase. This is caused by systemic inequalities resulting from generations of political, social and economic marginalisation. Many low-income displaced populations have no option but to move to informal settlements and under-serviced areas with inadequate housing and poor social determinants of health. This is especially true in Global South cities where a high proportion of urban construction is informal. Often, these settlements are also vulnerable to climate hazards. In Freetown, Sierra Leone – where the population is expected to double by 2030 – rapid rural-urban migration is already resulting in the expansion of informal settlements in the city’s most climate-vulnerable areas.
Your city should begin planning today
Cities can reduce the risk of climate displacement by building resilience to climate impacts and promoting better outcomes for those who move. Here’s what your city can do:
BUILD LOCAL RESILIENCE TO KEEP PEOPLE OUT OF HARM’S WAY AND AVERT DISPLACEMENT
- Invest in urban climate adaptation. Cities can tackle the impacts of climate hazards to avert displacement from or within cities. Read our guides on adapting to sea level rise and coastal flooding; flooding; water scarcity and drought; wildfires; and extreme heat. Measures should include nature-based solutions, which are often more effective and affordable than man-made interventions.
- Accommodate future population growth with resilient urban planning. Integrate climate risk assessment and adaptation into urban planning and land management as cities expand, to plan for present and future climate hazards. Freetown, for example, is preventing new construction in risk-prone areas such as coastline and hillslopes.
- Collect disaggregated data as part of the climate risk assessment to protect the most vulnerable communities. Understand climate impacts on different demographics to design equitable and effective resilience investments. Austin, Texas, has been working with the University of Texas and local groups to map how low-income and migrant communities are disproportionately exposed to extreme heat.
- Where necessary, support and incentivise movement out of hazardous areas. Voluntary migration as an anticipatory response to climate change is itself an effective adaptation strategy. When risk-reduction measures in an area are unviable or already exhausted, cities can break cycles of destruction and displacement by helping people move from at-risk areas, for example, by offering housing buy-out options for affected households or working with nearby, less risky cities to facilitate voluntary movement.
GIVE NEWCOMERS ACCESS TO ESSENTIAL SERVICES AND INVOLVE THEM IN SHAPING THE CITY’S CLIMATE ACTION
- Give newcomers access to fundamental rights and essential services, regardless of legal status. Coordinate with civil society to facilitate the delivery of essential services including health, education and housing, and create designated points of contact for newcomers arriving in the city. Beirut, Lebanon is helping undocumented migrants access medical services, while Barcelona, Spain has strengthened coordination with civil-society organisations to ensure the delivery of essential services to newcomers.
- Involve migrants in the city’s climate action and green economy. Newcomers can contribute significantly to urban economies. Providing vocational training and reskilling, and promoting other inclusive labour-market policies for migrants and other marginalised workers, can maximise opportunities for the city and for individuals. Inclusive planning provides practical tools. Accra, Ghana, for example, is strengthening dialogue with informal workers including migrants on how to shape local climate action. Amman, Jordan, has leveraged international funding to boost access to green jobs for both Syrian refugees and other vulnerable residents. As part of its resilience strategy, Cincinnati, Ohio is positioning itself as a ‘climate haven’, leveraging the opportunity to attract new businesses and residents while anticipating the arrival of people moving away from the coastline.
COLLABORATE WITH CITIES TO INFLUENCE NATIONAL AND INTERNATIONAL POLICY CHANGE
- Encourage supportive actions by national governments and international organisations. Key issues are cities’ access to adaptation finance, recognising migration as a form of adaptation, recognising the urban dimension of climate-related displacement in national development plans, and the development of national assessments with locally disaggregated data on climate-related mobility. In Bangladesh, where the capital, Dhaka, is struggling to absorb climate migrants, the country has come up with a strategy to develop secondary cities to help manage migrant flows. It is working with cities including Mongla and Cox’s Bazar to build new hubs of economic innovation.
- Cooperate with other cities through networks and initiatives. Cities should share information on best practices, work together to facilitate skills development and collaborate to influence policy at a national and international level. Our guide to city diplomacy sets out the major global city networks.
Read the Global Mayors Action Agenda on Climate and Migration for more on these points
The Global Mayors Task Force on Climate and Migration, led by a core group of nine mayors, aims to drive recognition of the key role of cities at the intersection of climate and migration and accelerate local, national and international responses to these challenges. It is led by two mayor-led networks, the migration-focused Mayors Migration Council (MMC) and climate-focused C40 Cities. At COP26, members published a Global Mayors Action Agenda on Climate and Migration outlining a vision for inclusive action on climate and migration, which we have drawn from here.