The Next Great Wave: Human Migration and Climate Change

Monday, June 13, 2022
Alkis Konstantinidis/REUTERS

Research Professor, Institute for the Study of International Migration, Georgetown University

Senior Environmental Reporter, ProPublica (via videoconference)

Lead Environmental Specialist and Regional Climate Change Coordinator in the Africa Region, World Bank Group


President, Refugees International; Professor of Public Affairs, University of Minnesota; CFR Member

Silberstein Family Annual Lecture on Refugee and Migration Policy, Renewing America, and Silberstein Family Annual Lecture on Refugee and Migration Policy

Our panelists discuss the implications of climate change for global governance, mass migration within and between nations and regions, and U.S. national security.

The Silberstein Family Annual Lecture on Refugee and Migration Policy was established in 2019 through a generous gift from Alan M. Silberstein and the Silberstein family. The lecture provides CFR with an annual forum to explore emerging challenges in refugee and migration policy in the United States and around the world.

SCHWARTZ: We’re ready. Terrific.

Hello, everybody. So nice to be in person but we’re also virtual.

I’m Eric Schwartz. I’m president of Refugees International as well as a former senior State Department official and senior NSC official focused on refugee and migration issues.

It is my distinct pleasure to welcome you all, both those of you who are here and those of you who are with us virtually, to the Silberstein Family Annual Lecture on Refugee and Migration Policy. This important series has been made possible by a generous gift from Alan Silberstein and the Silberstein family.

This event has been entitled “The Next Great Wave: Human Migration and Climate Change,” and we are extremely fortunate to be joined by three distinguished experts.

Dr. Elizabeth Ferris is research professor at Georgetown University’s Institute for the Study of International Migration, and she is one of the country’s most distinguished migration scholars and experts. Beth and I also serve as co-chairs of the Refugees International convened expert task force last summer on the climate crisis and global migration entitled “A Pathway for Protection for People on the Move.”

Dr. Kanta Kumari Rigaud, to my left, is a lead environmental specialist at the World Bank. Dr. Rigaud served as the lead author of the major bank report “Groundswell: Preparing for Internal Climate Migration,” which projected, as I recall, the internal movement of nearly 150 million people by 2050 in sub-Saharan Africa, in South Asia, in Latin America alone, absent action on climate and development.

Finally, Abrahm Lustgarten is an environmental reporter for ProPublica and his work has been wide ranging and widely recognized and awarded, his July 2020 piece informed by a modeling collaboration between ProPublica, the New York Times, with the support of the Pulitzer Center, and building on work begun in the “Groundswell” report, which I just mentioned.

That article offered critically important observations not only on climate and migration in the Americas but also about actions that governments could take to address mitigation and protection, and the article also discussed the costs of the failures to do so.

So within policy, not to mention academic circles, there does seem to be somewhat of a consensus that over the next several decades tens of millions of people, if not many more, will have to migrate due to disasters exacerbated by the impacts of climate change and, further, consensus that while most of the migration will likely be internal there will also be movements across borders, that far-reaching and even transformational measures toward climate change mitigation, climate adaptation, and disaster risk reduction and protection for those who have to flee will be central components of a strategy to avoid the prospects of considerable suffering and even misery, competition for resources, and conflict.

In February of 2021, President Biden directed his national security adviser to prepare a report on this challenge of climate change and global migration, and the resulting document, which was released in October, tended to reaffirm many if not most of those conclusions I just mentioned.

But their recommendations for U.S. government action were, frankly, rather tepid. At the same time, we have seen both from the U.S. government, from foreign governments, from international organizations, a range of measures to direct resources toward these challenges.

Thus, for each of our panelists, I will start with a basic question, and I think we will ask Dr. Rigaud to begin and then we’ll turn to Beth Ferris and then to our ProPublica expert.

Thus, for each of our panelists, I will start with a basic question and ask that they take no more than five minutes to offer a preliminary answer.

The title of this event—so here’s the question. The title of this event begins with the great wave, suggesting a policy challenge of enormous proportion. So in the scheme of global grand challenges, how surmountable or insurmountable is this one and how do you assess efforts to identify and to work towards solutions?

Dr. Rigaud?

RIGAUD: Thank you very much, Eric, and thank you very much for the opportunity to be here for this very important conversation.

As has been outlined, I think it is a great policy challenge and I think even before we go into the great wave in terms of the climate migration, I think it’s important, perhaps, to step back and recognize just how huge the climate crisis is.

The Intergovernmental Panel for Climate Change in this last few months have been putting out their reports and they put out three working group reports, and the most recent one on adaptation and impacts, I think, it’s a sobering report that really recognizes the kind of existential challenge we have in terms of the impacts that climate change would have.

Putting even migration aside for a moment, just the nature of climate’s impacts are so broad brushed that they will touch everybody and every sphere of life. And then when you come and you begin to look at the human dimension in terms of the impact and the push and the pull in terms of mobility and migration, it is also one that, I think, we need to begin to take very seriously.

Now, when the World Bank put out that first report that you mentioned, Eric, we actually have put out a second report that went on and covered three other regions, and the number we put out there is that there could be as many as 216 million people over the six regions that the World Bank works in.

Now, I wouldn’t make any pronouncement to say whether the number is huge or small. But I think what we would say is that we’ve already seen a fair number of displacements today, right. I mean, IDMC puts out every year the number of people who are displaced and at their highest number they had 40-plus million.

But what was even more important was three out of the four people moved because of weather-related and climate events. And so when you begin to think that the nature of climate’s impacts is going to be so widespread, we definitely have to be ready.

So from a development institution perspective, I think, you know, to answer—to take sort of a broad brush, what do we do? I think there are, really, three parts to our response.

The first is that there are crises unfolding as we speak and it’s really important we address those crises, whether they are in the Horn of Africa where you have millions of refugees and displaced people, or in Lake Chad where the situation for livelihoods in those regions have become more stressed, or the pastoralists in the whole Sahel who are more and more challenged because of the water stress and the climate variability.

So we have to look at those situations and do a few things better. We have to make sure that, A, if they can, to the best extent possible, adapt in place and support, whether it’s social safety nets, early warning systems, cash transfer programs, and create that kind of situation where they are better able to adapt in place.

But there are limits to that. And in some cases you have to facilitate that kind of movement to happen, and multiple projects we can come back to and programs, which can take a little bit more of an anticipatory approach to facilitating that movement so that communities themselves don’t have to move in a distress-driven fashion. But there is a planning that can be done as we did in São Tomé using the state-of-the-art satellite data information, together with planning and working bottom up with the two thousand inhabitants and ten communities, to facilitate that movement.

But the third part, which really gets to your point about transformational aspects, that transformational aspect is about, really, using, perhaps, even the migration as aid, as a dividend, as an opportunity. When we know that rural-urban migration is going to happen how do we make sure that we have the right kind of investments to facilitate that type of movement, investments in human capital, and policy shifts that are equally transformational and can meet the kind of challenge we are about to go through?

Let me stop there.

SCHWARTZ: Thank you.


FERRIS: Thanks.

I have a bit of a problem with the title “The Great Wave.” I mean, the great wave seems to imply hundreds of thousands of people arriving at the same time, usually in the popular mind on a national border, and, yet, we know that most climate-related migration is likely to be internal and likely to pose more of a threat to urban planners, perhaps, than to border management policies. I think we need to really focus on the internal movements that are likely, likely to be increasing urbanization that we’ve already seen in recent decades.

You know, the whole field of climate migration is kind of messy, in part because people rarely, if ever, move solely because of climate change. Economic, political, social factors always interact with environmental hazards to lead to a decision to move.

I sometimes use the example of my two sisters in south Texas, both of whom live on the coast, both of whom have been displaced, evacuated for hurricanes multiple times, both of whom suffered flood damage, both about the same socioeconomic background. And one of my sisters said last summer, I’ve had it. I’m out of here, and moved to San Antonio. And my other sister said, well, I can’t move. My job is here and my husband is here. My community is here.

You know, so similar environmental hazards can produce very different decisions to move or not to move, sometimes because of individual risk tolerance, sometimes because of economic possibilities. Possibilities for someone with the means to move are quite different than those who are less fortunate economically.

So this multi-causal nature of movement makes it very difficult to develop policies for climate migrants. We know through international law that people who cross an international border for environmental reasons aren’t refugees under international law. But the assumption in international law is that migration is always voluntary, and we also know that not all of this movement is going to be free choice, informed consent, that there is an element of coercion here.

Our international system is not prepared to deal with this. We focus on refugees who are forced, persecution, migrants who are voluntary. Climate migrants, people who move at least, in part, because of environmental reasons don’t fit, really, in either category.

And yet, there’s, I would say, zero appetite in the international community to come up with a new convention, although lawyers and academics have drafted at least ten or twelve conventions that might deal with it.

But how do you define who is a climate migrant? Is everybody who moves from Honduras after a hurricane a climate migrant? Not all environmental hazards are due to climate change. We had droughts and hurricanes for hundreds of years before we were aware, at least, of human-induced climate change.

Do we treat people displaced by a weather-related disaster differently than someone displaced by an earthquake or a volcano, which aren’t related to climate change?

Lots of issues to unpack when we talk about climate migration, although I think, as Kanta said, certainly, there’s a consensus in the academic literature that the—you know, the massive, potentially, catastrophic effects of climate change will, indeed, lead to large movements of people.

But our policy tools really haven’t caught up with how to deal with facilitating migration when it is an appropriate adaptation measure and how to prevent or minimize or resolve displacement when people are forced to leave their homes.

Within the academic community there are hundreds and hundreds of people now working on this, sometimes from very different backgrounds, from climate science to national security to international law to disaster risk reduction. Sometimes academics have a hard time even talking to people in these different disciplines, agree on certain assumptions.

So I think this is going to be a huge issue. We need to work hard and to develop policy tools, particularly, at the national and subnational levels, to be aware of some of the international complexities and, perhaps, we should use vocabulary other than the big wave.

SCHWARTZ: That’s actually a really appropriate point at which to turn to Abrahm.

But before I do, I just want to say, you know, in my mind, you know, just to grossly simplify, we’re talking about a range of efforts—adaptation, disaster risk reduction, development—to give people the opportunity not to have to migrate and that’s with respect to internal and migration beyond borders. So that’s one set of issues.

There is the second set of issues of internal migration, which everyone seems to agree is going to be much more prominent than migration beyond borders and the importance of governments coming to grips with those issues. But I think everyone recognizes or most people recognize the responsibility of such governments.

But the third basket, which is why I think it’s appropriate now we turn to Abrahm, who’s written about this issue, is how to deal with migration—with forced migration that crosses borders and even if that’s not going to be the lion’s share of climate-induced migration.

So, Abrahm, I hope I’ve set you up OK for your comments.

LUSTGARTEN: You have. Thank you. And it’s wonderful to be here. I am sorry I can’t be there with you all in person but it’s an honor to be part of this conversation.

I’m going to start off where Beth left off with this idea of the wave, just to address that, because I think that often what’s lost is a sense of geologic time or a sense of timescale. And so, you know, I just wanted to offer that through my—the experience of my reporting, I think that if we look at this over a century or the next fifty years what we do see is whether internationally or internally in countries from the United States to, you know, to the Sahel that there will be a large-scale reorganization of where people live—a demographic reorganization.

And so that’s a sort of wave in itself but that it’s not the same as saying that the next heat wave is going to push the next migrant caravan of six thousand people up against the U.S. border, and so there’s a little bit of a difference of sort of the scope of the conversation.

Look at some of the research that I based my reporting on and it suggests that, you know, 20 percent of the planet by 2070 will be, you know, environments that were for the past six thousand years considered, you know, unlivable or not preferable, and, roughly, 3 billion people by 2070 will live in those—in that 20 percent area that will be, you know, somewhat unsuitable.

And so you can imagine that not all of those 3 billion people will move but those will be 3 billion people that will be making that decision about, you know, where to go and when to go. And that was kind of the basic question for the reporting that I did in 2019 and 2020, which focused on Central America as sort of the reporting example and built off of the modeling that the World Bank did, and I teamed up with Bryan Jones at the City University of New York, who was one of the architects of the World Bank’s model, to see if we could expand that model to look at this question of cross-border migration and not just internal displacement to try to get a sense of what the larger geopolitical repercussions might be of a mass movement of people.

And without going into too much detail, the modeling is incredibly difficult and not foolproof but it gets at these policy questions that, you know, have already come up here. We put together a matrix of possibilities. You, basically, chart the severity of climate change and the range of policy responses to that climate change, which might include building a wall along the southern border of the U.S. or diminishing or increasing foreign aid and so forth, and, you know, the essential—the basic findings are that the amount of direct engagement and kind of humanitarian response and anticipatory response that is positive—so increasing of aid or increasing engagement in programs to make, you know, home communities more resilient, more sustainable to the environmental changes—that all of those things have a very positive net effect in reducing the number of people that the model suggests will be on the move.

And the opposite holds true and suggests conflict. So we might be able to, to look at the example of the United States, you know, build a wall that keeps people who want to move to the United States out, but by doing that will increase pressure. The numbers of people seeking to move for climate-related reasons out of Central America, in my example, will increase and the tensions around that border situation will—you know, will increase substantially from there.

I’ve also been looking at the question of internal migration in the United States—it’s a subject of the book that I’m working on now—and the numbers for potential people uprooted within the United States are also considerable. Roughly, half the population—the data that I’m looking at suggests—will be faced with questions about how to adapt to their—to rising heat in their environment, increasing coastal threats, increasing wildfires, things like that.

And what happens in the United States is so incredibly different from what happens in north Africa or the experience of the communities in both of those places but the dynamics are sort of strikingly similar in terms of what’s needed to meet those changes, and I just want to echo, you know, what I think has already been said that, like, anticipating that change, creating policy that is prepared for it in advance and not reactive to it as it happens is going to be critical to—you know, to defining how smoothly this widespread demographic change over the next couple of decades happens.

In the United States it boils down to, really, the same old sort of standard policy or social policy offerings. You know, how well are your communities prepared for an increasing population that will need more, you know, water treatment facilities or sewage treatment facilities or schools for children, you know, or accessibility of healthy food? These are sort of standard sociopolitical questions.

Now they’re all going to be exacerbated as populations shift, as climate and migration in the United States, as elsewhere, divides rich and poor even more so. It’ll be a great, you know, exacerbating underlining factor. And so the question of how—that you began with of, you know, how surmountable is this challenge, I think all depends on, you know, how willing our politicians and leaders are to—you know, to meet that head on and somewhat aggressively.

SCHWARTZ: We only have—thank you, Abrahm, and thank you both, Kanta and Beth, for really great opening statements, and we’re going to open this up for queues—for questions in about seven minutes.

So I have time, really, to come back with one question and, you know, I could—using the rubric I described before, you know, I could talk about the prevention development element of this. I could talk about the internal migration and responses, and I could talk about international protection.

And as this is the Council on Foreign Relations, I want to talk about international protection and the—and I just want to ask a very simple question. How is the—how are countries of the world doing with respect to identifying ways to protect those who are fleeing based on factors that go beyond the Refugee Convention definitions of persecution? How is the world doing and what should governments be doing?

There is—I will say that in the Biden report—in the report to President Biden there is language about working with Congress to consider measures to provide protections for those who are forced to flee due to climate. But there’s—but that language is explore. It’s not, you know, we need to do this.

So you’ve got—you each have about two minutes to answer the question. But with respect to international protection, what should be done and how are governments doing?

And let’s just go the same way so we’ll start with Kanta.

RIGAUD: Sure. No. Thank you. I’m going to, you know, defer to Beth on that.

But let me just say at least in the African context where I’m most familiar with, I mean, you do have, of course—you know, you have the global compact but you also have the Kampala Convention that, I think, is one of the few that does recognize displacements because of climate, you know.

And so there are situations in which, I think, the countries are using that, you know, and from a development perspective what I might add here is that we do have certain projects and programs and together with UNHCR where these kind of displacements have happened. How do we work within that in a cohesive way between those who have been displaced or the refugees and the host communities, and we found that this integrative look at both sides of it is very important so as not to increase the conflict and tension between the migrants and the refugees who come in and the host communities who sometimes feel more marginalized.

So whether it’s in Rwanda and Burundi, we’ve got projects that go up to 60 million (dollars) to a hundred million (dollars) that are looking at very cohesive ways, showing the value added that refugees are providing but also making sure that within those projects and programs you are increasing the sort of socioeconomic status of the host communities.

But I just want to have a thirty-second input to a point that, I think, is really important, and yes, we can talk about the adaptation, the protection, which is, clearly, important here. But in the context of climate change, the mitigation is really important if we want to arrest the kind of drivers that are acting, whether it’s the drought, whether it’s the heat wave, whether it’s the sea level. We really have to step up our mitigation action and reduce the greenhouse gas emissions and that, I think, is an important part of a policy conversation that has to be put on the table.

SCHWARTZ: And thank you for doing that because many of us involved in the issue of climate and migration sort of take—you know, say, well, you know, the mitigation issue sometimes is critically important but it isn’t—it is less part of the discussion than it should be.

Beth, same question. How are we doing on international protection and what should governments do?

FERRIS: Very little has been done on the issue of climate migration in terms of international standards, more, perhaps, on the regional level and there, I think, there are some kind of exciting opportunities in places like Central America or the Pacific Islands.

When it comes to disaster displacement, we’ve come much further. The platform on disaster displacement has catalogued some fifty, sixty governments in the world that have something, some way of responding to people who are displaced by sudden onset or even slow onset disasters.

But disaster displacement is easier to define than climate displacement for lots of reasons. So I think we’ve made some progress there that we can build on.

So you’ve got a number of countries that offer humanitarian visas, for example. In the U.S., you have temporary protected status. In other countries, you’ve got other ways of dealing with people who move because of disasters.

You know, if we could build on that and if we had, you know, better scientific evidence on the extent to which climate change can be held responsible for these environmental changes, maybe we could get to some better basis for policy.

But also to say I think it’s really interesting to compare the amount of interest from policymakers and academics to cross-border migration. There’s a lot of interest compared to internal migration, which will probably account for 80 (percent) or 90 percent of those who move.

If you want to deal with Central America, I think we need to be working with Central American governments and civil society to support those who are moving internally instead of just focusing on our own borders.

SCHWARTZ: Thank you. Thank you, Beth.

Beth is, basically, saying I asked the wrong question, and that’s good. (Laughter.)


LUSTGARTEN: Yeah. Thanks.

I would just build on that. I think that, you know, one of the enormous opportunities is to help improve stability in the places where people live currently before they decide to move, and I think that, you know, there’s enormous opportunity to do this better than it’s being done now or to scale up small efforts that are being done now.

I spent some time with an agricultural community in El Salvador—just as one brief example in the course of my reporting—and there was a program there run by the World Food Programme. This was very small, in one small village. They, with a couple—tens of thousands of dollars, had built a greenhouse program for local farmers, and I spent time with three or four different families in that community who had migrated to the U.S. several times already, been returned or deported or for various reasons returned home, and were faced with drought and were poised to go again until this World Food Programme began, which gave them enormous wealth that they hadn’t experienced, stability in their food supply, the ability to buy a cow, which would let them produce their own milk.

And these small changes kept them happy and in place, and they would for some time going forward. And this program, I think, may have ended since my reporting there; was very much in jeopardy for funding reasons, but was extremely effective.

And the second note I want to hit on is, you know, I think the rise in sovereign debt among the world’s poorest countries, which are many of the same countries that are most susceptible, you know, to the pressures of climate change on their populations, you know, it should be a real alarm bell and I think there’s an opportunity for the development community, for the World Bank, you know, to look at climate change as more of a factor in determining the aid that they give, the loans that they give, and the rates that those loans are given at.

And so I think that, you know, there’s a mismatch between, you know, the funding that’s available to, you know, the poor nations of the world and the reasons that funding is given out and the pressures of climate change and how those pressures relate to migration, and there’s a an enormous opportunity to redefine, you know, that sort of aid paradigm in ways that can help countries enhance their adaptation, reduce their emissions, be better prepared and more resilient for the changes that are going to come, which will, you know, ultimately, reduce the number of people who are displaced.

SCHWARTZ: Thank you, Abrahm.

And let me just sum up, I think, our panelists.

You know, I asked a question about international protection and our panelists fairly responded but also indicated that we have to focus on issues—the world needs to focus on issues like mitigation, on development designed to give people other options and opportunities not to flee, and even internal responses to migration, given that that’s going to be the overwhelming number of people that migrate.

But just to defend my question, there will be, in all likelihood, millions of people who will be crossing borders under any circumstances and it is the international protection issue, which in Africa is, you know, the Kampala Convention has responded to by expanding—essentially, expanding the definition of refugee. The Cartagena Declaration in the Americas sort of does the same thing.

But it’s there where sort of the international perspective of what—of the movement that needs to be made on protection is in such sharp contrast with the domestic political discussion about migration, and that’s why, I think, it’s an issue that we have to continue to ponder.

So with that, I think we’re ready to go to questions and I see Michael Barnett so—with the first hand up.

So, Michael, your question?

Q: OK. Thank you, again, and terrific conversation.

My question is about who’s responsible for the adaptation, because there was a little bit of conversation at the end about a different aid paradigm. But I think we all have accepted that the West created this mess and it has led to questions of differential responsibility and the role of the West. There is a fund to help, in part, to deal with climate change governance and for internal adjustment.

But I’m wondering if you think that because the West has helped to create the underlying conditions that have led to this migration if the West also needs to share the financial responsibility for providing, let’s say, more discretionary and forgiving loans or grants, that the U.N. needs to be able to provide more assistance for internal migration.

I’m kind of wondering about then what that piece of, if you will, distributive responsibility is. That it’s not just the world needs to respond but, rather, there are some parts of the world that have benefited from all of this and now maybe they need to sort of step up to dealing with the effects.


RIGAUD: Yeah. No, happy to take that question. I think it’s one that, you know, the community, the global, local, everyone reflects on it, right.

So the reality is that it’s really a complex conversation and, you know, at least from the perspective of development institutions we are recognizing that we can’t do development without addressing climate change, I mean, and climate and development are so intricately linked.

Point: I think climate has amplified some of the development challenges. Let me just give you an example of heat waves. In the sort of prehistoric—in the historical times a drought, a heat wave, would occur.

But, today, with the one degree increase in global temperatures it occurs two times more frequently, and by the time we reach another point five it will occur four times more frequently, those same heat waves, and then it sort of begins to amplify.

So climate change as a sort of a(n) anthropogenic—and that’s unequivocal from the scientists now—is amplifying some of that development challenges. But we do have some very low development, you know, baselines in some of our countries where this has been amplified.

So when it comes to financing, it is very interesting right now. The World Bank has taken on this year to produce about thirty reports that are called the Country Climate Development Reports and they’ll be launched for the first time at the next COP, and they are taking a very hard look at what those linkages are, not just at the local level, which is extremely important, on the impact of drought, but what does it mean for the macro economy—Abrahm’s reference to the sovereign debt? What is actually needed? What are the financing gaps? And they are enormous, right.

So there is no way these countries can meet them within their own macro fiscal context, and left to that, I think, things would just bubble up the wrong way. So there is a responsibility and a way to—not responsibility. I don’t like to talk in those terms.

But there is a way we need to meet that financing gap, and I think when it comes to the climate convention we do know there is this hundred billion (dollars) that hasn’t transpired and maybe that’s one quick way to look at it. But the financing needs are going to be very large, but the absorptive capacity of some of these countries is equally a challenge.

And I think we need to work on both ends of it. The financing can be constrained, but I think increasing agency, voice, capacity, and all of that is really important—a true and inclusive approach.

SCHWARTZ: I’m going to invite the other panelists to comment on this and invite them also to take up the issue of responsibility because I think that was kind of embedded in Michael’s question.

FERRIS: Yeah, I do think that countries that are responsible for producing most greenhouse gas emissions have a responsibility to support countries and communities trying to adapt to the effects of climate change. I mean, I think that there’s general consensus around that—at least in some parts of the world. It gets more complicated when you add migration in.

Does migration represent a failure of adaption? People move when they can no longer stay where they are. Or is migration itself a form of adaption? I mean, in a lot of cases it seems like it’s a logical response to an environmentally challenging environment to move someplace else.

I mean, we’ve had tons of examples of this in the United States. The Dust Bowl, for example, where you saw a massive migration of people from the center of the country to the coast. You know, that was a rational decision that worked for some families, and so the way in which we conceive of adaption, I think, has a lot to it. But in terms of responsibilities for who should be supporting adaptation, I do think that countries—the U.S., North America, Europe also, China, India, you know, which are responsible for producing most of the emissions.

And let me just put on the table something that hasn’t been mentioned, and that is the possibility, or the need, to relocate whole communities. The UNFCCC process talks about migration, displacement, and planned relocation—when you move a whole community in order to protect them.

We’ve seen that a little bit in the United States with some communities in Alaska, southern Louisiana. In other parts of the world, it’s likely to be used more. It’s complicated, expensive, but may also represent a good adaption response to the effects of climate change.

SCHWARTZ: Abrahm, do you want to have a word on this as well?

LUSTGARTEN: Yeah, please. You know, it’s—this is the subject of some forthcoming work so stay tuned, and I’ll try not to get too ahead of myself.

But the question to responsibility, you know, simply I think the answer is, you know, yes, that responsibility exists. I’ve been speaking with, you know, several heads of state who have raised the issue of reparations when it comes to climate change and the economic costs of trying to address it. And you know, I think that that’s morally the imperative and that’s kind of the ideal, but then there’s the pragmatic, and the pragmatic suggests that—you know, the scale of what’s needed from an economic perspective is so enormous that something other than—well, it’s just—it’s just enormous.

I think the United Nations—the IPCC report suggested that, you know, adaption and mitigation costs will, you know, run something around the order of $50 trillion over the next thirty years. So when you look at the hundred billion dollar, you know, climate fund in that context, it’s not sufficient, and so you need to look for—we will all need to look for mechanisms, maybe, that go beyond reparations, but that use, you know, the institutions that exist and the scale of economies that exist to try to scale up, you know, what kind of aid and—you know, and monies can be available and how they’re distributed.

To loop back really quickly to Beth’s point, I just want to reiterate also that I—you know, I agree that I think, you know, migration is the most natural response to, you know—to changing climate. It’s always been that way.

And you know, I think one of the goals in the conversation is to encourage the freedom to choose rather than to—you know, to try to lock people in place, or to move them somewhere else, or to kind of control that response—but to create an environment where individuals have the security, and—you know, and the stability, you know, to choose where they want to live.

SCHWARTZ: Thank you, Abrahm. I giggled because it’s twenty to one—(laughs)—and this issue is so vast that there’s just so much. But, Kanta, am I still in the—OK.

So I see Pat—and please put your hand up, and I’ll start to make a list.

Q: Thank you, all, for this really insightful presentation, and I appreciate especially that you underscored the multifaceted nature of migration, the very—the mixed reasons and the interconnection among them all.

I would posit that the greatest transformation is being felt in urban areas, whereas most of the attention of the people talking about adaption and prevention has been on rural areas, on agriculture. Granted it’s needed there, but the urban areas—over very, very much time—before our full awareness of the effect of climate change—the urban areas have changed dramatically.

Most people who migrate—I think I’m on safe ground saying that—whether it’s domestically, internally, or internationally—end up in small urban areas that are poor—smaller areas that grow to be really, really big urban areas, and it doesn’t matter if we’re talking about Tijuana or Kabul. People who migrate will end up in the outskirts and in the poorest parts of those areas.

So I’m wondering if any of you are aware of, or have engaged in, or would suggest areas—ways of thinking of adaption of poor—of the underdeveloped urban areas, and how they are adapting to the great wave, in this case, of migrants?

Thank you.

SCHWARTZ: I will ask—please, Beth.

FERRIS: If I could jump in, I think some of the most inspiring things happening at a policy level are being carried out by mayors and by municipal authority. The Mayors Migration Council, for example, is an international body that—you talked about what they’re doing in Freetown to deal with this.

And you’re right, Pat, in terms of the—the evidence so far at least suggests that people are moving from rural areas to cities in part because of climate, in part because of more economic opportunity. Even in places like Bangladesh, where coastal cities are at high environmental risk, you see people still moving there because there are jobs, and perhaps in the countryside there aren’t.

So I think that this is very much an urban area issue, and you know, I’m encouraged by the fact that so many mayors—not nearly enough mayors—are taking this seriously.

SCHWARTZ: The gentleman in the back.

Q: Thank you. Just a couple factual predicates for my questions, I don’t think it’s only the West that’s contributing to climate change. You have China and India and Russia, so it’s not exactly an East-West question.

And secondly, the comments about people being forced to flee because of climate change or involuntary immigration, to me that sort of prematurely answers a question because there’s a lot of other things that precede climate change like you were saying—investment in infrastructure, et cetera. The Dust Bowl didn’t just happen. There were terrible agricultural practices and farming practices that we don’t know if there would have been a Dust Bowl, but it certainly wouldn’t have been what it was.

And so the real question is, how much is climate change—is it really climate change that’s generating migration? And is this an issue not really about climate change, but also about richer versus poorer countries, educated migrants versus uneducated migrants? Is climate change the driver, or is it poverty, or disease, or violence, or discrimination?

And so the ultimate question I ask based on those things are, if migrants between countries claim a sort of climate change amnesty as the reason for going to another country and why they should be let in, how is it going to be decided if it’s climate change or something else that is the predominant reason for the migration?

It’s just a repeat of what’s going on now with amnesty in other respects, and so I think I’ve heard a lot of terrific ideas here, but there’s been a little bit of dancing around the really harder questions and what the solution is. I think you’re all great. I don’t mean to be critical. But those are the thoughts going through in my mind, and if any of you can reflect on that, that would be helpful.

Thank you.

SCHWARTZ: Yeah, I think—if I could just play that back, I think it’s really one question is, is really climate an inevitable driver of migration? And if it is—so that’s a—you know, that is a basic existential question, and then if it is, what are the appropriate policy responses? And I think if I can turn to Abrahm first on this because I think his work is so relevant to your question.

LUSTGARTEN: Yeah, thank you. I—you know, I think the short answer to the gentleman who asked the question is yes, all of those things are factors and not just climate. And the thing about, you know, talking about climate change and migration is that, you know, climate should be seen as, you know, the great exacerbator. It will under—it will amplify and underline, you know, every other pressure that exists—economic, social, political—and in many cases make those pressures worse and contribute to the driving of populations.

You know, one of the things that I learned, you know, was difficult in the scientific approach to understanding climate and migration is just what you suggest, which is that it’s difficult if not impossible, you know, to tease out where—you know, what exactly climate change’s role is compared to those other—you know, those other push factors. But the consensus still is clear that it is, you know, a factor, and that it is—you know, it is having that amplifying effect. You know—and so I think that that’s the way, you know, to see the challenge going forward.

To the question of amnesty, which I consider, you know, sort of separate—and I’m going to sidestep, you know, all the political questions that come with that, which are really, you know, immigration policy questions. I’ve come to see through my reporting that the movement of people is inevitable; that climate change combined with these other factors will inevitably drive, you know, a shifting of populations.

And so the question from a policy perspective is, how do you want to greet that change? Whether you grant amnesty, or you turn people away, or approach immigration the same way you would for any other factor, you know, are sort of separate questions from the larger, you know, recognition of what I believe is the reality, is that people will be pushing against those borders in the United States, in Europe, and elsewhere, as they seek that sort of combination of economic opportunity that is sustainable, you know, in a climate-changed environment.

RIGAUD: Yeah, I just wanted to come back a little bit. I think the question you’re asking is trying to sort of come up with causality and linearity, and that’s a difficult thing, right? I think as Beth outlined in the beginning, at an individual level, the decision is very multifaceted. It depends on geography, locality, context.

And maybe the best is to think about the IPCC recently when they looked at this issue on the climate migration nexus. Now this is what this said. They said that in the current near term, you know, oftentimes the movement is also driven by the social context, environment, the governance challenges, but the potency for climate to push—the push factor is increasing, and you know, in the medium to longer-term, climate will become a bigger and more potent factor acting through the different channels and pathways.

So when you look at the bigger picture and begin to try to figure out what are the factors and what are the push-pull factors, climate is gaining that potency for push—push and pull in both cases, right?

So I don’t know if that directly answers your question, but that’s the scientific word on it based on the peer review literature that—you know, so in the near time, you’re right.

So this is why, you know, I think you nail the point in some ways. You know, we go back to the underlying reason of why people are moving. Oftentimes it’s because of poverty they cannot make ends meet and all of that.

And in terms of, you know, this a corollary to that, there are people who can’t move for precisely those reasons. They are losing their assets. They are losing their resource base, and they’re entrapped.

And in fact, as the impacts of climate increase, that number of the disenfranchised will also increase. So I think it kind of comes back to this great wave, right? In fact, the great wave may be stymied by the fact that there are so many more people who would be just not able to even practice their mobility as an adaption option.

FERRIS: Yeah, I’m really glad you brought of the issue of immobility, or entrapped populations as they’re sometimes called. I mean, we think, for example, that younger, healthier people are more likely to move than older people or people with disabilities. We think that there’s an economic thing in there as well.

It takes some money to migrate. Migration research is pretty clear that the poorest of the poor aren’t the ones who are migrating. They don’t even have the money for bus fare or even know about opportunity. So there are economic and gender dimensions to these questions.

And sometimes by focusing on those who move—and this I would say generally across the board with respect to refugees such as Ukraine right now—we focus a lot on refugees and IDPs, but people who can’t move may be those most in need of assistance and for whom assistance is most difficult.

We may see something similar or parallel when it comes to environmental drivers of migration or lack of migration.

SCHWARTZ: We’re going to go now to our virtual audience, and if I—I guess I’ll recognize a questioner, but beyond that I don’t know what I’m supposed to do. (Laughs.)

OPERATOR: We will take a—we will take a virtual question from Charles Weiss.


Q: I just wanted to add an important economic dimension, which is the changes in manufacturing technology, which are going to exacerbate, I suggest, all the things that the panelists have said. The—it’s getting harder and harder to get into the lowest levels, the most labor-intensive parts of manufacturing technology, which is going to decrease the employment possibilities at low wages because the wage has become less and less important.

It will be hard as people—as the panelists have said to disentangle this from all the other push factors, but I rarely hear it mentioned, so I wanted to get it into the menu.

Thank you very much.

SCHWARTZ: Well, thank you for that comment. Any reaction from the panelists?

RIGAUD: No, I agree.

FERRIS: I agree.

SCHWARTZ: I think you have general agreement from—at least the panelists here. Thank you for that comment.

Do we have another virtual or are we in the house?

OK. Another question from the—yes?

Q: Hi. I’m Zack Griffiths. Thank you so much for this wonderful panel.

Mine builds a little bit on the question that Mike asked, which is in the Economist last week they reported a lawsuit between a Peruvian farmer and a major gas—or a major power company in Germany, and I was curious if you thought lawsuits might provide a source of financing or were an interesting concept we should explore? Thank you.


SCHWARTZ: Beth, why don’t you take that one.

FERRIS: Well, a lot of climate advocates are turning to litigation in terms of seeking some way for redressing the harm that’s done by these corporations or by other—by other parties. Most of the suits of litigation so far with respect to migration haven’t been very successful.

A classic one is the case in New Zealand where, you know, a guy from Kiribati asked for asylum saying, you know, my conditions are, you know, terrible in Kiribati and I shouldn’t be sent back. And it was denied by the New Zealand courts although the International Human Rights Committee held that, you know, in the future the environmental conditions in the country of origin could be used to determine whether or not you could send somebody back, or refouma (ph) in refugee terms. But I think that, you know, advocates say litigation is a way to move, particularly when congressional action is blocked.

SCHWARTZ: Any other comments on that?

Another virtual question?

OPERATOR: We will take a virtual question from Louise Shelley.

Q: I’m director at the Terrorism, Transnational Crime and Corruption Center at George Mason University. And I’m wondering how much you think that climate change is going to exacerbate the problems of human trafficking, both labor and sexual, as individuals, or in more extreme situations?


FERRIS: Yeah, I can jump in. I mean, if in fact climate change increases the economic hardships and poverty of populations, whether they move or not, then the pressures for trafficking, or forced labor, or exploitation of labor will increase.

So I think that there would be an increase in at least efforts to traffic—exploit labor. I think it would be more difficult when you get into the smuggling question, which is, you know, when you pay someone to help you cross an international border. That will depend a lot on the border policies in general.

And I might just say that the research so far does not show a clear relationship between environmental change and conflict or violence. You know, there have been tons of empirical studies comparing amounts of rainfall with violent incidents, and they’re fairly inconclusive. It seems that that relationship is more complicated than a straightforward linear one.

SCHWARTZ: Any other comments on that from our panelists?

I would agree with—I’ll just comment. I would agree with Beth that when the impetus of migration is much greater and people are more desperate, then the opportunity for exploitation just increases. I think that creates a real policy challenge for governance because, from my own perspective, all too often the government effort—you know, articulated as an attempt to get at the smugglers or get at the traffickers—really impacts those who need to flee.

So it requires a really nuanced government policy to deal with the inevitable increase in trafficking and smuggling, you know, that is occasioned by people who are increasingly desperate.

Other questions?

Yes, Doris—Doris Meissner.

Q: Hi. Thanks. Hi, Eric. Doris Meissner. Nice to see all of you.

I have a question that may sound narrow, but I don’t think it is. It’s about terminology and about the terminology from the standpoint of how we really think about this issue of climate migration conceptually. We tend to use the language of climate refugees, people leaving needing protection. In other words, we use the language of the refugee convention and of that instrument that we have internationally. But in this discussion, there are people that have worked—and I’d like to draw you out on this, Eric, because you have such a long-standing history here.

Are we really—is this a good way to go in terms of framing the issues and thinking about the issues, and about responses, and how to, you know, truly protect people that are at risk when we have under the conventional definition of persecution and grounds for persecution, which is going to continue, a terrible time trying to respond to the need that exists around the world today?

You said something earlier, Eric, about expanding definitions—Cartagena definition, et cetera. Is that the way to go? Is the way to go to expand the definition of the international instrument that now is really the only one available?

And does that ultimately really harm efforts to provide relief to people that are truly in need because of standard forms of persecution? Or is the way to go to really be thinking of a very different conceptual framework for how it is that we talk about this challenge of the future that comes from climate, which has lots of factors—some of which do include, you know, political questions?

But really, it suggests many different broader responses, and responses that don’t necessarily place people into the victimized circumstances that refugees, as we understand them, are.

SCHWARTZ: Well, I guess I will answer the question since you directed it directly at me, and I’ll give you my view. Your question is—to my mind, is really a vehicles question. You know, I think we are seeing—and so I’m not going to answer it, I mean, directly. It’s a vehicles question. What vehicles do we use?

But the fact of the matter is, we all know that there are hundreds of thousands of people around the world, if not more, who are fleeing, and if we were in their situation—if we had their families, if we had their children—we would all be fleeing as well. There are people who are forced to leave—you know, either—you know, victims of conflict, which are not part of the traditional refugee definition. Nobody would argue that people who are fleeing places like Syria or Ukraine, for that matter, should be forced back—even if they couldn’t meet the refugee definition, even if they couldn’t, you know, stand before a judge and say I’m a victim of persecution based on my race, my religion, my nationality, my political opinion, my membership in a social group. Those are the narrow criteria.

But in point of fact, even the UNHCR—if you go on the UNHCR’s website today, they will define refugees as people who are fleeing conflict. So they themselves are defining, you know, in the vernacular, in colloquial, refugees broader than the refugee convention.

The government—and so am I going to sit here and say because the Cartagena Declaration—because the governments of Central America and Latin America have said that we’re going to look at disruptions as a public order—that people who have to flee in that situation as worthy of protection—am I going to say to them as an advocate, you know, OK that’s fine do that, but don’t call them refugees? Or the same thing with the, you know, with the—those in the Kampala Convention.

The government of Colombia has accepted upwards of 2 million Venezuelans and are regularizing their status. They are not calling them refugees, I don’t think. You know, they’re using other tools.

So I think your question’s a good one, but I think it’s really a question of what vehicles do we use to protect people who need protection, and that’s a conversation. But I think it’s really a vehicles question, rather than a question of whether people who are forced to leave in some way shape, manner or form merit our concern and our protection.

So I didn’t answer your question, but I hope I did.

But let me invite—it’s a great last question, too. So let me invite each of my—each of our panelists to comment on either Doris’ question or any of the issues that we dealt with today before we close because I see it’s two minutes after one, and I don’t want to get in trouble. I’m a Council member, and I don’t want to get in trouble.

RIGAUD: Well, maybe I’ll start. I think this was a great conversation. Maybe just a couple of sort of takeaways from my end.

I think it’s the fact that, you know, climate is obviously an increasingly important factor that can lead to displacement, and more people moving spatially—and you can term them climate migrants if you want. But I think a lot of it is going to be within countries and how we sort of really grapple with that is an important part of the policy conversation.

Notwithstanding, you know, there are a smaller part of people who will be moving across borders where the policy challenges are a little bit different. So we really need to look at both parts of this in addressing the issue and moving forward, and we have to act on it quickly. Time is running out.

SCHWARTZ: Thank you, Kanta.


FERRIS: I think it’s really an important question, and it isn’t a trivial issue, how you call people. I mean, the intellectually honest thing to say would be people who move at least in part because of environmental hazards, which may or may not be related to climate change. That doesn’t just roll off the tongue in terms of building some support. But how you conceptualize it—and I think it has to do the extent to which people are forced.

Do they have a need for international protection? Does somebody fleeing a hurricane, or a storm, or a drought have the same protection needs as somebody fleeing conflict? We don’t yet have solid evidence on that.

So I think it’s a hard question, but I think it really goes to the problem with developing policies to respond to people who move, at least in part, because of climate change.


LUSTGARTEN: Yeah, I hear a number of responses from people that I’ve talked to of resistance to being called refugees, that it’s—you know, it’s a term that removes some agency from their experience, and I don’t think—I think that’s different whether you’re talking about sort of slow-motion migration or, you know, the disruption, like, of a catastrophic event.

But there’s a sense of disempowerment—at least that some of the migrants that I speak with, you know, express, and so I think that’s something considering. It ties to maybe something we haven’t touched on here, which is that there is, you know, also for many people in certain places a sense of opportunity that goes along with, you know, the movement of people, and so some of the migrants will describe what they’re doing as seizing an opportunity—a better economic opportunity or a shift that takes advantage of a change in their environment or something like that.

And you know, it’s a—for me, well, it’s a good closing note. We are—we in the United States are a country of, you know, of immigrants, and when I look at internal movement and displacement within the United States and climate-related migration within the United States, you know, you see that many of the strongest economies within the United States, you know, are the result of mass demographic movements of the past and that there’s an opportunity to seize on that again in the future.

And I think that just circles back to the opportunity that exists in proactively setting the stage and creating an environment where there’s maximum, you know, ability to both seize on those opportunities but also enhance the freedom of choice of the individuals who feel like they need to make that move.

SCHWARTZ: Thank you, Abrahm. And with that, I think we’re going to close the session.

First, I want to thank the Silbersteins, who are sitting right here, for their generous support of this really important, you know, program, and this session—I believe this session will be on the Council website. I’m being told it will be, so that’s terrific.

I can’t thank our panelists enough for their really thoughtful and provocative comments. Thanks to you all who are here, and thanks to those who are with us virtually. And have a great rest of your day.

Thank you.

RIGAUD: Thank you.

LUSTGARTEN: Thank you.


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