Myths of refugees – but we still don’t know how many will be forced out by climate

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The latest 3,600-page report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the United Nations’ climate research unit, looks at the consequences of rising average temperatures for people around the world.

However, there is a subtext to many public discussions around climate change and migration, that a warmer world will lead to hordes of people fleeing poorer countries for wealthier ones, threatening the safety and the economy of any place they go. Institutions like the US Defense Department describe climate-induced migration as a potential security threat. Such framing has fuelled media panics and xenophobia.

But this narrative is inaccurate and misses crucial context. For one thing, the IPCC notes that the vast majority of migration, from climate change or from other factors, occurs within the borders of a country.

And while climate change can bring immense pressure to move, migration is often a last resort. People often do all that they can to stay where they are, according to Gabrielle Wong-Parodi, an assistant professor of earth system science at Stanford University. That makes it difficult to get people out of the way of likely threats like wildfires or coastal flooding.

“People say that they’re going to move, yet it’s unlikely they will move unless they are forcibly moved in response to some climate-related extreme, like their home gets destroyed,” said Wong-Parodi.

On the other hand, it means people are willing to try a lot of different strategies to deal with the effects of warming, even in precarious places like islands facing rising sea levels. In Fiji, for example, the government is already working to relocate coastal communities further inland. In Vanuatu, officials are integrating climate change and migration into all aspects of their decision-making, including sectors like housing and education.

In both cases, the focus is on in-country solutions, not on crossing international borders.

This post first appeared on the blog.

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Radix is the radical centre think tank. We welcome all contributions which promote system change, challenge established notions and re-imagine our societies. The views expressed here are those of the individual contributor and not necessarily shared by Radix.

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