Ecological Migration and Migrating Towards Ambitious Climate Change Commitments at COP22

In 2011, the UN projected that the world will have 50 million environmental refugees by 2020. These are people who need to resettle due to climate change impacts such as drought, food shortage, disease, flooding, desertification, soil erosion, deforestation, and other environmental problems. This past week the New York Times released two stories about the plight of “ecological migrants” in the deserts of northern China. The first is a visual narrative about people living in the expanding Tengger Desert. The second article highlights the world’s largest environmental migrant resettlement project, in Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region.

“Ecological migrants” are the millions of people whom the Chinese government had to relocate from lands distressed by climate change, industrialization, and human activity to 161 hastily built villages. China has already resettled 1.14 million residents of the Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region, where the average temperature has risen 3.8 degrees Fahrenheit in the last 50 years (more than half of that increase occurring from 2001 to 2010) and annual precipitation has dropped about 5.7 millimeters every decade since the 1960s.

China is only one example of a region where people have had to relocate due to climate change. Where will everyone go? This is a problem that all countries need to figure out quickly because, if the UN’s prediction is accurate, the current system of asylum, refugee resettlement, and Temporary Protected Status (TPS) may prove inadequate.

The Marshall Islands need to figure out where their people will go as their island nation is quickly disappearing underwater. Predictions of dangerous tropical storms and rising salt levels in their drinking water may force citizens to flee even before the entire island is lost. In Bangladesh, about 17% of the land could be inundated by 2050, displacing an additional 18 million people.


Road leading to Isle de Jean Charles often floods, cutting off the community.Credit: Josh Haner/The New York Times.

Climate change relocations are not limited to small, developing nations. The United States has begun preparing for its own. In January, the Department of Housing and Urban Development announced grants up to $1 billion in 13 states to help communities adapt to climate change, including the first allocation of federal money to move an entire community due to the impacts of climate change: a $48 million grant for Isle de Jean Charles.

Other than the overcrowding of cities and uprooting and destruction of rural lifestyles, the global refugee crisis presents a larger concern: national security. Last year at COP21 in Paris, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry tied the conflict in Syria and the resulting global refugee crisis to climate change. Secretary Kerry linked Syria’s drought and resulting urban migration—first domestic, then international—as a key factor to the civil war. This was a relevant example of how climate change can exacerbate existing political turmoil within a country.

Thus, all countries must stay committed to climate change goals, not only for maintaining millions of people’s lives and homes, but for national safety throughout the world. Whether they consider it a focus or not, many countries are currently facing the problem of creating new domestic policies on immigration. While it may be too late for some vulnerable areas to completely avoid the need to relocate its people, every climate change action helps mitigate the problem. Hopefully the issue of relocation and climate change refugees or “ecological migrants” will push countries to be more ambitious about their climate change actions at the upcoming COP22.