Making moves on climate change

10 October 2012

In a changing environment, what are the key tipping points at which people up and move? As climate change heralds potentially catastrophic environmental disruption, researchers have found that the relationship between the environment and migration is very poorly understood.

The International Migration Institute is addressing this gap in knowledge through its research on global migration futures. Researchers have discovered that even in regions prone to recurrent drought or flooding, the relationship between the environment and migration is a complex one. So, when it comes to understanding what kinds of migration impacts we can expect around the world due to climate change, their findings to date challenge alarmist perceptions that suggest mass movements will be triggered. In fact, there can be very different local responses to environmental changes. Both our policies and projections, researchers argue, need to better consider people’s resilience to external influences and the fact that migration is not the only possible response.

In a paper for the recent government Foresight Report, Migration and Global Environmental Change, IMI Co-Director Hein de Haas showed that those most affected by environmental change are often those least likely to be able to cross international borders

Other factors to consider include the demographic trends driven by lower fertility and increasing longevity among populations across the world. The Oxford Institute for Population Ageing (OIA) has been considering these kinds of drivers in a project addressing the complex environmental interactions that will form an increasing feature of the 21st century. Just what are the effects of environmental change on the movements of people in combination with altered demographic structures?

As increasingly ageing populations gravitate from rural to urban settings, the impact of population change upon the environment, and conversely that of environmental change upon populations, has been to a surprising extent ignored by most environmentalists and demographers, say OIA researchers. They believe that population growth has dominated the analysis, while neglecting key dynamics in population structure: age structural transitions, spatial distributions, cohort changes, etc., which are likely to have a significant effect.

Both groups of researchers are working closely with the Environmental Change Institute, an associate member of the Oxford Martin School. Together, they are painting an altogether more complex, vibrant and policy-relevant picture of how populations and their environments interact.

Photo by Feed My Starving Children (FMSC) via Wikimedia Commons