Climate Change Will Drive People Across Borders

Climate Change Will Drive People Across Borders

  • But the Real Crisis Would Be Making Them Stay

Extreme wildfires savaged Northern California in 2018, leaving the homeless to camp out in a Home Depot parking lot in Oakland, not far from the billionaire hub of Silicon Valley. Hurricane Irma displaced more than 1,500 inhabitants of Barbuda in 2017: their government made plans to sell their communally held land to celebrity investors while survivors recovered in shelters. Melting permafrost and rising seas threaten the town of Shishmaref, on a barrier island off the northwest coast of Alaska—to which the administration of U.S. President Donald Trump has responded by gutting federal support for relocating homes to safer ground.

Such events are early harbingers of a global phenomenon: climate change is scrambling the habitability of the planet, and neither governments nor international organizations are meeting the needs of those displaced as a result. Already, more people live outside of their countries of birth than ever before, and according to the UN’s International Organization for Migration, as many as 200 million people might need to leave their homes for climate-related reasons by 2050.

Despite these projections, no legal framework exists to help such migrants relocate, let alone to protect them in their most vulnerable moments. Instead, governments worldwide have neglected and exploited this new class of “climate displaced”—exposing them to both climate shocks and the abuse that often follows. Governments and international organizations can pursue a better course by enabling vulnerable populations to migrate before and after disaster strikes. The benefits of such a policy far outweigh the short-term costs.