NPR Story
2:36 pm
Tue November 12, 2013

Researcher: Climate Change To Cause Human Migration

Scientists say rising sea levels, more frequent and intense droughts and an increase in the severity and number of storms, are all consequences of a warming planet.

This may make some regions uninhabitable and lead to residents moving elsewhere to support themselves. And some say that competition for increasingly scarce resources could lead to a higher incidence of human conflict.

Susan Martin, director of the Institute for the Study of International Migration at Georgetown University, joins Here & Now’s Robin Young to discuss these climate changes and the potential human migration.

Interview Highlights: Susan Martin

On Typhoon Haiyan in the context of climate change

“Unfortunately what we’re seeing is, I think, the harbinger of more of these storms to come. When we’re thinking through the impacts of climate change over the long term, it’s very clear that the potential for more frequent and many more intense storms is very, very likely.”

On whether Filipinos might migrate after this storm

“I don’t envision the entire island nation moving — that’s many, many millions of people. What I do envision is that migration will continue to be a major means through which people adapt to climate change and to adapt to the kinds of storms or increased drought in other places that are likely to accommodate the environmental changes that they’re seeing. So migration will probably increase. It’s not always necessarily a bad thing, because a lot of migrants do go into better economic situations where they’re able to do better for themselves and can send money home. But when people are displaced from their homes against their will because of events beyond their control, then they may end up actually being much worse off than they were before the storms happened.”

On how climate refugees will be received

“First of all, the majority of people who will move in the Philippines and most other countries will be moving internally. It’s only a fairly small proportion of the world’s population who will be affected by climate change who are likely to cross international borders. And if they do it under emergency circumstances, with no advanced warning, no preparation, it will likely generate some quite negative reactions. On the other hand, if we take the time now to begin to develop the policies and the programs through which people can relocate to safer areas, in a much more gradual fashion and with attention to the needs of the communities into which their migrating, then I think we can avoid some of the worst responses.”

Guest

Copyright 2013 WBUR-FM. To see more, visit http://www.wbur.org.

Transcript

ROBIN YOUNG, HOST:

It's HERE AND NOW.

The Philippines' envoy to the just-launched U.N. climate talks in Warsaw broke down in tears yesterday, telling delegates about devastation to his homeland from Typhoon Haiyan.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)

NADEREV SANO: The initial assessment showed that Haiyan left a wake of massive destruction that is unprecedented, unthinkable and horrific, and the devastation is staggering.

YOUNG: Naderev Sano linked the typhoon to climate change and vowed to fast for the duration of the conference until a meaningful outcome is in sight. Well, others are also taking drastic measures of weather. A man in a low-lying Pacific country of Kiribati recently appealed to New Zealand judges to grant him refugee status based on climate change.

Now scientists say individual weather events can't be conclusively linked to climate change, but rising seas, drought and, in general, an increase of violent storms can. So what else are we likely to see as weather takes its toll? Let's welcome back Susan Martin. She's director of the Institute for the Study of International Migration at Georgetown University. And, Professor, outside of your sympathy for the victims and survivors of this typhoon, what are your thoughts as you watch the wreckage in the Philippines?

SUSAN MARTIN: Unfortunately, what we're seeing is, I think, the harbinger of more of these storms to come. When we're thinking through the impacts of climate change over the long term, it's very clear that the potential for more frequent and many more intense storms is very, very likely.

YOUNG: Well, I'm wondering if you're also thinking of people leaving the Philippines. You study migration based on a lot of different things, including weather, but where are people coming from and going to when it comes to weather change?

MARTIN: The Philippines already is one of the major countries of emmigration. The expectation in the Philippines is that about a million or more people will migrate each year. And Philippines is very, very dependent on the remittances that these migrants send home. It's money that goes back mostly to their families, but also to the communities in which their families live.

YOUNG: Well, we're seeing that already. We - there's something like 400,000 Filipinos living in Los Angeles who are fundraising for people back home. But do you envision, you know, at one point, the entire island nation moving?

MARTIN: Well, I don't envision the entire island nation moving. That's many, many millions of people. But what I do envision is that migration will be - continue to be a major means through which people adapt to climate change and to adapt to the kinds of storms or increased drought in other places that's likely to accommodate the environmental changes that they're seeing.

So migration, I think, will probably increase. It's not necessarily always a bad thing, because a lot of migrants do go into better economic situations where they're able to do better for themselves and can send money home. But when people are displaced from their homes against their will because of events beyond their control, then they may end up actually being much worse off than they were before the storms happened.

YOUNG: Well, how will they be viewed by the countries where - that they migrate to? We just recently aired an interview with members of Hurricane Sandy support group. These were women from Long Island who were, you know, devastated about what has happened to them, and a lot of people were touched by that. But we also heard from listeners who didn't want to hear it. They had no sympathy. They said, this is your fault. You live near the water. None of my taxpayer dollars should be helping you. You made a bad choice. It got me thinking, you know, what if it's thousands of refugees from the Philippines moving in? And how is this going to shake out when - if people feel burdened by people from island nations coming to them?

MARTIN: First of all, the majority of people who will move in the Philippines and most other countries, will be moving internally. It's only a fairly small proportion of the world's population who will be affected by climate change who are likely to cross international borders. And if they do it under emergency circumstances, with no advanced warning, no preparation, it will likely generate some quite negative reactions. On the other hand, if we take the time, now, to begin to develop the policies and the programs through which people can relocate to safer areas in a much more gradual fashion and with attention to the needs of the communities into which they're migrating, then I think we can avoid some of the worst responses.

YOUNG: Well, this brings us to this man from Kiribati, the island nation the Pacific. We understand that some of these island nations are considering moving their entire population. These are very low-lying islands. He's one man who's already made this first-ever plea to be accepted as a refugee from climate change. Do you think we're going to be seeing more like him?

MARTIN: I think we'll be seeing more people who will be trying to gain some type of status in another country and will be raising the environmental factors as part of their reason for being accepted. I think this man from Kiribati has a heavy burden of proof, but I think what his case is pointing out is that there is a gap in international law, as well as in the laws of most countries. We're able to provide protection to those with a well-founded fear of persecution, but not to those that fear harm from other events or processes, such as climate change.

YOUNG: So it sounds as if you're saying there needs to be some thinking on the part of governments of some new category of person to get ahead of weather events, to be prepared for people who need to get higher ground.

MARTIN: People seldom move for one reason alone, so environmental change is very seldom the only reason that causes people to migrate. But in the case of some of these small island states, environmental factors are going to be extremely important. And so we really need to be thinking through ways that we can help those populations relocate over the next 40 or 50 years or however long it's necessary in order to ensure that when they migrate they do it in a safe and orderly manner, and not in a crisis situation.

YOUNG: Susan Martin, director of the Institute for the Study of International Migration at Georgetown University. Professor Martin, thanks so much.

MARTIN: Thank you for having me.

YOUNG: And we'd love to hear from Filipinos who may be listening. Do you have family on the islands? We hope they're safe. But do you have family or friends thinking of leaving because of weather? Let us know online at hereandnow.org. Or you can tweet us I'm @hereandnowrobin, Jeremy is @jeremyhobson. And you're listening to HERE AND NOW. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.