Posted by: davidjolson | 12/01/2010

Cancun: Climate change, displacement and migration

All this week, Jade Sasser, policy advisor for the Public Health Institute, is guest blogging for Blog4GlobalHealth from the Cancun Climate Summit in Mexico. Her reports can also be seen at Dialogue4Health, the blog of PHI.

CANCUN, Mexico — Tuesday at the COP 16 climate change conference here, I attended a briefing on the topic of displacement and migration in the context of climate change.

Representatives from a range of United Nations departments highlighted evidence identifying increased mobility and migration as one of the most significant human impacts of climate change: according to some projections, as many as 150 million people could be displaced by climate-related phenomena by the year 2050. As panelists argued, predicting the long term impacts of increased mobility is particularly difficult, thus leaving the social, political and health effects of climate-induced migration an open question.

Among other factors, four key climate change-related phenomena are particularly associated with migration and displacement: intensified acute natural disasters; rising sea levels; intensified drought and desertification; and heightened competition for natural resources, leading to conflict and mass displacement. As a result, the most socially vulnerable, usually the poor, are most affected, and most likely to migrate. At the same time, displacement and migration is often associated with the disruption of social networks and access to health services, leading to an overall decline in human health. This is often worse for women, who are more likely to experience gender based violence in the wake of forced migration.

Of note is the panelists’ insistence that climate-related migration be seen as evidence of successful adaptation to climate change, rather than a failure to adapt. They argued that it usually results from a complex decision-making process in which the long-term effects of changes to the environment are considered in the context of livelihoods, means of subsistence, and overall quality of life. As a representative of the World Food Programme argued, these longer term changes have a far greater impact on environmentally driven migration than sudden onset natural disasters do.

Ultimately, climate change-induced migration is a matter of social inequality, as the poorest, most socially vulnerable and least resilient communities are most likely to have to migrate. In this context, panelists called for climate change adaptation strategies that include improved urban planning, disaster management, incorporation of a human rights perspective, and a focus on improving resiliency of the most vulnerable groups. In addition, more data is needed to develop evidence-based strategies to effectively understand migration decision making at the household level, as well as to develop services that effectively meet the needs of the most vulnerable, while working to improve their resiliency. These urgent needs provide a significant opportunity for members of the global public health community to take a leadership role in strengthening adaptation efforts at the local and regional levels.

The Public Health Institute is working through its Center for Public Health and Climate Change to support the public health and broader community to understand and respond to this critical challenge. We are working to equip the public health community with knowledge, skills, resources and tools needed to effectively address the health impacts from climate change- particularly among vulnerable populations. Join our community, track our work, and receive updates at


  1. Hello and thank you for this article. So-called environmentally induced migration is multi-level problem. According to Essam El-Hinnawi definition form 1985 environmental refugees as those people who have been forced to leave their traditional habitat, temporarily or permanently, because of a marked environmental disruption (natural or triggered by people) that jeopardised their existence and/or seriously affected the quality of their life. The fundamental distinction between `environmental migrants` and `environmental refugees` is a standpoint of contemporsry studies in EDPs.

    According to Bogumil Terminski it seems reasonable to distinguish the general category of environmental migrants from the more specific (subordinate to it) category of environmentally displaced people.

    According to Norman Myers environmental refugees are “people who can no longer gain a secure livelihood in their homelands because of drought, soil erosion, desertification, deforestation and other environmental problems, together with associated problems of population pressures and profound poverty”.

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