Decent Rural Employment

"Climate change influences human mobility by magnifying vulnerabilities”: the links between climate change and migration


The increasing impacts of climate change are threatening the viability of rural agricultural livelihoods, posing unprecedented challenges and disrupting migration patterns. The World Bank estimated that 216 million people in six regions could move within their countries by 2050. Migration is an important livelihood diversification strategy that can contribute to the capacity of rural communities to adapt to a changing climate. However, when undertaken out of necessity, it can increase the vulnerability of both migrants and their families. FAO works to mitigate the impacts of climate change while also striving to untap the potential of migration to contribute to climate change adaptation and resilience.

We talked with Giorgia Prati, FAO Migration and Climate Change Specialist, about the linkages between climate change and migration.

First of all, how are migration and climate change related to FAO’s mandate to fight hunger and improve food security and the quality of life of rural people?

Migration and climate change are both closely related to FAO’s mandate. A large number of migrants worldwide come from, pass through and return to rural areas where people largely depend on livelihoods that are highly sensitive to the impacts of climate change. Rural populations are exceptionally vulnerable to the effects of climate change and often lack the capacity to withstand its impacts. Rural people generally have fewer opportunities and resources to adapt to climate change.

Climate change is already having negative impacts on food security and rural livelihoods, increasing the vulnerability of rural populations. Environmental factors interact with other migration drivers influencing the decision to migrate and affecting migration patterns. Migration is not always a choice. Weather extremes such as floods and droughts are leading to a large number of displaced people every year, many of whom end up in rural areas. In 2020, weather-related disasters forcibly displaced 30 million people (IDCM, 2021).

So, there is a link between environmental conditions and migration. How exactly does climate change affect migration?

Exactly, we speak in this context of the climate change-migration nexus to refer to the complex relationship between climatic conditions and human mobility. Climatic changes include slow-going processes such as rising sea levels, desertification, and changes in temperatures, as well as changes in the frequency and intensity of extreme weather events such as heatwaves, cyclones and floods. These and other climate and weather events alone do not lead to migration or displacement. 

Let’s take the example of a cyclone hitting a rural community. All households are exposed to the same type of hazard however not all of them are affected in the same way. Those living in mud houses may see their houses destroyed and become displaced, while those living in concrete houses may still be able to remain in place. Better-off households may be better able to absorb shocks and access credit to rebuild damaged livelihoods, while poor and marginalized households may be further pushed into poverty and experience higher pressure to migrate. Poverty and inequality are underlying issues of vulnerability. Usually, the poorest and most marginalized live in the most hazard-prone areas.

The way climate change influences human mobility is by magnifying existing vulnerabilities and intersecting with social, political, economic and demographic conditions. While climate change affects us all, the risk of forced migration and displacement is higher among people living in poverty, with fewer opportunities to adapt and fewer alternatives.

As mentioned before, rural people are disproportionately affected. There are at least two conditions that make them particularly vulnerable to the effects of climate change. First, rural people heavily depend on natural resources for livelihoods, income and their daily life activities. They are therefore particularly sensitive to climate and environmental changes affecting land, water, rainfall patterns, sea life etc. Second, rural areas are characterised by structural challenges that affect the ability of rural households to cope with climate change. These include poverty, inequality, limited access to decent employment, education, quality infrastructure, health and social protection – to name a few.

Okay, so this really puts the focus on rural populations…

Yes, that’s right. To give you an idea, 80 percent of the world’s extreme poor live in rural areas and an estimated 87 percent of all people in extreme poverty live in environmentally vulnerable and/or fragile countries.

The links between poverty, livelihoods and climate change are many. For example, a large share of the extreme poor live in the tropics, where fish catch could decline up to 40 percent by 2050 affecting their income, food and nutrition security. Around 252 million of the world’s poorest rely on forests for food, fibre, fuel and income. Deforestation and degradation of forest ecosystems put these people at even greater risk of poverty and food insecurity. Finally, changes in rainfall patterns directly affect rainfed agriculture which is practiced on more than 80 percent of cultivated land. Agriculture provides jobs for around 1.3 billion workers, accounting for the majority of the labour force in developing countries.

When rural livelihoods are compromised, people experience greater pressure to migrate. Also, repeated exposure to climate and weather events escalates the risk of poverty.

Where do these people go? I would imagine that a lot of migrants move to cities or abroad?

Evidence is mixed, but what we know so far is that climate-related migration is predominantly internal, within countries. Cross-border movements linked to weather-related events are generally to neighbouring countries. In terms of duration, shock-related displacement seems to be mostly temporary and local, while migration in the context of gradual environmental changes is more likely to be permanent and longer-distance. Growing evidence shows that the effects of long-term climatic changes on migration are much stronger in countries that are more reliant on agriculture.

Do we know how many people will migrate or become displaced as a result of climate change?

It is very complicated to estimate migration flows and predict where people go, especially in the context of climate change. This is due to the complexity of migration decision-making and to the fact that we cannot exclusively link migration to environmental conditions. Another important aspect influencing people’s propensity or need to migrate is their capacity to adapt to current and future changes. This depends on individual and households conditions as well as on policy, programme and financial support provided at global, country and local level. The World Bank’s Groundswell Report, for example, suggests that if urgent steps to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and mitigate the impacts of climate change are not taken, we could see climate migration hotspots emerging as early as 2030.

We need to also remember that not all people living in climate-affected areas have the opportunity or the desire to migrate. The impacts of climate change can create barriers to migration by depleting households’ resources. It is also possible that people are so attached to their home communities that they are unwilling to move, even under harsh climatic conditions.

What is FAO doing? Do you have an example of an FAO project  addressing challenges related to climate change and migration?

FAO’s work on climate change and migration covers various aspects.

To mitigate the negative impacts of climate change and reduce the pressure to migrate, FAO supports rural communities to better manage climate-related risks by promoting the sustainable use and management of natural resources, the restoration of degraded ecosystems and the uptake of climate-adaptive agricultural practices.

I want to give you the example of RECLIMA, a large project, co-funded by the Green Climate Fund, that FAO is implementing in El Salvador in close collaboration with the Government. The project aims to enhance the climate resilience of over 50,000 vulnerable small-scale farmers. Climate and environmental impacts are affecting agricultural production and exacerbating poverty and food insecurity. Farmers who are unable to cope with these conditions are under increased pressure to migrate. FAO contributes to addressing some of these challenges by improving access to water, enhancing farmers’ capacities to use climate-smart technologies, and promoting innovative agro-ecosystem approaches.

Another interesting example is that of the SAFE programme that FAO is implementing with UNHCR in several countries in Africa. SAFE improves access to energy and promotes sustainable uses of natural resources for refugees and Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) with the aim of also reducing conflicts between these groups and host communities.

We also work on improving policy coherence and coordination on climate change, human mobility and agriculture. Climate change poses unprecedented challenges related to human mobility that require coordinated efforts. To this end, FAO is facilitating regional policy dialogues and is developing a global guide with the United Nations University (UNU-EHS) on integrating migration into National Adaptation Plans (NAPs) and Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) from a rural livelihoods perspective. Improved policy and programme coherence will allow us to capitalize on the potential positive contribution of migration to climate change adaptation and resilient agri-food systems.

So, that means that climate migration shouldn't be seen only in a negative light, right?

No, not at all. Migration is an intrinsic part of social transformation and rural development and it can equally be a positive force for climate change adaptation in rural areas of origin, transit and destination. To unleash this potential, however, some conditions need to exist. First, migration must be of a voluntary nature. Second, safe and regular migration pathways need to be promoted to create better conditions for migrants and their families. Third, an enabling environment must be provided. This would include policies that facilitate remittances and diaspora investments in climate-resilient livelihoods and mechanisms that capitalize on migrants’ skills and knowledge for inclusive climate action - for example, offering green jobs training opportunities to migrants and IDPs and promoting knowledge sharing through coaching and learning tours.

Globally, remittances are three times the amount of official development assistance, and around 50 percent of these are sent to rural areas. The money sent is key to enable smallholder farmers to invest in climate adaptive practices and green agribusinesses. The focus is not only on rural areas of origin. Migrants can also contribute to the development of innovative strategies and climate-resilient practices in agriculture in areas of transit and destination through their skills and ideas. It is important to recognise the role of migration as adaptation and that actors from different sectors come together to create the necessary conditions to unleash this potential while minimizing the risks. 

Relevant resources: