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How countries should prepare for climate migration

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

We can't say for certain how many people will be displaced by climate change in the coming years. Some will be forced from their homes by extreme weather events like fires and floods. Others will gradually be pushed out as farmland becomes more arid. One thing we can say for sure - most countries don't have clear definitions or policies about who is a climate migrant or how to deal with them.

Jay Balagna of the RAND Corporation has written about this challenge and joins us now. Welcome.

JAY BALAGNA: Hey. How are you?

SHAPIRO: Good. You know, the phrase climate migrants conjures up images of other mass migrations - people in crowded rafts crossing the Mediterranean or caravans of Central Americans traveling north through Mexico. But you write that most people who are forced from their homes by climate change stay in their home country. So who falls under this umbrella?

BALAGNA: Well, I think that's the real question, right? I think when we say climate migrant, we don't really know what we're saying. There's such a wide range of definitions. That could mean a few million people by the middle of this century if you're someone who defines a climate migrant really narrowly - the sort of person who is moved because their home is under rising sea levels and that's all that counts, then you're going to have this very restrictive definition.

On the other hand, there are people who say there will be more than a billion climate migrants in that same time period. And those are folks who say that conflict migration, if it's tied to drought that's exacerbated by climate, and all these sorts of cascading things that have climate change somewhere in the chain should also count.

SHAPIRO: So if climate migration exists on a spectrum, what's the benefit of coming up with a clear definition that is inevitably going to dissatisfied somebody who thinks that the definition should lie on one end or the other of that complicated spectrum?

BALAGNA: The thing is is this is already happening. We know it's already happening. We've seen it. We've seen it start to happen at either end of the spectrum. And movement isn't inherently bad. It can be good or it can be bad. But what makes it good is the policy that facilitates it, that ensures that it happens in a safe and just way and in a way that doesn't impact host communities too much, either.

SHAPIRO: Like what? Give us an example of one kind of policy that might help.

BALAGNA: One kind of policy that might help would be something that enables people when they move to maintain the sorts of social structures that exist in their - you know, in their original home - facilitates movement perhaps to places they have family, that facilitates movements to places that they're employable. Something else that might help would be ensuring that potential host communities have slack in their social systems that can support incoming migrants, so that they don't crash the housing market, overcrowd the school system, collapse physical infrastructure like sewer systems and electrical grids - things like that.

SHAPIRO: Your research shows that most places don't have these policies in place. Is there anywhere that does that you would point to as a good example.

BALAGNA: I think Bangladesh is an example of a country that has - they call it their national strategy on the management of disaster and climate induced internal displacement. It's a bit of a mouthful. And it does things like enshrining certain rights for people who are displaced from - by, you know, climate-related factors to ensure that their movement is handled in a just way that doesn't burden host communities but also that allows them to thrive wherever they end up.

SHAPIRO: When Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans, hundreds of thousands of people left the city, and many of them returned months or years later. Does that complicate our understanding of who is a climate migrant? I mean, do you think it should only count if people stay dislocated for a certain period of time?

BALAGNA: You're pointing to something that is very complicated. Return post-disaster - post-climate-related disaster or not - is something that complicates all sorts of migration patterns and situations. That's a big deal with refugees. That's a big deal with economic migrants from, say, Central America across the U.S. border - a lot of folks do end up returning. So I think it complicates all migration pictures. And that's one way that this one isn't different from others, but it's one that's a little bit more hidden and sometimes ignored.

One other thing I'd like to kind of add to that, too, is that we don't forget folks who stay behind. A lot of times, migration is the privilege, and the people who are forced to stay behind lack the ability to leave the area that is experiencing hazard, experiencing the adverse effects of climate change.

SHAPIRO: Because migration costs money, and the most vulnerable people might not be able to afford it.

BALAGNA: Exactly. Talking about vulnerable populations does not necessarily always mean those who end up in another place.

SHAPIRO: Jay Balagna is a disaster risk management expert at the RAND Corporation. Thank you very much.

BALAGNA: Thank you, Ari.

(SOUNDBITE OF EL TEN ELEVEN'S "FANSHAWE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.