Human Migration Patterns Shift

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Human Migration Patterns Shift

Climate change is forcing people from their homes and communities, which can undermine a region's economic stability.

Key Insight

Climate change is forcing people from their homes and communities, which can undermine a region’s economic stability. To date, we don’t have an official designation for “climate change refugees,” but that’s likely to change in the near future.

Why It Matters

Throughout the world, monsoons, droughts, and scorching heat are driving millions of people away from their homes in search of more hospitable environments—which makes climate change a national security issue.


Hurricane Maria in 2017 triggered a massive exodus from Puerto Rico, causing one of the largest migration events in U.S. history. By December that year, an estimated 215,000 Puerto Ricans had fled the island for the U.S. mainland. Researchers from the School of International and Public Affairs at Columbia University examined new flows of migrants worldwide and found that people who applied for asylum between 2000 and 2014 were increasingly on the move due to “weather shocks.”

A study by the Environmental Justice Foundation (EJF) says millions of Bangladeshi families could soon become climate refugees within their own countries. It’s a problem that could soon get worse—a sea level rise of just 1 meter could result in a 20% loss of Bangladesh’s current landmass. And it’s not just Bangladesh that’s at risk. By 2050, climate change is estimated to force 1.7 million people from their homes and businesses in low-lying southern regions of Mexico. Nearly 1.5 million Ethopians will also need to find new sources of food and water in the coming decades.

What’s Next

It would be wise for intergovernmental organizations to begin talks about adopting official designation—as well as the corresponding protocols necessary—now, in preparation for near-future waves of climate refugees. Researchers at Columbia University published a study in the journal Science that predicts climate change could lead to 1 million climate refugees migrating into the European Union every year by 2100—creating unimaginable changes to our existing cities and infrastructure.

The European Justice Forum worked with national security experts and retired military leaders to model scenarios for the future of climate change and human migration, and it concluded that the number of climate refugees could soon dwarf the number that has fled Syria in recent years. We could see a wave of migration from Africa, the Indian Subcontinent, and from island nations into Europe and the U.S.


A recent World Bank report also looked at the problem, projecting climate change could result in 143 million “climate migrants” by 2050, as people escape crop failure, water scarcity, and rising seawater. Most of them will flee developing countries in sub-Saharan Africa, Latin America, and South Asia. The World Bank offered a glimmer of hope: The future may not be as bleak if we work now to cut greenhouse gases drastically and plan for the socio-economic challenges of migrants, improving education, training, and jobs.


Center for Migration Studies, Cornell University, Environmental Justice Foundation, European Union, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), United Nations, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (NHCR).