Climate Migration Will be Catastrophic, and Why That's the Wrong Way to Think About It: A Perspective from Ryan Jones

Ryan Jones is a storyteller focused on climate, and this is his first in a series of articles for Tomorrow's Air reflecting on topics at the intersection of climate and social justice.

Climate induced displacement is the issue of our time (so why is it so damn hard to see?)

Here’s my dilemma. On one hand, climate induced displacement will be one of the most important issues of the next 30 years. While on the other hand, I’ve found it impossible to write about without sensationalizing the poor, perpetuating dangerous narratives and including the nuance it demands. So I'm going to share what I saw in my three months in the Himalayas with both hands, one with the keyboard of a thorough researcher and one with the ink of a gruff development worker. 

What happens after a natural disaster? Once the soil has nothing left to give? When water stops flowing the way it used to? We’ve painted the pictures of climate disaster in our heads, but what comes next? Unlike a calving glacier or roaring forest fire, climate induced displacement demands no grand entrance. 

This idea is important but starting off this way tends to kick us off with an unnecessarily fatalistic tone.

I few years ago I read the a NYT article chronically Nepals climate refugees. I was undoubtedly moved. But I quickly learned the story doesn’t tend to play out so simply or visibly. I began to see its elusive nature, its invisibility. A.k.a I didn’t see shit. 

What I did see was how ripe climate displacement is for oversimplification. At face value the Himalayas are melting, and flooding will eventually turn to drought.

The truth is more contextual and less entertaining. It’s more about water coming at the wrong times. In the dry season the lack of snow-fed rivers and rainfall impairs the growth of winter crops, such as wheat. The reason this is an important distinction is it leads to a different conclusion. Instead of being helpless, communities are left to do the math for themselves. What does my income look like with less certainty around my wheat sales and can I afford to stay put?

The himalayan region is warming at a faster rate than the global average.  This coupled with the local communities' close relationship and reliance on nature means they’ll be hit the hardest.  84 percent of Nepalese live in rural areas and depend on subsistence agriculture for their livelihoods. This means they’re often dependent on rain fed agriculture, leaving them vulnerable to increasingly erratic monsoons. Crop failures and migration have always been happening but now we’re seeing climate effects increasingly overlap with the most vulnerable areas. 

Photograph from Tim-van-den Boog

Movement of people doesn’t happen linearly, its not an arrow shooting in one direction but a slow boil, splashing water out of every side of the pot, unpredictable and chaotic. More akin to flooding, it lingers, inch by inch, barely noticing the water around our boots. 

Here’s the opposite opinion. I was quick to dismiss a decision not to leave a vulnerable area as uneducated, how could they not see the writing on the walls. But speaking to locals, just cause there’s no flood insurance available doesn’t mean you can’t make your own, calculating how much you’d need saved to rebuild your tea house's basement every 3 years. With globalization leaving relatives scattered around the country and world, an informal crowdfunding campaign is more and more viable. Gandhi said the soul of india is in its villages, but there’s brains there also.

Shortage of water and crops to sell can begin to build a vicious cycle. As communities thin, there’s less people to sell them to. Most will be too poor to travel far, some farmers can adapt by diversifying but many won’t have the land to scale their farm or the cash to buy the equipment. Oftentime livestock is used as an investment vehicle to hold their extra cash, but with limited water and food, their four legged savings account is also at risk.  

When people say “local knowledge” I always found myself picturing obscure indigenous farming practices, but it can also mean something simpler. Who to get cheap cement from, which neighbor spent some time as an electrician or which community members will do you a solid. For reinforcing or rebuilding your home, relationships are invaluable. 

What (and who) can we blame?

Nature's complexity renders attribution to climate change near impossible and not all impacts are created equal. For instance, a dry creek is easier to claim clear climate causation than rainfall. We know heat increases disease, such as Dengue Fever’s previously unseen outbreak in Kathmandu last month, but this is equally accelerated by population density, sewage infrastructure and healthcare policy. Governments can’t use climate impacts as a scapegoat for bad governance. And further, isolating climate change impacts without looking at the systemic, unequal power dynamics within a society, limits your ability to know why people really move. Hidden in a messy combination of social, political, economic, and demographic factors, it might feel like we’ve lost the climate thread completely, but it’s precisely in those intersections that the story will play out.

So here’s the thing, it’s really always climate AND migration not climate migration. For instance, one family we spoke to said their son doesn’t want the insecurity of farming. Is that climate-induced declining crop yields or just being young? Young people want to move to the city, see the world, that’s the beauty of being young and dumb. In a globalized world with a screen to compare yourself to anyone on the planet, the old ways start to feel even older. Maybe he’s just looking at his parents farm, an occupation that’s always had insecurity and seeing the reliability of a paycheck or ease of life that comes in a city and thinking, lets try that.

A 2013 study highlights the danger of combining climate migration into one term, arguing the apocalyptic framing strips those moving of their humanity and relative agency, lumped together as the same amorphous blob. 

What helps me to re-anchor my preconceptions of a migrant is to reset. First imagine a person, they have a family, now they lost their job. That’s it. Start there then rebuild depending on the local context, availability of work and climate impacts. For more articulate thoughts on the matter, read this magic from Maya. 

The numbers globally vary with different reports quoting anywhere from 50, to 200 to a billion climate induced migrants by 2050 depending on how you define the term. But when we see migration as the problem itself, we distance ourselves from the real issue. We’ve seen this in the drought-induced Syrian refugee crisis. Combined with North African refugees after the Arab Spring, a wave of far right nationalism was stoked across Europe. Research has shown a similar effect in Central America where catastrophic storms and climate induced mudslides created a new wave of refugees forced to pilgrimage to the US border. 

Now I use these stats all the time. But as tempting as they are, I increasingly think these sentences are for the politicians and activists, meant to provoke more than inform. The problem is you risk leaving people with; “You better hide those plastic straws because if you don’t there’s going to be all these black and brown at your doorstep, and you’re not going to like it’” To many people the logical next step would be securitise the borders and get that ol military back up and running. The anecdote to this narrative - migration is a resilient and healthy response to adapt to the climate crisis, it is not the crisis itself.


      Photograph from Rami Sharma

These stats also miss one key point. Professor Roger Zetter, former director of the Refugee Studies Centre, emphasizes while speaking to parliament; “far more people are migrating within their own countries than across borders”. The evidence shows that “when it [migration] is not internal, it is to neighboring countries”, Zickgraf said.

People don’t want to leave where they live and if they do, they want to stay as close to their families, communities and culture as possible. Wouldn’t you?

The acceleration (and intricacies) of urbanization

Pockets of the development community have begun to see climate induced migration as the urbanization of secondary cities, a result of countries metropolises incapable of absorbing more people. This can have both positive and negative effects, at the same time. 

For the subsistence farmers forced to move to cities, more consistent higher paying work, better health care and more schools awaits. Improved livelihoods and wages means reduced poverty and can offer stability and resilience against climates ripple effects. 

One family member moving to the city can also mean keeping the rest of the family where they are. 

As the men relocate to carry loads up the mountain or sell fruit in the city, many families aren’t as lucky in being able to relocate. For the women left at home, traditional gender barriers make maintaining their crops more costly and complicated. In some cases the absent husband weakens the family, taking with him access to financing while adding to her workload. Other times it can be positive and empowering for the women to have greater decision making. 

On the flip side, increased migration also tends to exacerbate existing challenges for local governments. The nameless influx of people are greeted by underfunded disaster relief systems, dire affordable housing, and a broken insurance market weaved into the tapestry of the existing cracks in public services, economic inequality, social tensions and aging infrastructure. In the US, feedback loops in the housing market can begin to show where rising insurance costs, deteriorating property values, and shrinking local tax bases compound onto each other. Displacement will very likely be the stick poking the dog. 

Localizing (the Himalayas)

Outside of the cities, without family to move in with, many relocate to unrecognized villages or unregistered settlements. Here longer-term settlement without legal right to the land or property spawns a whole new set of challenges. From procuring resources to little government support structures. 

Urban developers and municipal leaders suddenly look like superstars. 

Seeing how the socio-economic ripple effects of climate change will interact is the bedrock to understanding the magnitude of the challenge, but it also dehumanizes it. Migration is more than just a number. Moving means a loss of history and culture, floors where first steps happened, streets for the neighborhood boys to ride bikes, porches where generations watched life unfold. These places are how we’ve made sense of the world, orient us and give us an anchor to who we are. 

Photograph from Rosanna Fung

In the Himalayas they use the term “mountain specific” due to the extent the weather, ecosystem and climate impacts vary depending on the valley. As one brilliant migration researcher told me from the ICIMOD, “The obsession with global emissions numbers is silly, they’re like the inevitable dance scene in a bollywood movie. They’re the random fun part. They get people to come see the movie but have nothing to do with the actual plot. It’s useless without looking at the regional level”. When places in Russia and China will be at 4C when the worlds hitting 2C, it would seem like we’re a bit off. 

The information that’s helpful is local. Weather services, community forest groups and energy personalized to local environments all empower communities, instead of undermining their ability.  You don’t need western science to see the changes around you.

This is the part I tell you that I don’t have the answers. In Oxford's latest climatetech report, eighty-nine percent of survey respondents do not believe that climate tech solutions are reaching the people who need them most. But the locals don’t seem too bummed about it. Their priorities; Food security, stabilize price, then make it more sustainable. What about other forms of support? At first glance it doesn’t seem like climate change educational resources, foreign aid, eco-micro financing or even infrastructure macro financing will ever beat out thorough long-term economic development spearheaded by locals making the decisions. The person on the ground, working with whatever solution you end up with, will at the end of the day make the decision how (and if) they use it. So for now, start with just asking them what they need. 

As Jake Bittle explains in his book The Great Migration , “[displacement] will function as the currency of climate damage, the common consequence of climate driven famine and climate driven bankruptcy and climate driven armed conflict. Climate makes the world more unstable and instability makes people move.” 

Maybe it’s more accurate to say life has become easier yet less certain. Environmental change is happening faster than social and economic change, but without the latter pair evolving at the same rate, communities risk getting left behind. We are more than capable of adapting, but can we keep up with the unprecedented pace of change?

Enjoyed this perspective and want to learn more? Find out more about Ryan on our podcast. Have a perspective you'd like to share? Drop us a line at climate @

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