When we think of the devastating impact of climate change, our first thoughts are probably about melting ice caps, rising ocean water, and ecological collapse. However, we often miss the human element. One of those impacts will be changing human migration patterns.
Climate change will cause more people to leave their homes than ever before. The United Nations predicts that there will be up to one billion environmental migrants by 2050. 1 Similar to refugees fleeing conflict, it is important to recognize the reasons for human migration and what people can do to help those who are displaced. As a future engineer myself, I think it is time we shine a light on what we can do to meet this ever-growing challenge.
Who are climate migrants?
Climate migrants are people who have to move from their current place of living due to the effects of climate change, including natural disasters like flooding, drought, rising temperatures, or rising sea levels. Climate migration is not simply driven by a sudden disaster. Rather it is the result of cumulative changes in local environments. In the case of rising sea levels, huge coastal cities may be engulfed in water during instances of coastal flooding. This will cause water damage to the housing and buildings. Coastal flooding can impact human health because it increases the risk of damage to drinking water infrastructure. It is not just urban spaces that are in danger. For example, increased salinity in areas of coastal flooding harms the production of crops. 2 In drought-prone areas, agricultural land that once was a source of food and income will be no longer a place to survive. When groups of people who are dependent on agriculture are faced with longer dry seasons due to climate change, the options are to move or die. This issue is already happening today all over the world regardless of geography. People are leaving their homes in greater and greater numbers. When it comes to climate change, disaster compounds.
These problems are linked to global temperatures, which are rising at an alarming rate. A recent study found that “the planet could see a greater temperature increase in the next 50 years than it did in the last 6,000 years combined”. 3 With this trend, some locations will become unbearably hot, forcing people to move toward cooler areas. Many more temperate areas already contain large populations. The population density in those areas has the potential to provide further stress on the resources available.
Making exact predictions about the number of people who will become climate migrants is challenging. Many social, cultural, and economic factors contribute to an individual’s decision to migrate, making motivations difficult to quantify. Most official state records do not contain the reason why people move to another country. Complicating the issue, many people relocate within their own country, looking for a more hospitable climate. Records are even less comprehensive for these internal migrations. However, the trend is clear, the longer we wait to stop climate change, the more people will lose their homes.
How governments should address climate migration is a source of debate. However, there is an existing precedent. Both climate migrants and conflict refugees are people that have to relocate for reasons beyond their control. Refugees have fled war, conflict, or persecution. In other words, refugees are those who have to move for immediate safety, and who often have a clear cause. Climate migrants are similar. They are people who are displaced because of the danger that the place they call home is no longer habitable. However, currently, climate migrants do not legally have refugee status according to international law. 4 I believe this should change in the future as the number of climate migrants increases. This is an urgent issue as refugee status provides legal protection, access to some social services, and state recognition.
How can engineers help?
Leaving behind the social and economic safety net of one’s home is a complex decision. Individuals are faced with many questions. Further, individuals tasked with addressing climate change and a potential future dominated by climate refugees also face an array of questions. We can break down some of these questions into four main categories: social, technical, economic, and political:
Social: How will a community decide to stay or go? What level of welfare and acceptance will be provided to those who have had to move? How will they preserve communities, languages, and culture across a potentially wide diaspora?
Technical: How can CO2 emissions be reduced to reduce the number of climate migrants? Can we build infrastructure like resilient buildings that reduce urban carbon footprints? How can we make urban centers better prepared for population growth?
Economic: How will those displaced find new sources of income? Should host communities support climate migrants? If so, how? Are governments willing to provide financial support to migrants?
Political: Should countries open borders to climate migrants? Will climate migrants gain legal refugee status? Should this be decided by individual nations or through international law?
Engineers can play a clear role in addressing the technical challenges facing climate migrants. However, it is important to recognize that even technical solutions to this challenge will require efforts from people of many different backgrounds and disciplines. Engineers of the future must recognize the problem. Any new technologies or production activities release a significant amount of CO2 and other greenhouse gasses into the atmosphere. These greenhouse gasses are the root cause of climate change. We must act now to curb our emissions and invest in technology that sequesters CO2 from the environment. Since a certain amount of global warming, and therefore climate migration, is now “baked in” to our future, engineers should lead the way in adaptive design planning. The increased number of climate migrants will likely lead to more densely populated areas. Currently, these areas do not have the infrastructure to support the newly displaced people. We as engineers should be involved in the planning or implementation of sustainable living structures. New housing developments are already starting along this path, constructing elevated housing in coastal regions, using bio-friendly construction materials and techniques, and adding solar panels.
Engineers can also use computer models to help predict climate stress before it happens. Climate scenario modeling is a powerful tool for developing sustainable city planning. For example, models can predict future water demand, allowing planners to work with their city’s water utilities to design a more resilient water infrastructure. In one scenario, if lower predicted precipitation is in that area then a rainwater catchment for water may not be the better alternative, and groundwater or surface water alternatives should be considered instead. To help raise awareness about the utility of such projects, engineers should also continue to work with nonprofits and government agencies to make climate data accessible to the general public. One interesting resource that is worth checking out is the Climate Toolbox.The Climate Toolbox visualizes climate and hydrological predictions for our warming world.
Finally, it is important to accept the fact that challenges induced by climate change cannot only be solved with technology alone. It will also be dependent on engineers working together with other people, groups, and governments to help people displaced due to climate change. While technology can help predict climate stressors and aid planners in mitigating the worst impacts, climate change is already forcing people to move from their homes. Now is the time to act to help preserve the livelihoods of current and future climate migrants.