Climate Mobility FAQ


Your questions about human mobility in a warming world – answered.

Animation/Cecilia Humphrey

Animation/Cecilia Humphrey

Global displacement is at record highs – and as climate change brings disasters on steroids, we are likely to see more and more people on the move.

In what the United Nations Secretary-General calls ‘the era of global boiling’, Earth’s warming atmosphere is delivering more intense and more frequent disasters, in every part of the world.

‘Record-breaking’ becomes routine as we experience the ‘unprecedented’ heatwaves, cyclones, floods, fires and droughts driving people from their homes.

Sometimes people flee suddenly, forced to find safety from inundation or extreme storms. Others opt to leave as the incremental consequences of the changing climate add up – as the fresh water grows salty, or as rising seas erode the land.

No region is immune.

So, let’s clear up some common misunderstandings.

Lone human figure standing in vast golden sands near the Bakasi IDP camp in Nigeria

Image/IOM Muse Mohammed

Image/IOM Muse Mohammed

Does climate change cause displacement?

Scientists reported with ‘high confidence’ that in 2022, more than three billion people were living in areas highly vulnerable to climate change.

Climate change is already amplifying many natural environmental hazards, resulting in both sudden-onset disasters and slower-onset consequences. Amid these impacts, people are moving.

What does climate mobility look like?  

People’s movement may be temporary or permanent.

While it may be across international borders, the vast majority of people moving in the context of climate change and disasters stay within their own countries. 

Disasters can force people to flee their homes, and so can an accumulation of gradual changes. Often, it is the interaction of slow and sudden impacts of climate change that make life untenable in a place – for example, slowly rising sea levels become impossible to ignore when your home is hit with storm surges carrying greater volumes of water. These intersecting conditions can threaten lives and livelihoods, or even jeopardise the ongoing habitability of particular areas.   

While climate change and disasters affect mobility, they are not the sole cause. Displacement in the context of climate change is always multi-casual. Climate change often becomes the proverbial straw that breaks the camel’s back for people already living in precarious circumstances.   

Describing the domino effect of climate change’s interconnected risks, the Global Head of Climate Change Resilience Services at Zurich Insurance Group, Amar Rahman, put it this way: ‘When temperatures rise in a country, for instance, it can reduce water availability and water quality. This may increase the spread of disease and raise the likelihood of drought, leading to crop failures that will reduce incomes and food supplies.’ 

The United Nations Refugee Agency, UNHCR, calls climate change a risk multiplier, or a threat multiplier, which intersects with other drivers of displacement:  

‘Climate change does not in itself lead to conflict, but it does increase food insecurity. It increases challenges to access to livelihoods and it puts pressure on education and health services. This is often compounded with pressures on governance and access to overall resources, and when you have challenges in relation to socio-political and religious grievances, or community structures, the combination of factors could be the spark to set everything off.’    

UNHCR points out that 95 per cent of all conflict-related displacement in 2020 occurred in countries vulnerable or highly vulnerable to climate change. 

It’s important to note, too, that the most drastic impacts of climate change are likely to be felt in the poorest parts of the world, where human rights protection is often weak. It may also disproportionately affect people in vulnerable situations, including women, children, the elderly, people with disabilities and First Nations peoples.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) noted that ‘people who are socially, economically, politically, institutionally or otherwise marginalised are especially vulnerable to climate change’. 

Those disadvantaged by gender, disability, discrimination or income inequality have fewer means to prepare for climate change or to cope with its impacts. ‘This vulnerability can then increase due to climate change impacts in a vicious cycle unless adaptation measures are supported and made possible,’ according to the IPCC’s 2022 Assessment Report.

Bangladeshi man and child holding onto bamboo pole in water

Image/IOM Amanda Nero

Credit: IOM/Amanda Nero

Climate mobility is everywhere.

An Iñupiat girl Amaia, 11, standing on an ice floe in the Arctic Ocean in Barrow, Alaska. The anomalous melting of the Arctic ice is one of the many effects of global warming that has a serious impact on the lives of humans and wildlife.

Image/©UNICEF Vlad Sokhin

Image/©UNICEF Vlad Sokhin

Across the United States, from Alaska in the north to Louisiana in the south.

And throughout the Americas.

Central American boy in "Dry Corridor" corn fields, where climate change increases the intensity of rains and droughts.

Image/UNHCR Ruben Salgado Escudero

Image/UNHCR Ruben Salgado Escudero

In Australia, Asia and
the Pacific.

Kiribati, 2016  Taronga, 16, holds her two-year-old sister Teaborenga while standing in a flooded area in the village

Image/©UNICEF Vlad Sokhin

© UNICEF/UN056626/Sokhin

In Europe, Africa and the Middle East.

 A road made impassable by floodwaters near the Kafia site for displaced people in Baga Sola, Chad.

Image/UNHCR Sylvain Cherkaoui

Image/UNHCR Sylvain Cherkaoui

All over the world, people are moving because of the impacts of climate change and disasters. 

While small island States in the Pacific have been at the forefront of global discussion on climate mobility, the changing climate is wreaking more frequent and more intense disasters all over the world.  

In the United States, census figures show that 3.4 million adults were displaced by disasters in 2022, or 1.4 per cent of the US adult population, including people in every state. Some people also face the prospect of moving permanently due to slower-onset impacts; for instance, in Louisiana, members of the Jean Charles Choctaw Nation have since 2016 been part of the first federally funded relocation of a US community threatened by climate change.  

In 2022, tens of thousands of Australians had to evacuate their homes on account of extreme flooding. Thousands were left homeless, and at least 20 people died. In the year before, bushfires drove about 65,000 Australians to flee their homes, including more than 1,000 whom the Navy rescued from coastal Mallacoota, Victoria. Others sheltered in temporary evacuation centres or stayed with friends or relatives until it was safe to return home.  

However, the people most vulnerable to the impacts of climate change and disasters are generally living in countries that have contributed least to emissions driving global warming. 

What is climate mobility?

‘Climate mobility’ is an umbrella term that takes in a range of ways people move: displacement, migration, evacuation and planned relocation. It may also encompass those who stay in place despite the climate risks. The notion of climate mobility acknowledges that some people are ‘immobile’, whether by choice (because they are determined to stay in their homes) or necessity (because they may be unable to leave precarious conditions).     

All movement occurs along a spectrum.  

While not legal terms, ‘disaster displacement’, ‘climate displacement’ and ‘climate migration’ often describe the movements of people who leave their homes because the impacts of climate change or disasters make it unsafe for them to remain.

Migration is traditionally characterised as ‘voluntary’ movement, and displacement as ‘forced’. In general, the more agency and choice people have when they move, the more likely they will be able to move safely and with dignity. While the lines are not clear-cut, the idea of ‘climate migration’ implies a degree of choice, whereas ‘climate displacement’ implies the need for protection and assistance.

Children playing in the water in the village of Eita in the nation of Kiribati, which is only two metres above sea level and already feeling the impact of rising sea levels.

Image/Jonas Gratzer/LightRocket via Getty Images

Image/Jonas Gratzer/LightRocket via Getty Images

Is there such a thing as a climate refugee?

This family from Yesila atolln in Papua New Guinea's Carteret Islands,has already had to move inland due to the sea eroding their gardens and livelihoods.

Image/IOM Muse Mohammed

Image/IOM Muse Mohammed

The term ‘climate refugee’ is often used in the media to describe people who are displaced in the context of climate change and disasters. But legally speaking, there is no such thing as a ‘climate refugee’. It is also important to note that many people called ‘climate refugees’ reject the term.  However, while in law there is no such thing as a ‘climate refugee’, there is such a thing as a refugee whose circumstances are worsened because of climate change.

 In international law, a refugee is someone who is outside their country of origin and has a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, political opinion or membership of a particular social group, and whose government is unable or unwilling to protect them.  

Many people moving in the context of climate change or disasters will not meet these criteria. For a start, many will never cross an international border. Others will not meet the threshold of ‘being persecuted’. As a New Zealand tribunal put it, the Refugee Convention ‘is not a vehicle for ameliorating all human suffering’. 

Some have suggested that a change to the Refugee Convention, or an optional protocol, is required. However, the causal complexity of movement in the context of climate change and disasters could be difficult to reflect in a treaty definition, and in any event, governments seem unwilling to create additional binding obligations in this area. Indeed, the lack of political will even to implement existing international protection obligations is demonstrated by the fact that the Refugee Convention is one of the most widely ratified treaties in the world, yet there are more refugees today than ever before and many will never find a durable solution.   

Importantly, existing refugee law will already provide some people with protection [see Solutions: Protection]. The UN Refugee Agency, UNHCR, emphasises that conflict, persecution and disasters are often interlinked, and '[p]eople seeking international protection in the context of the adverse impacts of climate change or disasters may have valid claims for refugee status’.  

You can watch a debate about whether the 1951 Refugee Convention is fit for purpose today.

According to UNHCR, the impacts of climate change and disasters ‘are often exacerbated by other factors such as poor governance, undermining public order; scarce natural resources, fragile ecosystems, demographic changes, socio-economic inequality, xenophobia, and political and religious tensions, in some cases leading to violence. As a result of these negative impacts of climate change and disasters, combined with social vulnerabilities, people may be compelled to leave their country and seek international protection.’ 

Disasters and other climate impacts do factor into what drives people across borders, and in some cases, these elements will help to substantiate a refugee claim. 

Family ankle deep in tropical waters.

Image/IOM Muse Mohammed

Image/IOM Muse Mohammed

Has anyone successfully claimed protection as a refugee on account of climate change? 

So far, no. But I-Kiribati man Ioane Teitiota came to world attention in 2013 when he challenged his deportation from New Zealand for overstaying his work visa. He declared himself the world’s first ‘climate refugee’, telling the BBC, ‘I’m the same as people who are fleeing war. Those who are afraid of dying, it’s the same as me.’  

Kiribati consists almost entirely of low-lying atolls vulnerable to rising seas, erosion and scarce groundwater, exacerbated by global warming. 

Mr Teitiota’s refugee claim was dismissed by the tribunal and courts in New Zealand, and his claim for protection on human rights grounds was also not made out. Even though it was recognised that refugee and human rights law could give rise to international protection in the context of climate change, the case failed on the facts at hand.

In the 2019 matter of Teitiota v New Zealand, the United Nations Human Rights Committee also recognised that it is unlawful for States to remove people to countries where there is a real risk that the impacts of climate change will expose them to life-threatening risks. Again, Mr Teitiota’s complaint was not successful on the facts, but the case is nevertheless significant because of the Committee’s explicit recognition that the impacts of climate change may preclude countries from sending people to places where their lives are at risk, or where they might be subjected to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment because of the conditions there.  

It should be noted that the Human Rights Committee has no jurisdiction to examine refugee law and so examined only the human rights-based protection claims. 

The Committee also recognised that States have a ‘continuing responsibility’ to consider ‘new and updated data on the effects of climate change and rising sea levels’, which means that future claims may have a greater chance of success. In fact, even now, a different individual in a different context might already have a valid protection claim.  

Even without formal precedential value, strategic litigation like Teitiota has an important role to play: it can highlight legal gaps or uncertainties, and develop the jurisprudence

In Australia, New Zealand, Austria, Sweden, Italy and elsewhere, decision-makers are already considering cases involving the impacts of climate change and disasters. While no claim has succeeded on the basis of prospective harm linked to climate impacts, protection has sometimes been provided in the aftermath of disasters. Climate change has also been recognised as a factor exacerbating food insecurity and having differential impacts on particular groups, such as older people and people with disabilities.

> Read Jane McAdam’s commentary on the Teitiota matter in the Sydney Morning Herald.

> Read the Human Rights Committee’s reasoning

> Listen to an interview about the matter.

Ioane Teitiota from Kiribati, Illustration/Cecilia Humphrey

Twitter: @BBC_World

How many people are already on the move because of the impacts of climate change?

Disasters displace more than
one person every second.  

In recent years, more people have been internally displaced on account of disasters and other climate impacts than by conflict and persecution.  

Disaster displacement in 2022 was 41 per cent higher than the annual average of the past 10 years; at 32.6 million, the figure was the highest in a decade, according to the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre (IDMC).   

In the Pacific and East Asia, although the rainy and cyclone seasons were less intense in 2022, nearly a third of the region’s countries reported an increase in disaster displacement, with a regional total of about 10.1 million internal movements in 2022, according to IDMC.  

Disaster displacement statistics for 2022 grap

And we know the numbers will likely increase as extreme weather events become more frequent and more intense due to ‘baked-in’ warming of Earth’s atmosphere. The ensuing ‘disasters on steroids’, as the Director of UNSW's Kaldor Centre for International Refugee Law, Professor Jane McAdam, puts it, will result in ever more people at risk. 

Map of internal displacements caused by disasters in 2022 (IDMC)

Map of internal disaster displacement in 2022.

Map of internal disaster displacement in 2022.

The October 2021 White House Report on the Impact of Climate Change on Migration emphasised: ‘Policy and programming efforts made today and in coming years will impact estimates of people moving due to climate-related factors.’ 

The interactive map below reflects the IDMC’s records in near real-time, so you can explore snapshots of current situations of internal displacement.

How big are the numbers likely to get?

Predictions vary.  

Tens of millions? At the conservative end, the US government said in 2021 that ‘tens of millions of people ... are likely to be displaced [internally] over the next two to three decades due in large measure to climate change impacts.’  

Hundreds of millions? A World Bank report from 2021 projected that 216 million people in six regions could move within their countries by 2050.  

More than a billion? Some alarmist forecasts have put the number that high, although their methodologies have been discredited. 

Different methodologies will shift the numbers, and it is difficult to factor in the extent to which mitigation and adaptation measures might alleviate the pressure to move.  

What can we do right now about climate mobility?

Dealing with the causes of climate change is the first and foremost task. But certain impacts of global warming are ‘baked in’ already, and some people will need to move away from harm.

Planning for mobility now offers us the best chance of ensuring that any movement in this context is positive for all involved – both for those on the move and the communities that receive them.

Let’s look at the main strategies: helping communities to stay in place for as long as possible, when that is safe and desirable; providing protection and durable solutions if displacement does occur; creating safe and dignified pathways for migration; and finally, preparing for consensual, collaborative planned relocations so that people can move out of danger zones before disaster strikes, or to safer areas in the aftermath of a disaster if a return home is not possible.

For these solutions to be successful, laws and policies should safeguard people’s culture, heritage and human rights and protect the needs of vulnerable and marginalised groups.

Boys hold bird on village ground

Image/IOM Muse Mohammed

Image/IOM Muse Mohammed