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Climate change could displace 200 million people within their own countries by 2050

A boy waves a stick amid a cloud of locusts.
A boy, a member of the semi-nomadic Samburu people, uses a stick to try to chase away a swarm of desert locusts in Kenya.
(Patrick Ngugi / Associated Press)

Climate change could push more than 200 million people to leave their homes in the next three decades and create migration hot spots unless urgent action is taken to reduce global emissions and bridge the development gap, a World Bank report has found.

The second part of the Groundswell report, published Monday, examines how the effects of slow-onset climate change such as water scarcity, decreasing crop productivity and rising sea levels could give rise to millions of “climate migrants” by 2050.

Under the most pessimistic of three scenarios in the report, which looked at varying degrees of climate action and development, up to 216 million people could move within their own countries if there is a high level of global emissions and unequal development. Those internal migrations would be spread across six regions: Latin America, North Africa, Sub-Saharan Africa, Eastern Europe and Central Asia, South Asia, and East Asia and the Pacific.

In the most optimistic scenario, which posits a low level of emissions and inclusive, sustainable development, the number of migrants could be as much as 80% lower but still result in the displacement of 44 million people.

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The report didn’t look at the short-term impacts of climate change, such as effects on extreme weather events.

The findings “reaffirm the potency of climate to induce migration within countries,” said Viviane Wei Chen Clement, a senior climate change specialist at the World Bank and one of the report’s authors.

Each of the last seven years has been among the 10 warmest on record. The United Nations warns rightly we are not doing enough to deal with it.

In the worst-case scenario, Sub-Saharan Africa — the most vulnerable region because of desertification, fragile coastlines and the population’s dependence on agriculture — would see the most movement, with up to 86 million climate migrants moving within national borders.

North Africa, however, is predicted to have the largest proportion of climate migrants, with 19 million people moving, equivalent to roughly 9% of its total population, mainly because of increased water scarcity on the northeastern coast of Tunisia, the northwestern coast of Algeria, western and southern Morocco, and the central Atlas foothills, the report said.

In South Asia, Bangladesh could be particularly affected by flooding and crop failures accounting for almost half of the predicted climate migrants, with 19.9 million people, including an increasing share of women, moving by 2050.

“This is our humanitarian reality right now, and we are concerned this is going to be even worse, where vulnerability is more acute,” said Maarten van Aalst, director of the international Red Cross Red Crescent Climate Center, who wasn’t involved with the report.

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The report did not look at climate migration across borders.

“Globally we know that three out of four people that move stay within countries,” said Kanta Kumari Rigaud, a lead environmental specialist at the World Bank and co-author of the report.

Still, migration patterns from rural to urban areas often precede movements across borders.

Although climate change’s influence on migration is not new, it is often part of a combination of factors pushing people to move and acts as a threat multiplier. People affected by conflicts and inequality are also more vulnerable to the effects of climate change, as they have limited means to adapt.

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The report also warns that migration hot spots could appear within the next decade and intensify by 2050. Planning is needed in the areas people will move to and also in the areas they leave, to help those who remain.

Among the actions recommended were achieving “net-zero emissions by mid-century to have a chance at limiting global warming” to 2.7 degrees Fahrenheit and investing in development that is “green, resilient, and inclusive, in line with the Paris Agreement.”

Clement and Rigaud warned that the worst-case scenario was “plausible” if collective action to reduce emissions and invest in development wasn’t taken, especially in the next decade.


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