Climate migration is a tricky topic, but the aim is clear; mitigate upheaval and create positive outcomes.

The relationship between climate change and migration is complex and nuanced. Both topics invite falsehoods, populist rhetoric, and strong emotions. Nonetheless, as climate change renders lands inhabitable, many will have little choice but to move.

Our future is one with both a changing climate and mass displacement. This short explainer aims to present some of the key facts, challenges, and solutions.

Some facts:


A ‘Climate Migrant’ is not legally defined. Nor is climate change grounds for refugee protection. This is because it is hard to define migration as a direct result of climate change.


The majority of climate migrants will move within their own countries, primarily because of poverty.


There is still time to act, and action is being taken. Solutions are there to prepare for extreme weather and adjust to a changing climate. So too for other causes of displacement intensified by climate change, such as poverty, inequality, and violence.

The ugly

Climate migration is vulnerable to political weaponisation on all sides. Environmental groups may only use unlikely worst-case-scenario figures to push for emissions cuts. While nativists may use the idea of mass migration to further justify harsher border controls.

If we are to reduce displacement related to climate change, we need to base the solutions in reality. Not as it could be politically advantageous.

The bad

Whilst a flood or drought can cause people to move, climate change also works in slower ways. Climate change is not just a direct contributor to displacement. Its effects often exacerbate other reasons for migration such as poverty, loss of livelihoods, and tensions relating to dwindling resources. This is why it is so difficult to define a ‘climate refugee’.

There exists this distinction between sudden and gradual climate effects. Yet, as disasters become more frequent and severe, they influence migration patterns more. For example, the 2022 floods in Pakistan led to significant internal displacement initially. Yet economic challenges exacerbated by the floods later contributed to continued migration to Europe1.

Climate change is not just a direct contributor to displacement. It is a multiplier of other factors such as poverty, economic downturn, and conflict. Thinking of it as such allows for more effective action.

The good

Being forced to move from your homeland will likely be agonising and distressing. Yet, there are some positive opportunities that may arise. One is that people displaced from poor rural areas will often head to cities. This can bring some surprising positive effects2. Moving to cities often brings higher wages and secure work that is less dependent on the climate. It brings easier access to health care and education. And as urban jobs require more book-learning, children are more likely to attend school. Another major impact is that families in urban areas often have fewer children. This helps slow population growth in areas where it is unsustainably fast.

Urbanisation is part of a wider idea of ‘migration as adaptation’. This aims to change forced displacement into planned, voluntary migration. This kind of migration can assist both the communities where people leave, and the ones they move to. This could be through sending money back home, or sharing new ideas and connections.

There are some specific agreements for routes into countries for those affected by natural disasters. These have seen mixed results. In late 2023, in what has been seen as a success story, Australia allowed Tuvaluans to migrate to Australia due to sea-level rise. Australia also provides funding for Tuvalu climate adaptation. Another positive move has been Kenya and Ethiopia have expanded refugee definitions to include those fleeing environmental degradation and climate events.

Such agreements have not always proved effective. In 2017, New Zealand attempted a "climate refugee" visa for Pacific Islanders. This did ultimately fail because the Islanders preferred to stay in their ancestral homes despite sea-level rise.

Lastly, refugees and internally displaced people are actively building resilience through various initiatives; in Cameroon, refugees are actively building a 'Great Green Wall' to tackle desertification, while Rohingya refugee volunteers in Bangladesh are striving to prevent monsoon-related damages. In COP events, advocates are working for support for refugee-led organisations and inclusion in global decision-making. Please visit the UN Refugee Agency here for some brilliant examples.


Reducing emissions remains key to curbing climate-induced migration. Yet, even with our best mitigation efforts, millions will face unavoidable displacement. With calm strategic planning, we can ease trauma and foster positive outcomes.