Children play in the floodwaters after heavy rains in Bekasi, near Jakarta, Indonesia, Feb. 25, 2020.

Could migration be a solution to the climate crisis?

Migration is an adaptive strategy that builds on a long tradition of people moving around the world for better lives and opportunities. In her new book, author Sonia Shah argues we must reframe migration as a solution to the climate crisis — not a crisis itself.

The World

Children play in the floodwaters after heavy rains in Bekasi, near Jakarta, Indonesia, Feb. 25, 2020.

Antara Foto/Yulius Satria Wijaya/ via Reuters 

As climate change reshapes our world, it’s also going to change where we live. Up to a billion people are expected to move by 2050 to escape the worst impacts of drought, rising sea levels and natural disasters.

Since 2008, an average of over 20 million people have been displaced each year by climate change, according to the United Nations. People from poorer countries are disproportionately affected.  

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Climate migrants can include people leaving low-lying coastal areas or island nations that are affected by sea-level rise, such as Kiribati or the Maldives. Sea level rise of 20 inches could displace 6 million people living in coastal lowlands in Bangladesh alone. Prolonged drought or desert expansion may also force people to move — such as farmers and herders looking to continue living in parts of Somalia or Afghanistan

Most climate migration happens within countries. But for those who do cross borders, there is no official pathway or refugee status, although the UN and other international agencies are developing frameworks to address that.  

Sonia Shah, author of the book, “The Next Great Migration,” says we should think of migration as a solution to the climate crisis — after all, it's an adaptive strategy that builds on a tradition of people moving around in the hopes of better lives. She spoke to The World’s host Marco Werman about the possibilities.

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Marco Werman: In your book, "The Next Great Migration," you argue that migration should be seen not as a crisis itself, but as a reaction or adaptation. You saw that firsthand while reporting in the Bahamas after Hurricane Dorian killed an estimated 2,000 people there last year. In your reporting, you asked how many of those lives could've been saved if people had safe and legal pathways to move.

Sonia Shah: We think of these climate disasters as being catastrophic because people will have to move. But it's really just the opposite. When I went there, the tragedy was that people weren't allowed to move, that they had been trapped there. In particular, you know, marginalized communities in the Caribbean, like Haitian people in the Bahamas. They don't have a lot of pathways to move even outside of a climate disaster of any kind, even though we know that if you live on an island and you're vulnerable to catastrophic climate disasters, you will have to move across international borders. We don't have any legal pathways for people to do that anywhere in the world.  

So, recently you wrote about this and you underline the well-worn narrative of people coming from the "global south," how they're often seen as invaders after these catastrophes. How do you think historic colonialism and racism frame how climate migration is widely seen in our society? 

I think this idea of migration as catastrophic goes right back to, you know, in the Western tradition anyway, our original ideas about what nature is and where people come from and where they belong. We're facing a lot of migration in our future, and some of it's already happening, and we don't really have a good way of thinking about that. We think about it as well, let's try to turn the faucet off. Let's close the borders. And what we have today is more borders that are fortified with walls and fences than ever before in our history. We're also on the cusp of this great need for adaptive migration because of the climate crisis. 

So, how do you reframe that point of view?

I think part of the roots of our idea of migration as a problem is because we think things are supposed to be still. It's a very deep habit of mind, I think. We do it for animals and people. Think of the animal maps that people put up in their nurseries for their kids to look at where the camel stands in for the Middle East and the kangaroo stands in for Australia and the bear stands in for North America, as if those species are so stationary that they are kind of one and the same with that place. All of those things are just a snapshot in time. All of these species have been moving around a lot. And so we have people. We really need to, I think, incorporate that migratory past into our ideas about who we are and where we belong.  

Given how contentious immigration policy can be and how some politicians weaponize it, how realistically do you think climate migration could be made easier? 

The sad fact is it's going to be made easier because it's going to start affecting a lot more people. This is not something that we are going to be able to sort of ghettoize as someone else's problem. You know, people in this country are having to move because of climate change. People in low-lying coastal areas in Louisiana, or around the Chesapeake Bay. People are having to move out of parts of California because of the fires. The complexities of those moves are going to force us to really confront how we are going to manage this. 

So redefining migration away from the sense of catastrophe. You also nod to some of the positive aspects of migration, for example, the fusion of cultures and art. You point to the music of the great Ethiopian jazz artist, Mulatu Astatke, and a song of his, “Yèkèrmo Sèw,” makes the connection forth between migration and Mulatu Astatke's music. 

His combination of traditional Ethiopian music and reggae and Latin rhythms and jazz, it just sort of travels along these deeply carved migratory routes from East Africa to South America to the Caribbean to Eurasia and North America, that our bodies have been traveling from the very beginning. You know, and continuing today, although with so much more difficulty, the sound is so familiar, on one hand. But it's also kind of strangely different. It's that tension in his music, I think, which makes it so soulful and beautiful.

This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.