Climate Science Points to an Increase in Climate-induced Displacement

February 2, 2023

This week saw the release of the Working Group II report of the Sixth Assessment Report (AR6) of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) which highlights the interdependence of climate and biodiversity and emphasizes the need for urgent and ambitious climate action focused on addressing climate risks.

The Working Group II report indicates that impacts are evident on ecosystem structure, species geographic ranges, and timing of seasonal life cycles. It further provides new insights into nature’s potential to reduce climate risks and to improve people's lives which connects to nature-based solutions integrated into climate action. Additionally, recognising that climate change is a global challenge which requires local solutions, the report provides information that would contribute to regional-level action enabling climate-resilient development. Among the many topics focused on in the report is climate-induced human mobility, which includes displacement as well as conflicts due to climate risks.

Climate-induced Human Mobility

Climate change increasingly influences and shapes the patterns of human mobility across the world. From internal or international migration to disaster displacement and planned relocation, the impacts of climate change create new push and pull factors, exacerbate underlying vulnerabilities, and alter decision-making processes related to human mobility.

The interlinkages between climate change, different forms of human mobility, and sectoral processes are complex. On the one hand, the patterns of human mobility differ based on distance (short- vs. long-distance, internal vs. international), direction (urban-rural, rural-urban, rural-rural), duration (temporary vs. permanent, short- vs. long-term), choice (voluntary vs. forced), and motivation (work, education, agricultural seasons, marriage, family, safety etc.). On the other hand, climate impacts also vary in their nature, intensity, and frequency, from sudden-onset extreme weather events to slow-onset or long-term processes.

Climate-induced Displacement in the WGII Report

The Working Group II report indicates with high confidence that climate change is a key factor that contributes to humanitarian crises. This especially refers to cases where climate hazards could be combined with high vulnerability and interlinked to different social and economic factors.

The report also points to climate change impacts and weather extremes with high confidence as a causal element driving displacement in all regions in the world. However, some countries and regions are more affected than others. For example, small island states are disproportionately affected, as well as countries in Africa which are impacted by flood- and drought-related acute food insecurity and malnutrition, interlinking impacts on food systems as a driver of displacement.

The Working Group II report also indicates that evidence of displacement is attributable to climate and weather extremes such as inland flooding and associated damages, including river overflows, heavy rain, glacier outbursts, or urban flooding.

The report projects with high confidence that in the mid- to long-term, climate-induced displacement will see an increase due to climate impacts such as intensification of heavy precipitation, flooding, tropical cyclones, drought, and sea level rise. It also projects with medium confidence that there would be occurrences of involuntary migration from regions that are highly exposed to climate impacts and have lower capacities to adapt to them. Furthermore, the report makes references to potential conflicts caused by climate impacts, displacement, and other factors contributing to enhancing vulnerabilities of communities. It indicates that at higher global warming levels, the impacts of climate change could increasingly affect violent intrastate conflict.

Addressing Climate-induced Human Mobility

It is important to increase the adaptive capacities of communities and those vulnerable to climate impacts to minimize adverse impacts related to displacement and involuntary migration. Actions focused on increasing the adaptive capacities will lead to enhancing the scope of choice available for migration decision-making, leading to the safe and orderly movement of people and actions related to this.

Additionally, the report highlights with high confidence that a reduction in underlying vulnerabilities associated with conflict as well as actions related to enhancing adaptive capacities can contribute to reduce climate impacts and climate change as a driver of conflict. This could be in the form of enhancing resilience through improved economic capacities leading to better adaptation and the ability for a wider spectrum of choices in decision-making related to human mobility.

Human Mobility in Policy and Planning

Human mobility is deeply connected with climate change and climate policy. Climate-related mobility can be caused by climate change as an impact and a form of loss and damage, but it can also function as an adaptation strategy that increases the resilience of individuals, households, communities, and regions.

When it comes to integrating human mobility considerations into climate policies and processes, it is important to understand the context and multi-faceted nature of these linkages between different forms of mobility and different climate change impacts. Integrating human mobility considerations into climate and development processes, including national plans and policies, has the potential to contribute to adaptation while avoiding, mitigating, and addressing adverse impacts and interactions.

Depending on the specific context and impacts, human mobility can present a successful adaptation strategy or turn into a form of maladaptation. Migration can help to diversify income sources and livelihoods, manage climate risks, and facilitate the exchange of knowledge and skills; but it can also place a heavy burden on the health, wellbeing, social cohesion, and resilience of individuals and communities and lead to irregular migration. Similarly, planned relocation can reduce exposure to climate threats and help save lives, but it can also take away traditional livelihood opportunities and destroy socioeconomic and cultural ties to a community’s tangible and intangible heritage.


In highly climate-vulnerable countries such as Sri Lanka, evidence points to already existing climate induced human mobility. This could take the form of temporary migration in Sri Lanka from one region to another, as well as migration connected to livelihoods. It is important that the impacts of climate change on communities are understood and documented to guide evidence-based actions related to enhancing the adaptive capacity of communities, which would lead to enhanced resilience of those at the forefront of climate impacts.

Tackling climate impacts, enhancing adaptation and resilience-building, and addressing climate-induced migration and displacement is a task for all—governments, the private sector, academia, civil society—that requires collective actions which prioritize risk reduction as well as equity and justice in decision-making and investment at local and national levels. In these efforts, adequate funding, technology transfer, political commitment, and partnerships will lead to more effective actions for addressing the needs of communities vulnerable to climate change.

Note: This article has been published on The Morning as part of the author’s weekly column. 

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About the Author
Vositha Wijenayake

Vositha is an attorney-at-law specialising in public international law, with a focus on international environmental law, UN human rights law, refugee law and EU law. She has over a decade of experience in working on climate change, at national and international level. Vositha is a member of the national expert committee on climate change adaptation of the Ministry of Mahaweli Development and Environment, national expert on vulnerability and adaptation measures for the Third National Communication of Sri Lanka to the UNFCCC for the Ministry of Mahaweli Development and Environment, and is a delegate focusing on compliance, adaptation, loss and damage, and gender for the Sri Lankan delegation to the UNFCCC since 2016. She is also a consultant to the UNFCCC national adaptation plans and policy unit, and worked as a country support consultant to the UNDP NAP Global Support Programme. Vositha has an LLM in public international law from University College London, and an LLB from University of London. ‍