Where are the climate refugees? The academics don’t know either
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Where are the climate refugees? The academics don’t know either

Regular readers of the ShadowLands would know that earlier this year we pointed out that a UN prediction that there would be 50 million climate refugees by 2010 had not come true.

Some comic capers followed when a UN agency then removed a map showing the places where the climate refugees were likely to come from. The attempt to erase it failed, and an analysis of the places they claimed the climate refugees would come from showed they were actually amongst the fastest growing regions in the world.

The story was picked up, big time, getting mentions in The Australian, der Spiegel, Wall Street Journal, and New Scientist. I was even interviewed by BBC radio.

It seems now that there has been some kind of academic vindication of our story following the publication of this academic paper about climate refugees by Francois Gemenne in the journal, Global Environmental Change.

Gemenne argues that there are so many difficulties in estimating numbers of people displaced by environmental issues, that attempts to estimate global numbers should be abandoned altogether. Gemenne writes:

As they stand today, estimates and predictions regarding environmental displacement are not satisfactory. Many of them appear to have been put forward in order to generate media attention rather than to provide empirically grounded estimates and predictions. In particular, they lack robust methodological foundations, and are generally grounded in a deterministic perspective, assuming that all people impacted by environmental changes will move away from their homes. Furthermore, they are strongly biased towards climate change, often at the expense of other environmental changes…

Most of these forecasts were published in the grey literature, which might explain why little attention was devoted to methodological issues. Only a few reports were published in academic journals, meaning that the methodology of most works was never reviewed externally.

Despite their flaws and biases, predictions and estimates made a lasting impact in both policy and scholarly debates: they are now often quoted as scientific truth, without any questioning of the methodology used. The multi-causality of displacement, as well as the confusion between forced and voluntary migration, make it difficult to identify a precise and rigorous number of environmentally displaced persons. Given the lack of comprehensive methodology and empirical studies, the field is wide open for guesses and doom-laden estimates rather than actual numbers.

One of the comic parts of this paper is the displayed workings of the author of the 50 million refugees by 2010 claim, Professor Norman Myers. Gemenne notes that when Myers claimed that there was 25 million climate refugees in 1995, his workings included:

5 million in the Sahel,
7 million in other parts of Africa, seeking relief food; –
6 million of internal migrants in China
2 million in Mexican cities – Myers (2002) –
1 million people…

Now add that up and see if you can get to 25 million…

The paper pulls few punches about Professor Myers including this:

Overall, Myers’ estimate of the number of ‘environmental refugees’ does not rely on any specific methodology: for each region of the world, the number of internally displaced people is considered. On the basis of these figures, Myers makes an estimate of the proportion that could have been displaced because of environmental disruptions. This estimate is based on reports and observations of environmental degradation in the considered region, but no attention is given to an examination of the linkages between environmental change and migration behaviour. In an essentialist fashion, Myers assumes that all people displaced in an area affected by environmental changes have been displaced solely because of these changes. Another interesting point to consider is that Myers rules out the possibility that some could have been displaced outside of their country – international migration is not considered in his estimate.

As a footnote, completely unfazed by the criticism, Myers has since come out and claimed that there are likely to be 200 million climate refugees by 2050…