Jen Chapin 2018

Jen Chapin

What does climate change have to do with migration?

By Jen Chapin

The numbers are huge to the point of being mind-numbing. As the Environmental Justice Foundation reports, in the last 10 years an average of 21.7 million people each year, 59,600 people every day or 41 people every minute have been forced to migrate by weather-related causes, a conservative estimate that leaves uncounted the additional millions displaced by catastrophic drought. In its own study titled

Groundswell: Preparing for Internal Climate Migration, the World Bank predicts that barring decisive action, rising seas, droughts, failing harvests, and dramatic storms could lead to the exodus of more than 140 million people from their homes in South Asia, Sub-Saharan Africa and Latin America by 2050. Other researchers have estimated that in Mexico, a 10% decrease in crop yields leads to a 2% increase in emigration, and predict that “by approximately the year 2080, climate change is estimated to induce 1.4 to 6.7 million adult Mexicans (or 2% to 10% of the current population aged 15–65) to emigrate as a result of declines in agricultural productivity alone.” In our own country last year, more than a million people were displaced by the hurricanes and fires that devastated Texas, Florida, Puerto Rico and California.

Lost in these numbers are the faces, the stories, and the moments: The elderly left behind, or, as the New York Times reported last weekend of a Puerto Rican couple, the elderly desperate to return home at any cost.

The Syrian toddlers lost to brutal journeys, for, though it is obscured in the news of tangled geopolitics, terrorist militias and villainous dictatorship, the Syrian refugee crisis is at its root a climate crisis exemplified by the worst regional drought in nearly 1000 years. The heroic pockets of refugee resistance against the attempted genocide of the Yazidis. The sexual assault, extortion, debt slavery and even asphyxiation suffered by climate refugees at the hands of smugglers. The moment when the Bangladeshi rice paddy is washed away and the family finally packs up to leave. The moment when a young man finally crosses the terrifying desert or sea is intercepted, deported and then decides to start all over again. The moment when the discovery of an elusive cell phone charging station allows a fleeting call home: I made it, I’m safe.

For the moment.

While the acceleration, alarm and denial of climate change is of the moment, the involuntary movement of peoples is not new -- we know from the stories of our own ancestors who arrived fleeing the pogroms of Eastern Europe, the famine of Ireland, or the racial terrorism of the American South. Migration is violent and traumatic, yet can also fertilize economies and nourish cultures, break up remnants of feudalism and build up progressive change. Beyond these intimate narratives of hidden hardship is the immense structural and demographic movement of people from farm to city; at its most tragic transformation this can mean families forced from self-reliant food sovereignty into solitary captivity by a global economy whose machinations are out of reach to those workers it most depends upon. Global capital wins, the family farm loses. But sometimes the stories are more complicated than that, and sometimes they are more hopeful.

Stories of positive transformation are emerging from both those who migrated and those who stay put. In Southern India, women peasants are leading on climate resilience as they reclaim tradition and nutrition by mobilizing to replant colonially-imposed rice fields with drought resistant, nourishing millet. In cities from Dhaka, Bangladesh, to Hawassa, Ethiopia and Oaxaca, Mexico we see smart urban policies that aid the transitions of former farmers compelled to migrate internally.

Our demand for guacamole accelerates deforestation and gang activity in Michoácan, Mexico, even as it allows avocado farmers to make a good living home on their land. Racist rhetoric to the contrary, American cities are seeing economies flourish and crime rates plummet as immigration numbers surge. Causal or coincidental, the data over recent decades is clear. Dying towns in Iowa are kept alive by diverse communities of migrants recruited to work their meat-packing plants.

American climate and technological leadership recedes, so China accelerates its investment into carbon alternatives, India commits to electric cars, France lures our climate scientists overseas, and new political voices emerge from Gabon, Mauritius, and around the world. As with the myriad opportunities for slowing climate change itself that only await our political will, there are many possibilities for ameliorating its disruptive human impact in our farms and cities.

This article is part of an ongoing series exploring topics related the to work of the Park Slope Food Coop Labor Committee. For more information, see or email

Selected sources/further reading

Beyond Borders: our changing climate - its role in conflict and displacement, Environmental Justice Foundation

“Meet the Human Faces of Climate Migration”, The World Bank Group,

Linkages among climate change, crop yields and Mexico–US cross-border migration”, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America,

This article was originally written as part of a series by the Park Slope Food Coop Labor Committee, Brooklyn NY.

Jen Chapin teaches Government and Economics at Abraham Lincoln High School in Brooklyn NY. She is also a musician and longtime Board Member at WhyHunger and Advisory Board member at KIDS.

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