Climate change also has very different impacts on people’s lives depending on the latitude in which they live. Several hundred thousand people are forced to move temporarily or permanently because their usual places of residence are no longer liveable. 

The transformation of territories can be of two types. On the one hand, there are slow on-set processes such as desertification or coastal salification, i.e. transformations that have been taking place for decades and have gradually transformed ecosystems. On the other hand, there are sudden on-set processes such as floods, i.e. very rapid and very violent phenomena that are hardly predictable and destroy entire villages or crops in a matter of hours. 

Both phenomena give rise to or contribute to the uncontrolled movement of thousands of people. This mobility is fraught with consequences, and many factors need to be analysed in terms of both causes and consequences.

The causes

It is difficult to identify climate change as the only factor responsible for migration in a specific territory, especially if we are talking about a slow process such as desertification. Such situations are taking place today in various places in the world such as Sub-Saharan Africa and Central Asia. In these territories, human activities of food production become difficult, almost impossible. The impact on communities is devastating not only is food insecurity growing, but also unemployment and social tensions both within and outside communities. In these places, climate change acts as a threat multiplier, that is, it increases the elements of risk already endemically present. 

In other areas, where violent and sudden phenomena are now frequent, in Central America or Asia in the areas of Bangladesh and Pakistan, there are seasonal migrations of entire villages which, as the years go by and the phenomenon worsens, are increasingly turning into permanent migrations, which however end up overloading cities that are already at the limit (Dakha for example), exacerbating social problems that are already present. In this case, climate change acts as a stressor on latent factors that trigger emergencies.

The consequences

It is difficult to quantify the climate-related migrations that have taken place, and above all to make forecasts. Those made over the past decades, which were catastrophic, and which quantified the tens of millions of people who would be forced to move by 2050, have proven not to have had the desired effect; that is, that of drawing the attention of summits, forums and governments to the climate issue. 

Beyond the numbers, there are contingent issues to be resolved such as legal issues, for example. For the most part, climate migration produces IDPs, i.e., Internal Displaced Persons, who remain within their own country or cross neighbouring borders, often collapsing the weak support systems of neighbouring countries or overburdening the same national systems. Furthermore, from the point of view of international protection, IDPs have few guarantees as they are not genuine refugees. The 1951 Refugee Convention, the cornerstone of international protection, does not recognise environmental causes as grounds for being defined as a ‘refugee’ and to date it must be noted the reluctance of states both to amend the Convention to include these subjects and to create the category of ‘environmental refugees’. Many countries have also spoken out against the creation of special temporary visas to be used in the current period pending the adaptation of international law. 

In short, even from the point of view of mobility, climate change has already created and will create challenges that, for the time being, neither the international community nor individual states seem to be able to deal with.

Health consequences

Increased migration and its social consequences lead to increased rates of aggression, violence, crime, social instability and reduced social cohesion, increased crime rates (Hsiang et al., 2013) and increased drug and alcohol use (Willox et al., 2013; Innocenti, 2022). The impact on people’s livelihoods and the loss of livability in places most exposed to extreme climatic adversity are forcing an increasing portion of the world’s citizens to migrate both within the borders of their countries and abroad. These people are forced to give up what contributes substantially to preserving intact and recognising the continuity of their existence: their belongings, their eating habits, their work and their roots deeply immersed in the land of the place they feel ancestrally their own. A study conducted by Tuason et al. (2009) showed how flood victims were particularly upset by the loss of personal possessions. Losing precious objects when a home is damaged or destroyed can, in fact, significantly impair an individual’s sense of self and identity (Innocenti, 2022). Quite simply, objects also help to provide an ongoing sense of who we are, particularly objects that represent important moments in life (such as diaries), relationships (such as gifts or photographs) or one’s personal and/or family history (Dittmar, 2011). 

Forced and brutal eradication from their places of origin means that these people cannot even enjoy the beneficial effects of feeling ‘at home’ in a place. For these reasons, environmental migrants are extremely at risk of developing a wide range of psychological consequences: the post-traumatic stress associated with fragmented social networks, separation from family, and a reduced sense of belonging, leads to the development of anxiety, depression and aggressive behaviour. Symptoms that are also exacerbated by economic difficulties such as inadequate housing, poor education and job insecurity. Evidence also shows that in such contexts there is an increase in the rate of alcohol and drug addiction and suicide. This condition, already very complex in itself, is further complicated by the fact that at a legal level, environmental migrants are not entitled to international protection and have a well-founded fear of persecution on account of their race, nationality, religion, political opinion and membership of a social group. All of this implies that environmental migrants arriving in their place of arrival are not assured of receiving aid, benefits, and some basic rights. Instead, they face hostile reception conditions and are denied the human rights of adequate housing, belonging and identity as a people (Innocenti, 2022). Social cohesion is, therefore, an extremely important weapon in the fight against climate change. 

When considering the effects of climate change on the global and mental health of individuals, the issue of climate migration and its social, economic and health consequences must necessarily be taken into account. In particular, to cope with the health consequences of migration, care plans must be developed that involve not only health workers but also social structures. Indeed, a good promotion of social cohesion is an often neglected, but crucial tool in enhancing climate resilience and adaptation.

Article by: Matteo Innocenti, Italian Climate Change Anxiety Association, Italian Psychological Institute and Ilenia Maria Calafiore, Italian Climate Change Anxiety Association

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