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Climate migration is a human consequence of our warming climate.

Climate migration, also known as climate displacement, refers to the movement of people due to changes in climate in their region.

These changes can include phenomena like rising sea levels, extreme weather events, prolonged droughts, and other environmental changes associated with climate warming. These conditions can disrupt livelihoods and prompt people to move to more hospitable areas. This movement can occur within countries or across international borders.

Gardi Sugdub is an island belonging to the indigenous Guna Yala people of Panama. Courtesy: Lee Bosher

Climate migration happening this week

It’s happening right now in Panama, on the small island named Gardi Sugdub, where hundreds of families are having to leave behind the homes they’ve known all their lives.

The Gunas (also spelled Kuna or Cuna) are an indigenous people of Panama and Colombia.

Generations of Gunas who have grown up on Gardi Sugdub in a life dedicated to the sea and tourism will trade that this month for the mainland’s solid ground.

The Gunas of Gardi Sugdub are the first of 63 communities along Panama’s coasts that are expected to be forced to relocate due to rising sea levels in the coming decades.

Some people have decided to stay on the island until it’s no longer safe. Panama’s ministry of housing has not revealed the specific number. The government won’t force them to leave.

Climate warming has not only led to a rise in sea levels, but it’s also warming oceans and thereby powering stronger storms. This has been a problem on Gardi Sugdub. Even when the winds get strong, water fills the streets and enters the homes.

The locals have tried to protect the island with rocks, pilings and coral, but it is not stopping the rising water. The tide comes to a level it didn’t before, and the heat is becoming unbearable.

Climate migration happening elsewhere too

In Mexico: Last year, a small coastal community named El Bosque in Mexico had to move inland. People moved this coastal Gulf of Mexico location in the 1980s to fish and build a community. Flooding driven by some of the world’s fastest sea-level rise and by an increased amount of intense winter storms has all but destroyed El Bosque, leaving twisted piles of concrete where houses used to line the sand.

In Indonesia: Indonesia is moving its capital, now in Jakarta, to another location. About 10 million people currently live in Jakarta. Jakarta sits on the northwest coast of the island of Java.

It has been described as the world’s most rapidly sinking city, and at the current rate, it is estimated that one-third of the city could be submerged by 2050. The main cause is uncontrolled ground water extraction, but it has been exacerbated by the rising Java Sea due to climate change.

In New Zealand: Governments are being forced to take action. New Zealand has a National Adaptation Plan that includes the possible relocation of low-lying homes as rising seas and increased storms make flooding more common. Climate Change Minister James Shaw said about 70,000 coastal homes in New Zealand were at risk from rising seas, and many more inland homes were at risk from flooding rivers. He said New Zealand had been slow to adapt to climate change, which would end up costing more money over time.

Isle de Jean Charles, LA. Members of a Native American tribe become first climate migrants in the United States as they begin a process of relocating from the sinking island their ancestors made home two centuries ago.

Climate migration in the U.S.

The difficult and heartbreaking process of climate migration is underway in America too.

In Louisiana, the island of Isle de Jean Charles, which features a long history of Native Americans that have ties to the island that span generations, once encompassed more than 22,000 acres. Due to Gulf of Mexico storms, erosion, sinking land and rising seas brought on by climate change, it has dwindled to 320 acres.

The state received a $48.3 million federal grant in 2016 to resettle current and former residents of the island, with $11.7 million used to purchase a 515-acre property on higher ground about 40 miles north of the island.

While American climate migration like this is just a trickle for now, as the U.S. gets hotter, sea levels rise higher, wildfires burn larger and its droughts last longer. This has caused nearly one-third of Americans to consider climate in their moves.

A new 2024 survey conducted by Forbes Home found that 64% of Americans surveyed to cite climate change or better weather as a reason to move this year.

The study also showed that people are also moving away from areas prone to wildfires or extreme temperatures. Widespread fires that hit California, Montana, Oregon and Washington State and the deadly heatwave that the Pacific Northwest experienced in June 2021 prompted many people to evacuate, and many did not return.

People are factoring climate into their decisions

Increasingly, climate is a driving factor in choosing where to live.

In a 2021 study published in the journal Climatic Change, researchers found that 57% of the Americans they surveyed believed that changes in their climate would push them to consider a move sometime in the next decade.

Roughly one in four Americans surveyed told Redfin, a national real estate company, they would no longer consider a move to a region facing extreme heat, no matter how much more affordable that location was. And nearly one-third of people said that “there was no price at which” they would consider buying a home in a coastal region affected by rising seas.

Globally, the World Bank’s Groundswell report projects that climate change could lead up to 216 million people across six world regions to move within their countries by 2050, if no urgent action to reduce global greenhouse gas emissions is taken.

The CAC is committed to the climate conversation. We do this with events like the Climate Champions Awards Ceremony, Hurricane Season Forecast Day and the upcoming Annual Climate Conference in November, that will focus on human health. We also give climate presentations, focused on adaptation strategies, to thousands of people throughout the year.

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