How can we prepare for the mass migrations that are likely to occur because of climate change?

Working now to prepare for future mass migrations would require a shift in both public policy and perception, said Kristina Shull, a public history and interdisciplinary scholar specializing in race, foreign relations, immigrant control and prison privatization, who recently joined the history department at the University of North Carolina, Charlotte. Shull noted that mass migrations are already underway because of the effects of climate change, both through direct displacement by major natural disasters and slower onset, often less visible phenomena like sea level rise and drought, which can lead to crop failures and, in turn, economic and political strife. 

“The public doesn’t always make those connections to see that these migrations are happening now,” said Shull, “but they definitely are likely to increase.” Estimates of the number of climate migrants range from 25 million to 1 billion by 2050. 

“We have options of how to see and understand migrations, and also how to respond,” said Shull. But, she warned, the current global response to mass migration seems to be going in the wrong direction. For instance, today there are over five times as many border walls as there were when the Berlin Wall fell in 1989. In Shull’s mind, this increasingly securitized and militaristic response to migration only “exacerbates the problem,” and is not only “unsustainable” but also “deadly” and “misinformed.” 

As a historian, Shull argued for a “historical approach” to the issue of climate-induced mass migration, by which she said she means an approach that is “humanistic” and understands the societal structures that have historically shaped migration patterns, so that one can “see migration as a natural and logical response” to global inequality and injustices, and “have a clear understanding of who is responsible” for them. With that in mind, she said, “we can better advocate for solutions and move towards repair and balance.” For Shull, that advocacy includes recognizing migration as a basic “human right,” both one “to move” and “to stay,” as well as to see migration “not as a threat, but as an opportunity for justice.” 

Ilana Cohen

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