Climate Migration: The Human Cost of Climate Change

 /  Dec. 15, 2022, 3:15 p.m.

Climate Refugees in Mozambique

Every day, we continue to read about and experience the drastic changes to our planet as a result of global warming. The United States has warmed 68 percent faster than the rest of the Earth in the past 50 years, with the average temperature of 48 states already rising 1.4 degrees Celsius. Consequently, we’ve seen billions of dollars in damages from catastrophic events like Hurricanes Ian and Ida and forest fires on the West Coast that have burned over a million acres. Despite current efforts to reduce emissions, there is no foreseeable relief. Severe climate events like flooding and wildfires will continue to plague the globe as they wreak havoc and displace millions. Weather events that may appear isolated in other countries will have rippling effects in regard to forced migration; and the US does not have the political or institutional infrastructure to confront the massive surge of refugees that are to come. Specifically, regions in Central and South America will become uninhabitable, forcing millions north and presenting the US with an unprecedented wave of migration. The US will have the opportunity to seize the benefits of a new wave of immigrants, or provoke a humanitarian crisis by turning millions away. 


The Growing Threat of Climate Change

Global leaders continue to fail to meet climate goals, and the world is suffering. Just 26 of the 193 countries that pledged to reduce their impact on global warming in 2021 have actually met their targets. Average global temperatures have already risen by 1.2 degrees Celsius since 1880, and the planet is set to warm by as much as 2.9 degrees Celsiuus by 2100. This is 1.4 degrees higher than the goal of 1.5 degrees Celsius from the Paris Climate Accords in 2015. Yet, a study from the World Resource Institute revealed that even if nations upheld all of their climate goals, global greenhouse gas emissions would only be reduced by seven percent from 2019 levels; meanwhile, the globe would need to cut six times that (43 percent) in order to halt warming by 1.5 degrees Celsius. In the US, the Inflation Reduction Act of 2022 includes hundreds of billions in subsidies for environmentally cleaner technologies that would help cut emissions by 50 to 52 percent below 2005 levels before 2030. Nevertheless, this is still only 80 percent of the current pledge. Even if the US were to meet President Biden’s ambitious plans to reduce greenhouse gasses by 50% before 2030, the country would continue to face severe climate challenges through then. It would take time for the climate to re-adjust to lower levels of greenhouse gasses in the atmosphere.

Adhering to the original greenhouse gas targets is imperative because each fraction of a degree of warming exponentially intensifies the results of climate change. The UN examined the consequences of increasing global temperatures by 2 degrees Celsius instead of 1.5. They found that half a degree would more than double the percentage of people worldwide who would face extreme heat at least once every five years, from about 14 to 37 percent. Global warming has evolved into a global health crisis. Intensive heat waves, disastrous wildfires, flood risks, droughts, and food shortages will all persist and worsen, resulting in increased heat-related mortality, pregnancy complications, cardiovascular disease, starvation, and more. The World Health Organization estimates that between 2030 and 2050 at least 250,000 additional deaths will occur every year as a result of climate change. 

Economic Toll of Climate Change on the US

Climate change goes far beyond extreme weather phenomena; its consequences will touch every aspect of human society, especially the US economy. Between 1980 and 2021, the US spent just under $2.3 trillion on recovering from climate disasters, roughly 10% of the country’s GDP in 2021. On top of increased spending, GDP will decline as output decreases due to rising temperatures adversely affecting every industry in the country. For example, despite 50 years of steady increase in production, the agricultural sector could see declines in crop yields as soon as 2030. Heat stress, changes in rainfall, rising sea levels, and damaged structures will make work and everyday life more difficult. Over the next 50 years in the US, 900,000 jobs could disappear as a result of climate change. Consequently, the US economy could lose $14.5 trillion, about four percent of the GDP or $1.5 trillion, in 2070 alone. A study from Brookings revealed that a two-degree Celsius increase by 2080 would result in losses of about 0.5% of the US GDP between 2080 and 2099. Meanwhile, a four-degree Celsius rise would cause a two percent decrease.

Climate Migrants

As global warming progresses, an increasing percentage of the world will become uninhabitable due to extreme conditions, resulting in mass migration on a scale unseen before. Currently, one percent of the world’s land surface is nearly uninhabitable due to extreme heat independent of global warming. By 2070, this number could increase to 19%. We are already witnessing waves of migrants due to climate change; climate disasters uproot 21.5 million people from their homes each year, and over the next 30 years, 143 million more people are likely to be affected. 


Climate migration has already affected the US as seen with waves of immigrants from Guatemala, one the countries most affected by climate change in the past decade. Dramatic shifts between relentless droughts in the dry season and unpredictable floods in the wet season caused devastating heatwaves, mudslides, and famine. In 2018, for example, rains came a month late, then stopped completely, leaving some Guatemalan farmers in the eastern region of Chiquimula without a single ear of corn. Meanwhile, in 2020, half the children in a northern department were chronically hungry and struggled with weak bones due to malnutrition. Climate change thwarted farmers’ ability to produce food, and with one-third of the population working in agriculture, bankruptcy crippled the nation. As a result, hundreds of thousands of Guatemalans fled to the United States between 2015 and 2020.The problem will only exacerbate as crop yields in coastal regions are projected to decline by nearly a third before 2070, forcing tens of thousands of Guatemalans to migrate to a habitable region.  


The US will be forced to reckon with millions of climate refugees from Central and South American countries that lack adequate infrastructure and resources to combat the changing climate. While a surge of forced migrants will strain and test the immigration system, America may be able to benefit from a new wave of workers. 

Immigration and Its Effects on the US Economy

Immigrants have and will continue to play a major role in the US economy; they work in a wide range of industries and in jobs that complement other occupations. Currently, millions of immigrants hold jobs that support millions of native US workers. They also play crucial roles in growing industries: home health and personal care occupations, for example, will increase by one million workers within the next few years, and, as of 2019, approximately 25% of the workers in the field are immigrants. According to Brookings, “the concentration of immigrants in occupations that are central to the US economy will be the case well into the future, as many of these highly central occupations are projected to be among the fastest growing jobs over the next few years.” There are several fields that are complementary to the rest of the economy, immigrant intensive, and fast-growing, including motor vehicle operators, material moving workers, and building cleaning and pest control workers. These occupations do not require extensive formal education and serve as a vital link along in a variety of industry production chains, meaning an increase in the supply of workers would bolster the US economy. 

The US has already seen the benefits of a large influx of asylum seekers with the Mariel Boatlift. In 1980, 125,000 low-skilled emigrated from Cuba to Miami due to rising tensions between the US and Russia in Cuba. With just over three million people living in Miami at the time, this wave was about four percent of the entire city’s population, meaning the immigrants’ arrival marked a significant change in the city’s economy. Yet, the only result was an eight percent increase in Miami’s workforce and a 20% increase in low-skilled workers. There was no negative impact on wages or unemployment for native workers, even among the least skilled ones.

Drawing Parallels – How Forced Migration Has Impacted Other Countries

In order to better understand and predict potential outcomes of an unprecedented wave of migrants in the US, we can examine the Syrian refugee crisis, which stems from global warming. Syria’s economy steadily grew between the 1970s and 1990s due to fertile lands and stable crop yield. However, in the past two decades, the country has suffered a series of crippling droughts, the worst of which was the most severe multi-year drought in about 900 years, spanning from 2006 to 2010. Over these four years, Syria experienced higher temperatures and minimal precipitation. Consequently, the land became barren, just under five percent of the population lost their income, and 85% of livestock perished. The country’s crop yields plunged by two-thirds, forcing Syrians to rely solely on imports. As food prices doubled and 1.5 million rural workers migrated to cities in search of work, extreme weather further destabilized an already fragile country; the government restricted food, water, and fuel subsidies, the Islamic state recruited impoverished farmers, and tensions rose between regional groups. While not the sole cause, climate change largely contributed to Syria’s instability and set the stage for the civil war that displaced more than 6.8 million refugees who fled to Europe. 


Since the start of the Syrian civil war in 2011, nearly 3.6 million refugees have fled to Turkey. Turkish authorities had the opportunity to reap the benefits of millions of new workers, yet the fear of harming their native counterparts stifled economic growth. Initially, Syrians could not formally apply for work permits until 2016. The result was twofold: first, unemployment skyrocketed, especially in regions with high concentrations of refugees. In 2011, the unemployment rate in Turkey was about 8.2%. The figure decreased to 7.3% the following year before the refugee conflict intensified and millions arrived in 2013 and 2014. Once the wave of migrants arrived, the official unemployment rate increased to 14% by 2019. The actual statistic is likely higher given that the majority of Syrian refugees were inadequately monitored. Second, refugees rushed into the informal job sector for primarily low-wage jobs in agriculture, construction, manufacturing, and service industries, which adversely affected their native counterparts. Turkish workers in the informal sector, especially women, reported a decrease in monthly disposable income, and for every ten refugees employed in the informal sector, six native workers were displaced. 

Even when the Turkish government ultimately allowed refugees to apply for permits in 2016 and officially join the workforce, Syrians were still limited. The government issued just 65,000 permits over a two-year period. In both the formal and informal sectors, Syrians established 4,000 companies in 2016. Yet this figure likely could have been larger had the government provided more permits. Moreover, to protect Turkish workers, the government implemented a 10% quota on the number of Syrian workers at any given firm. These preventive measures hampered the immigrants’ positive impact on the economy. There were 2.1 million working-age registered Syrian refugees in Turkey, and only 500,000 to one million actually working in either a formal or informal capacity. Moreover, Syrians with higher education could not obtain jobs with higher wages, meaning the labor market could not reap the benefits of their degrees. In Istanbul, for instance, 20% of Syrians held university degrees but earned the same as their non-university educated counterparts. 

The Turkish government wasted an opportunity to increase natives’ employment opportunities by expanding immigrants’ ability to work. An expanded workforce with hundreds of thousands of refugees would have translated to lower production costs for companies. Consequently, output would expand and the demand for formal workers in the labor market would follow; Turkish workers could have taken advantage of the low cost refugee labor market and generated additional jobs. 


Also caused in part by Syria’s civil war, Germany embraced a huge wave of refugees and immigrants from the Middle East and Eastern Europe in the mid-late 2010s. Between 2015 and 2017, Germany’s foreign population increased by 2.14 million, 1.4 million of whom were official asylum seekers. The wave increased Germany’s population by 1.2% and marked the largest influx of asylum seekers any OECD country ever recorded in a comparable timeframe. 

Unlike in Turkey, the German government facilitated the integration of immigrants into the country, which allowed them to join the workforce and alleviate stress on Germany’s aging workers. In 2014, before the influx, the average age of the German population was 44 years and 4 months, as decades of low birth rates confronted the country with an aging workforce. In mid-2015, Berlin predicted that the country would lose six million workers by 2030. However, this statistic preceded the integration of millions of immigrants. The influx of refugees in 2015 reduced the average age of migrants to just over 26 years; consequently, the average age of the general population declined to 44 years and 3 months. The one-month decrease in age may appear insignificant, but it marked the first decline in average age since Germany’s reunification in 1990. The government seized the opportunity presented with the young wave of migrants by enabling them to apply for work permits after the government approved their asylum applications, and they lived in the country for three months. This measure proved successful as the workforce increased by just under 900,000 workers in 2015, the largest increase seen in a decade. Meanwhile, the German government reduced the decline in the country’s workforce to five million (from six million), and to this day, supports quotas for hundreds of thousands of immigrants each year to maintain a robust workforce. 

The influx of refugees and an expanded workforce did not detract from Germany's ongoing economic success. Both native and foreign-born workers saw job opportunities as unemployment declined for both groups. In 2014, foreign workers had an unemployment rate of 14.7%, and native workers had 4.8%. In comparison, in 2019, both figures declined by about two percentage points, with foreign workers at 12.4% and natives at 2.9%. Meanwhile, the per capita income growth held steady at an average of 1.4%. Not only did immigrants and refugees find work in Germany, but their wages steadily increased as well. 

While the German economy performed especially well, the positive effects of immigration on a country’s labor force were not an isolated incident. A study on the European Union, Switzerland, and Iceland found that between 2007 and 2017, a one percentage point increase in the native employment rate was associated with a 1.3% increase in the number of foreign workers: there is a correlation between native workers’ success and foreign workers’ success in the labor force. Foreign workers finding employment did not come at the cost of native workers losing their own jobs. 

What This Means for the US

While the US has not seen a surge of immigrants on the same scale as Turkey or Germany, their successes and failures illuminate a path where our economy could benefit from the influx of climate migrants. Studies from the past three decades show that forced migrants in the US have been able to find a job within the first few months of arriving and ultimately become self-sufficient and independent of government aid after two to three years. Unfortunately, they earn significantly less than their native US counterparts and knowing English plays a large role in their success. With these studies, Turkey’s failures, and Germany’s successes in mind, we can see a clear trend between a government’s supportive role in integrating new immigrants and economic success.

If the US allows for a quick application for work permits, our economy could witness similar trends to Germany’s: an expanded, younger workforce and a net decline in unemployment for both native and foreign workers. Similarly, the US should allow immigrants to work in all sectors of the economy, as opposed to establishing quotas for individual firms, in order to reap the benefits that complementary occupations have on native employment. According to the OCP Policy Center, a Moroccan-based think tank, a new wave of young migrants willing to work is “likely to cause a proportionate expansion of investment and output and may also accelerate the economy’s long-term growth rate.” Despite the catastrophic effects of climate change, the US will have the opportunity to bolster its economy with an unprecedented wave of migrants.

Nonetheless, a crucial underlying factor of potential economic success is political consensus on immigration, as seen with the Mariel Boatlift. The primary reason the US successfully integrated 125,000 Cuban immigrants into Miami’s economy was due to political pressure from the Cold War. Castro’s communist influence in the region grew and, as a result, incentivized the US to accept asylum seekers and ultimately grant them residency, which allowed them to join the workforce. The process involved legislation from the Cuban Adjustment Act, which had extraordinary bipartisan support; the House voted in favor with a margin of 300-25, and the Senate passed it unanimously. This success in integrating asylum seekers into the workforce proves that bipartisan backing plays an essential role in transitioning immigrants into the US economy. 

Moving Forward

Climate change isn’t on its way. It’s already here, and its devastating effects will only heighten in the near future. Extreme weather events will kill hundreds of thousands, cost billions in damages, and displace millions of people across the globe. Domestically, The US will face an unprecedented wave of immigration. If the US rejects all refugees or severely limits their ability to integrate, we will exacerbate a humanitarian crisis and damage our economy like Turkey. It is imperative that the government mirror an approach similar to the Mariel Boatlift or Germany's treatment of Syrian refugees and enable immigrants to become part of the labor force. Despite catastrophic changes in the climate, the country will have the potential to benefit economically while at the same time ameliorating humanitarian crises.

The image used in this article is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution Share-Alike 4.0 International license. The original image was published by the Climate Centre and can be found here.

Elliot Sher


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