Science Panel Says World Will See 50 Million Climate Change Refugees by 2020

50 million “environmental refugees” will flee their homes for safer borders in the next nine years, forcing policy leaders and a host of others to figure out how to make room for everyone–or how to stop the massive migration from happening in the first place.

female refugee


Climate change is forcing a lot of people–50 million by 2020, to be exact–to skip town, prompting the world’s scientists, farmers, filmmakers, and urban planners to frantically seek out ways to accommodate environmental refugees.

At the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) meeting this weekend, scientists warned about looming food shortages and other climate change-induced migration catastrophes. “When people are not living in sustainable conditions, they migrate,” said UCLA Professor Cristina Tirado.

The recent food price frustrations and corresponding political protests in Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya foreshadow how migration may shake out; the number of refugees from those countries now in Southern Europe is more than ever before. “What we saw in Tunisia–a change in government and suddenly there are a whole lot of people going to Italy–this is going to be the pattern,” Michigan State University professor, Ewen Todd, told Agence France Presse.

“Already, Africans are going in small droves up to Spain, Germany and wherever from different countries in the Mediterranean region, but we’re going to see many, many more trying to go north when food stress comes in. And it was food shortages that put the people of Tunisia and Egypt over the top,” said Todd.

“In many Middle Eastern and North African countries,” he continued, “you have a cocktail of politics, religion and other things, but often it’s just poor people saying ‘I’ve got to survive, I’ve got to eat, I’ve got to feed my family’ that ignites things.”

For countries facing economic challenges and food shortages, climate change will likely be low on the list of things to fund. But as Fast Company also reported recently, some investors’ latest recommendations to major foundations, endowments, and pension funds are to be mindful of the impact of climate change and encourage investments in clean technology. That kind of shift in economic and environmental thinking could be the very push that financial decision-makers need to act.


“Any action you take will be costly, be it in terms of prestige, economics, less oil… I think it’s going to take a real crisis to get world opinion to change,” said Todd. If 50 million refugees doesn’t denote a crisis, what does?

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[Image: Flickr user hdptcar]


About the author

Jenara is an overseas reporter for Fast Company and a freelance writer/producer in Asia, regularly on CNNGo, and a graduate of Harvard and UC Berkeley.