Why are we so obsessed with numbers?

This is a question I keep asking myself when reading news articles and research articles about climate change and migration, or as they are usually framed: climate refugees.

A few weeks ago I read a debate article in my local Swedish newspaper with the headline: “In 30 years, 200 million people will be forced to flee due to climate change”.  This is used as an argument to show the urgency of climate change since it will affect large numbers of people (probably all of us, to different extents). And this is very much true. Climate change is really urgent and the fact that we keep electing leaders who don’t care about the issue (or don’t even believe that climate change is man-made), and let businesses put their short sighted economic interests ahead of necessary long term actions is madness.

But throwing around big numbers based on very rough estimates is not helpful. Climate change is urgent even if no human would have to migrate, because it will lead to other hardships. Poverty, famine, death. Painting pictures of 300 million people fleeing a changed climate, all at once, probably coming towards Europe or the Nordic countries, is playing upon the fear people already have of mass migration, and I’m not certain that the political response will be “climate action”.


Delal Bridge in Zakho, Iraqi Kurdistan, 2011

Let’s talk a bit about the numbers. The research community have tried to estimate how many people will be at risk of moving primarily due to climate change, for decades. In 1985, in a UNEP report written by Essam El-Hinnawi, defined ‘environmental refugees’ as those people who have been forced to leave their traditional habitat, temporarily or
permanently, because of a marked environmental disruption (natural and/or triggered by people) that jeopardised their existence and/or seriously affected the quality of their life. While this report is cited by most articles in the “Environmentally Induced Migration” field, it seems to be difficult to find online. In a paper from 2011, named “Why the numbers don’t add up“, this report was cited as mentioning 30 million people displaced. Whether this was an estimate for 1985, or a future estimate, is unclear, but as the paper mentions, no clear methodology for arriving at such numbers have been presented.

Another scholar, infamous for his estimations, is the environmental scientist Norman Myers. In 1995 he, together with Jennifer Kent, predicted 50 million environmental refugees  by 2010. Or, well, they said there are 25 million environmental refugees today (in 1995) and this “may well double by the year 2010, if not before” (he says the exact same thing in an article published in the journal “Population and Environment” in 1997). In the 1995 report they mention that climate change could “cause as many as 200 million people to be put at risk of displacement”. In a footnote, it says that the findings are based on an 18 month project and reflect “a broad spectrum of expert opinion”. The number of 200 million people is repeated in a later article, published in Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society in 2002. Nowhere does Myers say directly “200 million environmental refugees by 2050”, though he talks about 200 million “when global warming takes hold” and later talks about the year 2050 in relation to climate change induced extreme events like flooding, sea level rise, droughts and disruptions of rainfall regimes.

While Myers’ estimates became popular in UN reports, they later became criticized by migration scholars, questioning the methods for how these numbers were reached. It turned out that the estimate of 25 million environmental refugees across the world was a summary of different case studies and estimates made by both Myers and other researchers. The estimates Myers (2002) present are rough and not all numbers have a clear source. We don’t know if the different case studies are comparable or even accurate. As explained by Gemenne (2011) “In an essentialist fashion, Myers assumes that all people displaced in an area affected by environmental changes have been displaced solely because of these changes.”, an assumption that doesn’t make much sense considering the fact that reasons for migrating are complex and still not well-understood. In a similar manner, the 200 million by 2050 is a coarse estimate of how many people will be in areas at risk of sea level rise, floods, and changed rainfall events. It’s essentially a demographic projection of risk-areas that assumes that most or all people at risk will choose migration as their adaptation strategy.

And that’s the thing. Migration is not the only way to cope with climate extremes, and especially not the migration people often seem to think of: long-distance, permanent, towards Europe. It is more likely to be internal, short distance, and temporary. Why? Because the most vulnerable people, generally, can’t afford to migrate long distances. The worst off people may become trapped, not able to leave an area affected by climate extremes. Migration is just one word for many different human mobility patterns and that’s why a statement like “200 million migrants” says very little. 200 millions exposed to different climate related risks – somewhat helpful, but we need more detailed information to be able to help people.

The forecasts on future climate induced migration have not stopped since Myers got criticized. We’ve seen Christian Aid (2007) talk about 1 billion people displaced by 2050 and 300 of them due to climate change and natural disasters, framing it as a “human tide“.

A study published i Science last year predicted between 98000 – 660000 additional asylum applications per year due to climate change. They did a statistical analysis of asylum applications to the EU and temperatures in origin countries and found what they think are a causal connection. Based on that they could then predict future increases in asylum applications to Europe. There are several problems with this. While the statistical analysis does show some relationship, the causal mechanisms are not well understood and explained. The authors suggest that temperature leads to war, but the relationship between climate and conflict is potentially even more contested than the one between climate and migration, something that the article doesn’t elaborate on at all. Neither do they engage in the discussion about what role drought really had in the Syrian conflict, and instead cites only one of the articles on the topic. Yes, papers in Science magazine are short and do not give space for much elaborations, but that doesn’t mean that only the papers that support your idea should be cited.


Dry soil in Iran, 2009

The debate article in my local newspaper based their argument on Myers’ estimate, 200 million climate refugees by 2050. A 16 year old (or even older) estimate that has been widely criticized. In the debate article, the authors imply that these numbers are from a newly released report on climate refugees (more or less a literature review), published by the Swedish think-tank Fores. This report, actually published last year, talks about Myers estimates and recognizes that the estimates have been criticized. That, however, doesn’t stop anyone from putting Myers’ estimate on the back cover, which is probably what the people writing the debate article have focused on.

Me and two colleagues decided to write a response to the debate article with a call for a nuanced debate based on scientific knowledge rather than numbers reached with questionable methods. In the short response we go through some of what I’ve mentioned above and try to explain that 1) this number is unreliable and 2) coarse numbers like that aren’t that helpful. We know that things are bad, so let’s focus on what needs to be done, who will need help and where. Will climate change lead to changed migration patterns? Likely yes. Will they lead to a human tide, flooding certain areas with people? I don’t think so.

So the next time you read a number about migration due to climate change, ask how they ended up with that number. Ask how they define migration due to climate change, and ask what that number means on a more detailed level. That way we can go forward in finding the important information that we need to secure the future.

I’m currently involved in a research project on migration where we actually are looking a lot at numbers, trying to create scenarios of future migration patterns to Northern Europe. We haven’t come very far yet as we are discussing how to incorporate all the complexity, but once we have results to show I will try to share some of them here. 


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