Climate Migrants in the Year 2100: An Explorative Study on Climate Migration through the Lens of Climate Niches

Heleen du Toit

Photo by Marcin Jozwiak on Unsplash.

This essay is part of a virtual conference series “The Roles of Law, Religion and Housing Through the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (UN SDGs)” sponsored by Canopy Forum and the Center for the Study of Law and Religion at Emory University. This series features scholars, experts, and practitioners who examine global challenges of homelessness, housing policy and housing vulnerability. You can browse all essays and view video presentations from the series here.

The global challenges of homelessness and housing vulnerability often do not take climate refugees into consideration. The world has failed to achieve any of its climate mitigation goals of the Paris Agreement of 2015, and governments are continuing with “business as usual”, which means that by 2100, many habitable areas, current “climate niches”, will become unsustainable and thus uninhabitable, resulting in increasing numbers of climate migrants and climate refugees. Climate-induced migration and displacement would result in severe housing shortages and would force communities to consider alternative housing patterns. The aim of this research is to ultimately explore current formal and informal infrastructure that supports migrants during their journey and to determine how health, safety, and well-being of displaced people while en route through migration corridors to new settlement options, can be ensured through norms, standards, and policy. It is important to understand the religious aspects of climate change and its cultural origins, since religious institutions, people, and ideas influence the construction of the meaning of climate change. This must be an interfaith dialogue, because different religious systems interpret climate change differently, and some are caught up in denialist politics. 

Climate Change

The world is not achieving any of its climate mitigation goals. The Climate Action Tracker, an independent scientific project led by a research group that tracks government climate action, found that the world has missed the goals of the Paris Agreement of 2015. Anthropogenic climate change is a reality and affects access to basic resources and rain-dependent agricultural activities with possible frequent famine. Civil society, governments, and policy makers are unable to sufficiently restructure policies. So, if policy adjustments are too late, what do we do now? We assume it will be “business as usual” and plan for the “worst case scenario.” 

Instead of trying to attempt further policy adjustments, we simply accept the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s Representative Concentration Pathways 8.5 (IPCC RCP 8.5) scenario and plan accordingly.

In this scenario, by the year 2100, many habitable areas will no longer exist, or will become uninhabitable, which will result in human migration from current climate niches to new climate niches.

Scientists and researchers speculate where humans will migrate from and where they will migrate to, in other words, which geographical areas could be future niches. The reality is that the world will see increasing numbers of climate migrants and climate refugees. 

The term “climate niche” is an ecological concept that denotes the optimally suitable combination of conditions in which an organism can satisfy the basics of feeding and reproducing. Although modern humans can control their living environments through technology, they will not be able to live outside their climate niches. Traditionally, agricultural settlements self-organized into cities, but temperature increases affect access to water, fertile land, food resources, etc., and current human population distribution is not sustainable due to climate change and population growth. 

Climate Migration

For millennia human populations have been migrating from undesirable, hostile, or unsustainable environments, literally to proverbial greener pastures. The International Organization for Migration (IOM) defines such migrants as people whose environments experience “sudden or progressive change . . . that adversely affects their lives or living conditions,” who are then “obliged to leave their habitual homes, or choose to do so, either temporarily or permanently,” and who “move either within their country or abroad.”

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) Global Trends on Migration 2020 reports on current climate and environmental migration and identifies three major reasons for migration: 

First, sudden-onset events such as storms, floods, and wildfires. For instance, floods in Pakistan in 2022, and mega wildfires in Australia in 2020 and in California (USA) in 2020-21. 

Second, slow-onset events such as droughts, changes in precipitation patterns, and salination of freshwater rivers due to rising sea levels. Access to food and water is lost, and crop yields diminish, which leads to an increase in seasonal and even more permanent population movements. 

Third, climate change related conflict. Reduction in land-area will most likely increase competition for resources and spark conflict. Movement to urban centers will strain infrastructure. Rampant increases in global food prices will hurt the urban population in low- and middle-income countries. The most vulnerable and poor of society will suffer. The risks of increased conflict are especially great in countries with weak governance and infrastructure and/or insufficient resources.

Global trends in forced displacement are captured by the UNHCR and are limited to individuals, families, and communities who are forcibly displaced due to persecution, war, or violence. Environmental migrants, on the other hand, have no legal standing outside of blanket migration. There is currently no formal system in place to identify and quantify the number of environmental migrants, because they are harder to identify.

The 2100 scenario

It is crucial to prepare the international community to accept displaced people and allow them access to pass through their territories to reach new land, new opportunities, and create new settlements. Most migration research focuses on what happens before and after migration, but very little is known or documented about the actual act of migration, the tools employed to get there, and the infrastructure aiding and facilitating the journey. The investigation into housing on the way is therefore important.

Coastal and polar areas

Tens of millions of people may have to migrate from densely populated coastal areas due to rising sea levels. Habitable coastal and low-lying land and islands will be lost and often communities who inhabit these ecosystems navigate environmental change through cosmological or theological modes of understanding.

Glaciers, ice-capped polar regions, arctic tundra, and Greenland will be transformed as the temperature at the poles increases and ice melts. Since glaciers often feature prominently in ritual practice, climate change may also be driving religious change.

The polar tundra in Russia and Canada would be transformed into grasslands and savannahs. Patagonia could have a temperate climate as in the Mediterranean, and western Antarctica could be the green forest and mountains reminiscent of New Zealand’s Aotearoa. These areas may become the new climate niches with milder temperatures, conducive to survival. Farmers could migrate to the far north and south to establish new settlements and large farming communities and Greenland, for instance, could become the new breadbasket of the world.

Equatorial areas

The highest temperatures on earth can be found between the equator and 30-degrees north and south thereof, and many of these areas are also the most populated, with India and Bangladesh being two examples. If we accept the increase in temperatures as per RCP8.5, land flanking the equator may be so warm by 2100 that it would no longer be considered a climate niche. While the equatorial area’s temperature increases to become uninhabitable, temperatures outside the 30-degree longitude will become milder. 

Bangladesh’s southern coastal region is one of the most climate-vulnerable places on earth, with a low-lying delta and several islands in the delta plain. Due to salination of freshwater, rice-farming is giving way to shrimp cultivation, by further artificial salination of the delta. Author Kasia Paprocki calls this “anticipatory ruination, a discursive and material process of social and ecological destruction in anticipation of real or perceived threats.”  

The Urban Landscape

Cities continue to grow through comprehensive immigration, and municipalities need to prepare for climate change in terms of layout, planning, services, and access to resources. Migration, which is due to climate change, will be from rural agricultural areas to urban centers, where resources and opportunities are more abundant and cities will have to withstand what author Gaia Vince calls the “Four Horsemen.” New settlements need to be adaptable and climate resilient and there is a need to re-evaluate the functioning of urban areas and service delivery. Most cities have ambitious planning and development documents, but they often lack long-term strategies aimed at resilience. 

Uppsala municipality, for instance, is addressing Future City outreach programs with residents and those on the outskirts of urban areas with future, long-term planning, and visions in mind covering transport, housing, services, and education. Citizens are engaged through community participation and a collaborative vision for a future city, which is compiled not by experts, but by those who will live in this future city. These community outreach programs entail a mobile tiny house that is moved around the country to events, acting as a conversation-starter on Uppsala future visions. Residents are encouraged to imagine a different city, a mobile home, and nomadic communities. However, communities are usually more concerned with access to education and health services than with climate events that would cause a departure from city-living as we know it. Climate change and climate events are yet too abstract to comprehend, but in Uppsala, the conversation has begun

Climate Change and Religion

Fully understanding climate change requires understanding of its religious aspects, especially the way religion is involved in human experiences of and human responses to climate change.

Climate scientist Mike Hulme argues that: “the idea of climate exists as much in the human mind and in the matrices of cultural practices as it exists as an independent and nb objective physical category.”Thus, climate change studies should include investigating how it is interpreted by religious patterns of mind and formations of practice.

Arguing for improved public understanding of the religious heterogeneity through which climate change is experienced and politicized, he writes, “Science is never enough to resolve problems that are cultural in origin,” and religious dynamics can intensify cultural conflicts. 

Climate change raises unavoidable ethical questions. There is a wide range of engagement with climate change from various communities and traditions of religious thought.  Research over the past decade has focused more on empirical measures of religiosity to predict groups’ opinions to climate change in North America and Northern Europe; for instance, white American Republicans and Evangelicals are more likely to be deniers or accept anthropogenic explanations). Qualitative research has not adequately focused on the relationship between religion and climate change opinions in the Global South, where religion is often a key conduit for knowledge dissemination around policy frameworks. Indigenous peoples often draw on religious or spiritual themes in political discourse.


The seventeen UN SDGs include the world’s best plans to take urgent action to combat climate change and its impacts (UN SDG 13). Our environment is changing rapidly, and while several adaptive strategies are already proposed, employed, funded, and in development to assist vulnerable communities, some climate events and their aftermath will not be mitigated by agile and adaptive strategies. We must accept that there will be mass migration within the next few decades and that the housing crisis will increase. Questions that will face planning professionals and policy makers will include what plans, strategies, systems, and policies can be put in place to ease suffering and proactively manage how living environments will change. This should be a truly interdisciplinary effort because scientists cannot address issues such as migration, religion, justice, human rights, and international law on their own. ♦

Heleen du Toit is an MSc student in Sustainable Development at Uppsala University in Sweden and an Erasmus Plus student at the Vrije Universiteit in Amsterdam.

Recommended Citation

du Toit, Heleen. “Climate Migrants in the Year 2100: An Explorative Study on Climate Migration through the Lens of Climate Niches.” Canopy Forum, March 20, 2024.