Chapter 8: “Too Hot to Handle” – Human Migration on a Rapidly Warming Planet


Alexandru Caldararu

It may seem strange to be discussing the concept of climate change in a resource that explores best practices for supporting immigrants and refugees with the transition to life in Canada. However, the current state of affairs in our world requires settlement workers to envision the links between two of the most acute crises currently affecting our planet, crises that at first glance are seemingly unconnected—the climate crisis and the global refugee crisis.

Before exploring the connections between these two phenomena in greater detail, it’s important to recognize that the term “crisis” is not one to be used lightly. Many have suggested that repeated use of the word “crisis” to describe every instance of political, social, economic, and/or environmental instability robs the word of its power (Bures, 2020). Nevertheless, Mukheibir and Mallam (2019) argue that there are characteristics of crises that distinguish them from other types of emergencies.

In short, a crisis is a critical situation that has arrived at a tipping point and has three distinct characteristics (Everbridge, n.d.). First, a crisis involves a situation that has never been encountered before, so no mitigation plan is in place. Second, even if the event is familiar, a crisis situation is one that occurs at a speed or frequency that hinders the development of an effective mitigation plan. Finally, a crisis may involve a combination of multiple forces that collectively comprise a situation that is distinct (and therefore difficult) to manage (Phelps, 2019).

Whereas climate change can be defined as the change in average conditions—for example, temperature or precipitation—experienced by a place over a long period of time, the pace of change has dramatically increased over the past 300 years (David Suzuki Foundation, 2022). The vast majority (97%) of climatologists have further concluded that the escalation of climate change over the past century is a direct result of human activities (NASA, 2022; Cook et al., 2016, p. 2). As a result, an increasing body of literature has emerged suggesting that the world is entering a period of climate crisis that is impacting global food production, disrupting national economies, and fuelling social unrest (Guterres, 2019; United Nations, n.d.b).

In addition, our world is in the midst of its largest epidemic of forced migration on record, one that shows no signs of abating any time soon. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) has estimated that by the midpoint of 2021, more than 84 million people will have been forcibly displaced worldwide (UNHCR, 2022b)—a number that undoubtedly will have risen as a result of the outbreak of hostilities in Ukraine in early 2022 (NPR, 2022). This number has effectively doubled in the past decade and currently represents one out of every 97 people in the world (Abdullah, 2022). The escalating severity of the problem has caused leading humanitarian organizations from around the globe to refer to this phenomenon as the global refugee crisis (Facing History & Ourselves Collective, n.d.).

Settlement workers can make valuable contributions to conversations about climate change and migration. As will be discussed further in this chapter, the twin global climate and refugee crises cannot continue to be viewed in isolation from one another. Their intersections represent the next frontier of human migration on our planet, and if Canada’s settlement sector is going to meet the challenges presented by these migration patterns of the future, an evolution of how we conceive of forced human displacement is going to be necessary.


Specific Learning Outcomes

By the end of this chapter, you will be able to

  1. Define the terms climate crisis, global refugee crisis, and environmental/climate refugee
  2. Describe how Canada’s refugee system currently operates
  3. Discuss the major international accords and protocols on human migration of which the Government of Canada is a signatory
  4. Explain the impact of the Earth’s changing climate on contemporary global migration patterns
  5. Develop strategies for advocating for the recognition (and inclusion) of environmental/climate refugees in policies and programs that support newcomers to Canada

Learning Activity 1: Test Your Knowledge (pre-chapter)

INSTRUCTOR NOTE: Although this activity can work well as an individual activity followed by a large group discussion, it could be combined with Learning Activity 5 (where learners are asked to do the same quiz again). It would also work well as an online discussion forum topic.

LEARNER NOTE: Keep this list handy because the same questions will be asked of you again at the end of this chapter.

On your own, and without conducting any outside research, take a few minutes to answer the following questions:

  • How did you arrive at your answers?
  • Which questions did you find more difficult to answer? Why?

NOTE: Answers will not be revealed to learners for this pre-chapter activity.

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