Global migration and the complex interplay between environmental and social factors

By Venla Niva, DSc researcher with the Water and Development Research Group, School of Engineering, Aalto University, Finland

Venla Niva shares insights from a recent article exploring the interplay of environmental and social factors behind human migration. The project was carried out in collaboration with Raya Muttarak from the IIASA Population and Just Societies Program.

© Irina Nazarova | Dreamstime.com

Environmental migration has gained increasing attention in the past years, with recent climate reports and policy documents highlighting an increase in environmental refugees and migrants as one of the potential effects of the warming globe. Policymaking is dominated by a narrative that portrays environmental migration as a security threat to the “Global North”. Meanwhile, researchers around the world have put enormous efforts into understanding environmental migration and what is driving it. Yet, the causes and effects of environmental migration remain under debate.

In our latest paper, we extend the understanding of environmental migration by looking into how environmental and societal factors interacted in places of excess out- or in-migration between 1990 and 2000. We found that understanding these interactions is key for understanding migration drivers. Ultimately, migration is based on human decision-making, and in our view “simply cannot and should not be studied without the inclusion of the societal dimension: human capacity and agency.” Our findings were both expected and, to a certain degree, surprising.

Our results show that the majority of global migration takes place in areas with rather similar profiles. It is known that migration mostly occurs over short distances, and that internal migration – in other words, people moving around in their own country – outplays international migration – people moving between countries – by significant numbers globally. This, however, shows that the characteristics of these areas are alike too. High environmental stress coupled with low-to-moderate human capacity characterized these areas at both ends of migration. Such characteristics portray a combination of variables with a high degree of drought and water risks, natural hazards, and food insecurity, but low levels of income, education, health, and governance.

We found that income was the best variable to explain the variation of net-negative and net-positive migration in around half of the countries, globally, confirming that income is a good predictor of migration. This is interesting in two ways. According to traditional migration theories, income disparity between regions is seen as the primary driver for migration. Yet, income only dominated the other variables in half of the countries we examined. Education and health were especially important in areas with more out-migration than in-migration. Drought and water risks were important explaining factors in many countries, but were outranked by societal factors such as income, health, education, and governance in the majority of countries.

In light of our research, we would like to point out that it is unlikely that environmental factors alone would be responsible for migration. Instead, the role of human agency is vital. Investments in building human capacity have two-fold benefits: First, higher human capacity facilitates not only local adaptation to changes in the environment, but also adaptation at the destination in case of migrating. Second, protecting ecosystems and the environment helps to mitigate and adapt to climate and environmental change in areas with high environmental stress, which is again crucial for maintaining livelihoods and a good life at both ends of migration.

Environmental migration is often portrayed by the media as a catastrophic phenomenon. Our study confirms that migration drivers are a result of the interactions between socioeconomic and environmental factors and that human capacity plays a central role in both enabling the migration process and adaptation at the place of destination.

Further info:

Niva, V., Kallio, M., Muttarak, R., Taka, M., Varis, O., & Kummu, M. (2021). Global migration is driven by the complex interplay between environmental and social factors. Environmental Research Letters DOI: 10.1088/1748-9326/ac2e86. [pure.iiasa.ac.at/17507]

Note: This article gives the views of the author, and not the position of the Nexus blog, nor of the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis.

Will mining the Amazon really bring economic development for Brazil?

By Fanni Daniella Szakal, 2021 IIASA Science Communication Fellow 

In an attempt to foster economic development for Brazil, the government is planning to open up indigenous and protected areas for mining. But will this truly lead to economic development for the country? 2021 Young Scientists Summer Program (YSSP) participant, Sebastian Luckeneder is using spatial modeling to find out.

© Prabhash Dutta | Dreamstime.com

As the largest rainforest on the planet, the Amazon harbors the highest biodiversity of all ecosystems and is home to many indigenous tribes. It is also literally sitting on a goldmine of natural resources. There are plans in the works to open up protected and indigenous areas of the rainforest to mining activities, which is expected to bring more wealth and development for the country, but at the same time, it will also pose a threat to the environment and indigenous communities.

At first glance, the issue looks like the classic trade-off between economic growth versus environmental and social disruption. In reality however, mining affects social, environmental, and economic spheres both directly and indirectly, creating a complex network of interactions that potentially defy the current dogma.

Mining relies heavily on machines while creating relatively few jobs in comparison to the investment of capital it requires. In addition, mining companies are often large international corporations, which means that most of the profits gained from mining operations in a particular country end up outside that country’s borders.

“One could say that just the very few benefit from extractive activities, whereas many have to pay the cost,” says Sebastian Luckeneder, a 2021 YSSP participant at IIASA, when referring to the environmental destruction, disruption of livelihoods, and displacement of indigenous communities that mining would bring about.

As a second-year PhD candidate at the Institute for Ecological Economics of Vienna University of Economics and Business (WU), Luckeneder is studying the environmental and socioeconomic impacts of mining activities. At IIASA, he used spatial modeling to understand how mining and land use affect regional economic growth in Brazil in the hopes of finding the best economic solution for the country.

Using GDP growth as a proxy for economic development, he looked at the impacts of mining and other types of land use between 2000 and 2020. The model incorporates data on mining, agriculture, and land-use change, as well as other socioeconomic factors, such as employment and infrastructure for about 5,500 municipalities in Brazil.

The study is as complex as it sounds: Luckeneder’s main challenge is to set up a theoretical framework that depicts how the environmental and socioeconomic factors influence each other. Once his comprehensive model is complete, he hopes to get a clear picture of how mining affects the Brazilian economy.

He suspects that while mining activities would bring some economic gains, these might not be sustainable, as the environmental and social upheaval that follow the opening of a mine could negatively impact development in the long-run.

While economic development is important, in the current climate crisis, decisions to enable activities that lead to deforestation cannot be taken lightly. Luckeneder hopes that his results will be used to inform the political debate in Brazil and support policy decisions by the way of science.

Assessing the cascading impacts of natural disasters

By Asjad Naqvi and Irene Monasterolo from the IIASA Advancing Systems Analysis Program

Asjad Naqvi and Irene Monasterolo discuss a framework they developed to assess how natural disasters cascade across socioeconomic systems.

© Bang Oland | Dreamstime.com

The 2021 Nobel Prize for Physics, was awarded to the topic of “complex systems”, highlighting the need for a better understanding of non-linear interactions that take place within natural and socioeconomic systems. In our paper titled “Assessing the cascading impacts of natural disasters in a multi-layer behavioral network framework”, recently published in Nature Scientific Reports, we highlight one such application of complex systems.

In this paper, we develop a framework for assessing how natural disasters, for example, earthquakes and floods, cascade across socioeconomic systems. We propose that in order to understand post-shock outcomes, an economic structure can be broken down into multiple network layers. Multi-layer networks are a relatively new methodology, mostly stemming from applications in finance after the 2008 financial crisis, which starts with the premise that nodes, or locations in our case, interact with other nodes through various network layers. For example, in our study, we highlight the role of a supply-side production layer, where the flows are trade networks, and a demand-side household layer, which provides labor, and the flows are migration flows.

Figure 1: A multi-layer network structure

In this two-layer structure, the nodes interact, not only within, but across layers as well, forming a co-evolving demand and supply structure that feeds back across each other. The interactions are derived from economic literature, which also allow us to integrate behavioral responses to distress scenarios. This, for example, includes household coping mechanisms for consumption smoothing, and firms’ response to market signals by reshuffling supply chains. The price signals drive flows, which allows the whole system to stabilize.

We applied the framework to an agriculture-dependent economy, typically found in low-income disaster-prone regions. We simulated various flood-like shock scenarios that reduce food output in one part of the network. We then tracked how this shock spreads to the rest of the network over space and time.

Figure 2: Evolution of vulnerability over time

Our results show that the transition phase is cyclical and depends on the network size, distance from the epi-center of the shock, and node density. Within this cyclical adjustment new vulnerabilities in terms of “food insecurity” can be created. Then, we introduce a new measure, the Vulnerability Rank, or VRank, to synthesize multi-layer risks into a single index.

Our framework can help inform and design policies, aimed at building resilience to disasters by accounting for direct and indirect cascading impacts. This is especially crucial for regions where the fiscal space is limited and timing of response is critical.

Reference:

Naqvi, A. & Monasterolo, I. (2021). Assessing the cascading impacts of natural disasters in a multi-layer behavioral network framework. Scientific Reports 11 e20146. [pure.iiasa.ac.at/17496]

Note: This article gives the views of the author, and not the position of the Nexus blog, nor of the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis.

Let’s not be arrogant about climate change adaptation

By Marina Andrijevic, researcher in the IIASA Energy, Climate, and Environment Program

Marina Andrijevic tackles some inconvenient but fundamental issues around climate change adaptation.

© Lio2012 | Dreamstime.com

Anyone who followed climate-related headlines this summer would have noticed a more than usual amount of talk on climate change adaptation. As it goes with sudden epiphanies in aftermaths of humanitarian disasters in our Western realities, this time we’ve come to realize that we need to seriously think about doing some adaptation.

To be fair, the realization that adaptation is inevitable has for a long time been somewhat of a taboo in the “woke” climate policy and activist circles (the author of this blog is a millennial and would like to acknowledge that the reader’s idea of a long time in climate policy might be different). Admitting that there might be no other option but to adapt to whatever the locked-in effects of climate change are, is arguably defeatist and gives in to the notion that mitigation alone won’t cut it.

While this might be yet another depressing but accurate reflection of the reality under climate change, portraying adaptation and mitigation as different but equally urgent actions could set a dangerous trap if it produces ideas such as: if we adapt enough, perhaps our economies and energy systems won’t need to change so much.

Even if it would be enough (which it wouldn’t), adaptation will not necessarily just happen once we recognize it needs to be done, because the needs and abilities for it operate on different time horizons and geographical scales. Many parts of the world that need adaptation will not necessarily be able to take action, so we have to be very careful when we count on it as a solution to climate change.

This is where we must tackle some inconvenient but fundamental issues about adaptation. Climate change research, especially the areas positioned at the “interface” with policy, could play a crucial role here. In this role, it must be very prudent and avoid doing a disservice to decision makers, and even worse, to people affected by those decisions. In other words, the scientific assessments need to be careful when assuming for whom, where, and how adaptation can reasonably be expected.

We tried to illustrate why this matters in our recent paper that looks at the capacity of populations to adapt to heat stress. We used air-conditioning as a popular, albeit not (yet) climate-friendly adaptation option. My coauthors and I understand that air conditioning could well be maladaptation, meaning that it causes more harm than good in the long-run. Adaptation practices, however, it turns out, are quite difficult to measure, while installed air conditioners can literally be counted, which makes them handy for plugging into our statistical models. We contend with access to air conditioning currently being a good enough example of access to adaptation and promise to assess more options in the future.

Our paper shows how the capacities to protect against heat stress vary widely around the world. Like with many other unjust manifestations of climate change, people in the world’s hottest areas also have the least means to adapt. We found that countries with more income, more urban areas, and less income inequality, are also the ones where more people have access to air conditioning.

This does not come as the world’s biggest revelation, but it conveniently allows us to make informed guesses on how access to air conditioning might change in 2050 or 2100. This is possible because the research community has already engaged in a group effort to propose five different futures with regard to GDP, urbanization, and income distribution (in climate jargon: the Shared Socioeconomic Pathways or SSPs).

Coupling the potential rates of air conditioning with the people exposed to heat stress based on projections of climate models, lets us calculate the cooling gap – the difference between people exposed to heat stress and people who can protect themselves against it with the use of air conditioning.

Depending on whether we find ourselves in the best- or the worst-case scenario of socioeconomic development could mean anywhere between two billion and five billion people globally unable to protect themselves against heat stress with air conditioning in 2050. This range only grows with longer time horizons, with Sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia being the areas of the world where these differences are the starkest.

We hope that our paper will motivate further investigations of potential gaps in adaptation that point to insufficient adaptive capacity and help to identify the areas and populations most at risk, as well as what additional work needs to be done in terms of socioeconomic improvements before we can reasonably expect adaptation to take place. Our findings on the importance of factors beyond just GDP, suggest that helping communities to build their adaptive capacity doesn’t mean only throwing money at them (although that would make for a decent start!), but international efforts must focus on issues such as eradicating inequalities, supporting smart urban development, strengthening institutions, and providing education.

So, let’s not take it for granted that we will all be able to adapt either now or in the future. Eliminating the causes of climate change must remain the number one policy objective that will help to reduce the need for adaptation in the first place. But number two could be helping communities that have no option but to cope with what’s already coming at them. Highlighting in our research what the implications of different adaptive capacities are for preservation of livelihoods, is a small step towards achieving this.

Reference:

Andrijevic, M., Byers, E., Mastrucci, A., Smits, J., & Fuss, S. (2021). Future cooling gap in shared socioeconomic pathways. Environmental Research Letters 16 (9) e094053. [pure.iiasa.ac.at/17411]

Note: This article gives the views of the author, and not the position of the Nexus blog, nor of the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis.

Strengthening the resilience of our global food system while advancing its transformation

By Frank Sperling, Senior Project Manager in the Integrated Biosphere Futures Research Group of the IIASA Biodiversity and Natural Resources Program

Frank Sperling shares his reflections on issues around sustainable and transformational food production in the context of the UN Food Systems Summit.

© Solarseven | Dreamstime.com

Bringing together stakeholders from around the globe, the United Nations Food Systems Summit (UNFSS) calls attention to the opportunities, challenges, and promises that the transformation of our food systems can hold to advance sustainable development.

This transformation needs to happen, while the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic reminds us of the manifold vulnerabilities embedded in our food systems, the inter-dependence of our societies, and the entanglement of human and natural systems. The increases in weather and climate extremes that can clearly be attributed to climate change, ongoing biodiversity loss, environmental degradation, and pollution further illustrate that food systems need to manage a broad range of compounding risks and pressures that play out over different spatial and temporal scales. Advancing and securing gains towards the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) will not only require meeting multiple economic, social, and environmental objectives, but also demand pathways that ensure a safe navigation through a treacherous and shifting risk landscape. But how do we build resilience into the food system while transforming it at the same time?

Great strides have been made in technologies and practices that can help food systems manage existing and emerging risks. For example, on the production side, timely access to seasonal forecasts and early warning information coupled with extension services can help farmers to make the right decisions for planting and to anticipate, adapt, and cope with possible shocks. Precision agriculture, which harnesses advances in technology to ensure optimal health and productivity of crops and soils, can reduce the need for inputs. Diversification of livestock and agricultural traits can help farmers to reduce production risks in marginal environmental conditions.

Minimizing the spillover risk of zoonotic diseases, mitigating, and adapting to climatic and environmental changes place additional demands on food systems, but also offer new opportunities. Living sustainably requires comprehensively managing land use, enabling for food production, but maintaining and recovering critical ecosystem goods and services, such as carbon and biodiversity. It requires advancing nature-based solutions, where nature is seen as an ally and not an adversary in delivering on development objectives. Strengthening natural capital accounting and incentivizing environmental stewardship by rewarding actors in the food system for efficient and sustainable management of natural resources, and appropriately informing consumer choices will be important ingredients in reducing the environmental impact as well as environmental vulnerabilities of food systems.

The transformation of the food system is an ongoing process. It is therefore important to understand the impact of different changes across the system. Shifts to healthier diets can have important co-benefits in reducing pressure on the environment and natural resources. Such transformation implies, however, that shifts in demand are also matched by shifts in supply, reflecting appropriate adjustments of agricultural production. To accommodate such system shifts and facilitate system transitions over time, the social resilience and adaptive capacity of society must be addressed accordingly.

Food systems operate at different scales, ranging from local to global. Consequently, the role of trade in ensuring food security and human welfare across a range of contexts is critical. Several countries are already dependent on food imports. Trade can help the food security of regions where agricultural activities become less viable with progressive climate change. At the same time, the changing exposure to socioeconomic and environmental risks arising from the increasing inter-connectivity of societies and economies also need to be addressed, as illustrated by the current pandemic. The evolution of food systems has been largely shaped by a drive for efficiency. We must now consider carefully where efficiency needs to be (counter)balanced with an effort to promote greater diversity, and where we must build in greater redundancy to help manage the variety of risks facing food systems.

Forward-looking approaches aimed at transforming food systems towards greater resilience and sustainability will require a suite of measures within, as well as outside food systems. Such measures entail helping livelihoods and sectors to reduce their vulnerabilities and risk exposure, while also enabling the agility of food systems to manage future risks, avoiding lock-in of structures, which would become mal-adaptive over time. Achieving such transformation will depend on increased collaboration and trust building across sectors, enabling innovation in technologies and practice, strengthening of training and capacity development, and on the improvement of safety nets for reducing vulnerabilities to shocks and managing the social transition. Above and beyond, it requires re-calibrating the connection of food systems with other sectors and systems, such as health, environment, energy, and infrastructure.

The UNFSS in conjunction with the upcoming UN Climate Change Conference in Glasgow (UNFCCC COP26), and the UN Conference on Biological Diversity in Kunming (CBD COP15), are a formidable call to action for political leaders, decision makers in the public and private sectors, scientists, development practitioners, civil society, and to society at large, to come together and jointly imagine and build resilient and sustainable food systems that place people and nature at the center before it is too late.

This blog post was first published on the website of the International Science Council. Read the original article here.

Note: This article gives the views of the author, and not the position of the Nexus blog, nor of the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis.