Emerging Technologies

How AI can help us better prepare for climate migration

This image shows people walking through a flooded area, depicting climate migration

Extreme weather leads to climate migration. Image: Photo by Jonathan Ford on Unsplash

Injy Elhabrouk
Specialist, TradeTech, World Economic Forum
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  • Climate change is resulting in extreme weather events that force communities to leave their homes.
  • The UN International Organization for Migration forecasts that up to a billion people will become climate migrants over the next 30 years.
  • AI can be used to help governments and individuals prepare for climate migration.

Climate change is one of the direst crises of our time causing natural disasters that often result in the displacement of large groups of people, known as ‘climate migrants.’ These individuals move across city and state borders to escape the disastrous effects of climate change on their homes and communities. According to the United Nations (UN) International Organization for Migration, up to one billion people will become climate migrants over the next three decades. This projection rises to 1.2 billion by 2050 and 1.4 billion by 2060.

Although these figures are alarming, they are not unexpected due to the state of the environment. But how do climate migrants differ from other migrants and refugees and how can we conceptualise the future of climate migration using artificial intelligence?

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How do climate migrants differ from other migrants?

The UN 1951 Refugee Convention defines a refugee as a person who is forced to flee their country due to an imminent risk of persecution and human rights violations. Additionally, refugees have a legal right to seek international protection and states have a legal obligation to assess their cases and provide the proper protections where applicable. Migrants are a much larger category, lacking a concrete legal definition and specific protections. Economic migrants leave their countries to seek economic opportunities, including work, study and starting or joining a family. Forced migrants are driven out of their states by extreme circumstances, including political unrest, violence and natural disasters. Many migrants will likely face imminent danger upon returning to their countries, yet they are not recognised as refugees.

International organizations continue to hesitate in providing special protections to migrants but specifically to ‘climate migrants.’ However, the UN, other international organizations and governments have increasingly made efforts to address humanitarian crises and displacement caused by climate change by making strides in disaster relief assistance and raising public awareness of this issue. Although these excellent strides towards expanded protections of climate migrants have been made, it is vital to think of how we can create a more efficient and effective means of managing climate migration as the numbers continue to grow. AI may be the answer.


How is the World Economic Forum fighting the climate crisis?

AI and climate migration

The responsible use of AI offers a unique perspective into climate migration that can benefit climate migrants and states alike. To expand efforts in the AI for climate migration space we need to look at enhanced data collection mechanisms. Current data sources include national authorities, NGOs and IGOs and administrative data sources, such as humanitarian visa numbers. Other data comes from systems created by organizations such as the IOM’s Displacement Tracking Matrix, which observes and follows disaster displacement. However, these are often updated after a disaster happens and do not reflect the urgency of the matter at hand.

The use of AI as a predictive and preventative mechanism allows individuals and governments to make the necessary preparations before a natural disaster strikes. By gathering data that is reflective of potential and literal natural disasters taking place, AI can shed nuanced insights into the consequences of these events.

Through satellite imagery and region-specific information, such as past natural disasters and weather conditions, AI can predict a range of different environmental events with precision, such as when and where it will rain. This technology combined with anonymous cell phone data in a region can help predict if a monsoon or flood will take place and how catastrophic the consequences will be.

Leveraging AI for this purpose will allow individuals and states to be aware of significant population displacement in advance, thereby allowing them to allocate the proper resources for relief where possible.

Some organizations are working towards creating climate-resilient infrastructure through AI as well. This will preemptively prevent devastating results from natural disasters. In turn, this could help create a more efficient and cost-effective response to natural disasters. For instance, Germany implemented the use of AI-enabled identification management in its Federal Office for Migration and Refugees to make its asylum processes more efficient and effective. This use of AI has become more widespread across different countries, but it is crucial to remember that AI can only be truly effective when it is used responsibly.

AI must be used responsibly

When used irresponsibly, AI can lead to violations of the very same rights it was employed to advance — such as the use of unethical data for biased asylum management and the use of AI for infringement on the privacy and security of climate migrants. AI, however, can yield wonderful results when used responsibly, most notably in supporting decision-making regarding asylum to drive more equitable processes at borders and in camps, and for tracking climate migrants as they move across land and sea. It can also be used to mitigate migrant flows. Stanford Immigration Policy Lab’s program Geomatch relies on AI to predict where migrants are most likely to integrate rapidly and thrive based on their personal characteristics and data from previous migrants in the proposed areas. Another example is the use of AI to help states find homes for climate migrants. These are only some of the available and potential uses of AI that help ease the stress on governments and individuals affected by climate migration. There are many untapped approaches to making our new reality more manageable using AI, these can be explored through endless opportunities for collaboration and growth.

As we continue to reap the unfortunate consequences of what we have sown, one truth remains: we will not escape climate change and its effects. The responsible use of AI will advance efforts in this space by improving the future trajectory of an issue that affects us all by enhancing our understanding of the complexity of climate migration. Where international organizations falter in their representation and protection of climate migrants, AI can step in to help us better prepare and respond to climate migration as a whole. Yet more collaboration is vital to accelerate its responsible use for humanitarian causes and to expand climate resilience efforts and accessibility measures for the states and communities that are most affected by these issues.

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