History has shown that the major causes of large-scale human migration have been oppression, fear, hunger and thirst. During 1970-71, India had to accommodate over ten million refugees who had fled from oppression and atrocities in neighbouring East Pakistan during the Bangladesh liberation war. India has become a permanent home for hundreds of thousands of political refugees from Tibet and Sri Lanka. Since the 1980s, beginning with the Sahel drought, millions of people in African countries such as Ethiopia and Somalia have had to leave their homes as refugees in search of food.

A new dimension has now been added to the picture by recent apprehensions that in the not-so-distant future, the world will witness a new type of population migration which will be caused by climate change. It is feared that people would be forced to leave their own countries ravaged by the effects of climate change and no longer able to offer them sustainable livelihood. This idea of ‘climate refugees’ is fast catching up and there are initial estimates that by 2050 the world would have a billion climate refugees to be taken care of. Conferences are already being held and documents being compiled on how to tackle the economic, political, human rights and even religious aspects of the matter. Formal international negotiations are bound to follow.

In this context I took a quick look at a simple map of the spatial distribution of human population around the globe. What struck me most was the paradox that the population density is low in vast regions of the world where the climate is benign and the population density is highest in many large regions of hostile climate. Had salubrious climate been the first priority for the world’s inhabitants, the population distribution map of the world would have been very different from what it is today. But it is certain that there are many other factors that are important for human living which override simple considerations of climate. These are proximity to water, availability of arable land, abundance of natural resources, land elevation, access to urban facilities, opportunities for employment, and so on. These have been the prime motivating factors for human migration and climate is something that has either been accepted collaterally or prevailed upon.

What is even more notable is the fact that huge populations have continued to live for generations in places which are known to be highly vulnerable to the forces of nature, disaster-prone and even dangerous. The population density in the long coastal belt of India is high because the economic benefits of living there outweigh the occasional damage caused by tropical cyclones and coastal flooding and the potential threat of sea level rise. People in the mountain regions prefer to live there and breathe in the pure air notwithstanding landslides and cloudbursts. People living in the plains like to be near the rivers in spite of the annual monsoon floods. It is clear that millions of people prefer to strike a compromise with an unfriendly environment rather than migrate to regions where they would be safer but otherwise at a disadvantage. For example, the district of Jaisalmer in Rajasthan experiences temperatures reaching 50 C in summer, but it has a population of 6,70,000 which has increased by 32 per cent in the last ten years. Goa, which gets drenched in 300 cm of rain in a year, has a population of 14 lakhs.

Over the ages, human beings have succeeded in getting themselves acclimatized to the places they chose for habitation. They systematically evolved distinct cultures and lifestyles that would match their environment. The climate change of the future is also going to be a long and gradual process in which the temperatures would possibly rise by a degree or two over a hundred years. Going by history, there is no reason why people would not get acclimatized to this slow gradual change as it occurs in the future. This is going to be a natural reaction of the human body and mind and could occur even unknowingly.

To me, as of now, the fear of large-scale population migration due to climate change seems to be more of a myth and a far stretch of imagination. If by 2050, there are going to be a billion climate refugees in a global population of 9 billion, one out of every 9 inhabitants of this planet would be a climate refugee! What a prospect! Are we all just slaves of climate to be driven only by climate change? Climate woes seem to be more in the minds of the climate change enthusiasts and less in the minds of ordinary people.