Climate Change and Internal Migration Processes in Spain: Influence of Climate Change on Human Mobility and Possible Responses

In order to gain a concrete and meaningful insight into the issue of climate migration within Spain, we interviewed Paola Villavicencio and Susana Borràs on seven key questions about climate vulnerability and internal displacement in the country. Paola and Susana are authors of the publication “Vulnerabilidades climáticas y desplazamiento interno en España: Dos realidades complejas e interconectadas” ((Climate vulnerabilities and internal displacement in Spain: Two complex and interconnected realities; 2023), which deals with this phenomenon.[1]

What is the current context in Spain: climate change – internal migration?

Around the world, climate change and its impacts on livelihoods and habitability are forcing millions of people, especially the most vulnerable, to move within or outside their countries in order to protect their lives and those of their families.

In the case of Spain, the risks and vulnerabilities arising from climate change, together with impoverishment and loss of livelihoods, also influence internal climate mobility, especially from rural to urban areas, playing a key role in the decline of rural areas and the increased concentration of the population in cities, which are highly exposed to climate impacts.

Has it been studied – analysed?

The study of the phenomenon of human displacement due to climate change has mainly focused on movements of people from the most impoverished and highly vulnerable countries, which has contributed to the perception that it is a distant and alien problem. For this reason, particular attention has been paid to internal displacement in these countries, mainly in the Global South, as the reality is that people affected by climate disasters do not often cross international borders to seek protection.

Research on the impact of climate change on human mobility within more affluent countries, the so-called ‘Global North’, such as Spain, is still limited, and the little data that exists is linked to sudden-onset disasters or a specific extreme weather event, such as fire. Even scarcer are studies on internal displacement linked to slow-onset climate hazards, such as droughts, or those that analyse the causes and consequences of such displacement or related response measures.

Why do you find it interesting from a research point of view?

The study of internal population movements in Spain due to climate change is crucial, as Spain is one of the European countries most vulnerable to climate change. The various climate impacts on the country’s social, ecological and environmental systems are currently linked to processes of human mobility, especially from rural to urban areas. These processes could increase as the impacts of climate change intensify.

In this sense, in addition to the production and analysis of statistical data, it is necessary to contextualise and understand the causes and consequences of such displacements, as well as the responses needed to address them and provide protection to those affected. When such movements occur from rural to urban areas, they not only increase the pressure on resources, services and infrastructure in cities that are already vulnerable to climate change, but can also lead to greater inequality and social and economic marginalisation of the most vulnerable groups, including displaced people, as they often end up living in urban areas with high climate risks and with limited access to services or housing, exacerbating their vulnerability and exclusion.

What recent climatic phenomena have caused, or may have caused, internal displacement?

Data from the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre (IDMC) links internal displacement in Spain to one-off extreme weather events, mainly floods and forest fires. In 2021, for example, forest fires are reported to have displaced more than 4,600 people in the country.

Although it is more complex to identify the movements of people as a result of slow and progressive climatic risks, such as droughts, food shortages or rising sea levels, the fact is that they are also linked to processes of human mobility through the progressive impoverishment of the areas affected and their interaction with other factors (social, economic, political, etc.).

The latest data provided by the National Statistics Institute (INE) on internal migratory patterns in the country shows that in Spain internal movements of people are predominantly from rural to urban areas. Although such data and demographic projections do not consider climate change as a determining factor in population changes, especially due to the complexity of the interacting factors in displacement, the fact is that current human displacements are not only linked to climate change, but also to the processes of impoverishment, loss of livelihoods, political neglect and lack of alternative livelihoods in rural areas affected by climate change. Thus, if we compare the data for the areas most affected by environmental and social changes and those most vulnerable to climate change, we can conclude that these are also the rural areas with the greatest demographic decline or internal displacement (for example, the areas of Zamora, Soria, Guadalajara or Burgos, among others).

Are there any strategies being adopted at the national level to address internal displacement in Spain?

In terms of the strategies adopted, there are currently no legal policy responses at the national level that address population displacement due to climate change. Law 7/2021 on climate change and energy transition does not contain any provisions in this regard. Nor does the National Climate Change Adaptation Plan (PNACC) 2021–2030. At the regional level, only the Andalusian Law 8/2018 and the Valencian Law 6/2022 adopted on this issue recognise climate change-related migration as a strategic area for climate change adaptation, perhaps because these are the areas most exposed to the effects of climate change and where rural internal displacement is already a reality.

Do you know of any stories or examples of climate migrants in Spain or in regions particularly affected or likely to be affected by the phenomenon?

The lack of recognition and protection has contributed to the lack of visibility of the situation of people that are forced to move due to climate change impacts. It is only when large numbers people are evacuated in the event of major sudden-onset disasters such as storms, floods or fires that the news is reported.

This was the case of Alvaro García Río-Miranda, who was affected by a forest fire in the Sierra de Gata in 2015 that killed half of his herd, which was the basis of his livelihood. The effects of climate change have impoverished him and his losses have led to his displacement. These movements of people, which are so important in rural areas, are key to increasing climate resilience. In many cases, the displacement of people also implies a change in economic activity, with negative implications for rural abandonment.[2]

In general, little is said about the impact of, for example, droughts or desertification on people, especially those involved in agricultural or livestock activities. And when it is addressed, as in the case of rural displacement, it is in relation to situations of impoverishment, loss of work and purchasing power, without analysing climate issues as a factor that determines the economic situation, the risk, the loss, and even the abandonment of the areas of origin.

There are other very interesting reports that provide testimonies:

  • WWF (2007). Testigos del clima (“Climate Witnesses”; testimonies of 27 Spanish people from 11 autonomous communities);[3]
  • Greenpeace Spain (2020). Proteger el medio rural es protegernos del fuego. Hacia paisajes y población resilientes frente a la crisis climática (“Protecting the Rural Environment Is Protecting Ourselves from Fire. Towards Resilient Landscapes and People in the Face of the Climate Crisis”);[4]
  • World Economic Forum & Ipsos (2022). Majority across 34 countries describe effects of climate change in their community as severe (global survey on the severity of impacts and expectations of displacement due to climate change).[5]

Could you present the research “CLIMATE VULNERABILITIES AND INTERNAL DISPLACEMENT IN SPAIN: TWO COMPLEX AND INTERCONNECTED REALITIES” and the recommendations you propose based on your analysis?

Our study analyses the phenomenon of internal climate displacement in Spain and the extent to which current legal and policy responses to climate change address this phenomenon and promote the protection of displaced persons. According to the 1998 Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement, all persons facing internal displacement due to environmental change, including climate change, should receive the necessary protection regardless of whether they live in a developing or developed country.

Our analysis shows that, on the one hand, internal displacement linked to the effects of climate change and other determinants is a reality in Spain, especially affecting populations rural areas of the country that are highly vulnerable to climate change. On the other hand, although this phenomenon is a reality, our research shows the absence of adequate responses to address it and ensure the protection of the rights of displaced persons, which increases their vulnerability.

Furthermore, we propose how these population movements represent a challenge to the progressive depopulation that is affecting Spain, increasing the social and patrimonial decline that inevitably has socio-economic and environmental implications, especially due to the loss of care and conservation of the natural environment. We therefore suggest that rural repopulation could not only address the current depopulation, but could also be used as an adaptive strategy to alleviate the migratory pressure on the cities, while restoring collaborative and supportive forms of rural life in the countryside.






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