Falling Walls Science Summit

African regions experience brain drain as the most climate-literate flee: Study

Study looks at migration intentions of more than 37,000 in 30 African countries

12 November 2022 - 15:43
By Tanya Farber
The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs says in Kenya more than 90% of open water sources are drying up in some areas. About 650,000 children are acutely malnourished.
Image: Bloomberg The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs says in Kenya more than 90% of open water sources are drying up in some areas. About 650,000 children are acutely malnourished.

Communities across Africa are among the most vulnerable when it comes to the climate crisis, but those migrating are often the ones who are climate literate.

Since climate literacy is associated with individuals with higher news consumption, education and specialist occupations, communities are experiencing a brain drain at a time they can afford it least. 

This is according to a study published in the science journal Climatic Change.

Speaking to TimesLIVE at the Falling Walls Science Summit in Berlin this week, co-author Daniel Meierriks, from WZB Berlin Social Science, said between the 1970s and 2000s, temperatures had risen far quicker than at any other time, creating direct and indirect effects on communities.

But on average in their large-scale study, he and co-authors found that “only 44% of respondents are climate literate”.

The study sought to ascertain if people had even heard of the climate crisis and if they could pinpoint how it made things worse, directly and indirectly.

They explored the migration intentions of more than 37,000 individuals in 30 African countries.

What emerged is that the “correlates of climate literacy were news consumption, education, urban living and specialist occupations”.

Because of this, communities are losing parts of their population that they really should not want to lose.

While temperatures have increased by 0.2% a year between 1960 and 2016, urbanisation has roughly doubled, increasing from 35% to 60% by the end of the observation period.

Global warming can lead to increased urbanisation, but it’s not that simple.

It can be a slow and long-term effect.

For example, global warming might cause a loss in agricultural production and in the context of cities already looking attractive to rural dwellers, many of the latter may make the move once they perceive the agricultural impact.

“Sometimes the effects of global warming only emerge in the long-run when you see the cumulative effects,” explains Meierriks, “and also remember that warming matters the most for developing countries that lack the resources to adapt”.

He said the climate crisis was bringing on “ internal and external migration” and that the effect on developed and developing countries often differed.

However, micro-evidence is important to understand migration at the level of individuals, and this is one of the first studies to do so.

They found that climate change leads to stronger migration intentions only among the climate literate, and that there is only a migratory response when long-term increases in local temperatures become apparent, rather than an actual event like a heatwave or drought.

So what can be done?

According to experts at COP27, it is likely too late to prevent climate change and “is crucial to soften the blow by helping the most vulnerable people prepare and adapt”.

“It is very important that COP27, a COP for implementation, does not exclude the voice of humanity: the most vulnerable communities,” said Yasmine Fouad, Egypt’s minister of environment. 

Ko Barrett, vice-chair of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) said, “Whether it’s transport, energy, food production, buildings or manufacturing — all of them must be fundamentally transformed.” 


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