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The Climate Displacement Implications of the AR6 Summary: “Atlas of suffering”

Updated: Jun 13, 2022

Forest fire fighting crews battle a blaze near Peachland, British Columbia, during the cataclysmic 2021 forest fires (Source: Mininstry of Transportation, 2021)


  • The Sixth Assessment Report (AR6) of the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has now released its second phase on impacts, adaptation, and vulnerability.

  • The report notes that 3.3 to 3.6 billion people “live in contexts that are highly vulnerable to climate change” and are therefore increasingly at risk of humanitarian crises that are “driving displacement in all regions, with small island states disproportionately affected”.

  • Increased incidence of acute food and water insecurity is ratcheting up the pressure on people in many subsistence-based or low-income regions.

  • The most severe impacts are already being seen, for the last decades, in parts of Africa, Asia, Central and South America, small island states, and in the Arctic region.

  • Canada is already seeing some internal displacement, particularly in BC.

On February 28, the IPCC released the Summary for Policymakers (SPM) of its sixth Assessment Report, entitled Climate Change 2022: Impacts, Adaptation and Vulnerability. This report “provides a high-level summary of the key findings of the Working Group II Report and is approved by the IPCC member governments line by line.” This report differs from previous reports in that it focuses less on firming up the scientific backing for climate change, and instead details tangible impacts across a range of metrics. The report seeks to judge impacts relative to the differing vulnerabilities of different regions, while cataloging and proposing various beneficial and/or maladaptive strategies for coping with the impacts of climate change.


The report presents a number of different pathways, some of which are becoming increasingly implausible or unreachable as the years tick onward and the global community fails to take decisive action on mitigation. This comes despite the vast majority of global climate finance currently being directed towards mitigation; overall investment is still vanishingly small relative to the necessary capital outlay, estimated in 2016 to be $280-500 billion (USD) annually by 2050 for developing countries only.

Climate resilient development pathways showing the interlinkages between sustainable development, climate action, and adaptation. (Source, AR6 2022)

Natural world

In a world of 3 degrees Celsius of global warming, AR6 authors estimate that it’s likely that 12 to 29 percent of all terrestrial and freshwater species would be at a “very high risk of extinction”. Authors found with very high confidence that humanity’s impacts on the ocean, both chemical and physical, are strongly shifting the populations of marine organisms, as well as changing their distributions in different ecosystems. Increasingly, organisms are shifting poleward, particularly fish and marine mammals. A number of non-climate drivers are also listed as critical threats to ecosystems, including pollution, overfishing, and habitat loss.

Water: too much and too little

Water is a central facet of the report. Water scarcity and flooding present major and growing challenges to an increasing segment of the world population. AR6 authors found that flooding has accounted for nearly half of the total number of disasters in the decades since 1970. Drought meanwhile is responsible for a greater proportion of deaths, with 34 percent of all disaster-related deaths attributed to water scarcity. Places around the world are increasingly seeing higher maximums and lower minimums on rainfall and groundwater availability, pushing once-stable regions into greater water whiplash effects and necessitating expensive and resource-intensive trucking of water, construction of desalination plants, or simply reduction in use that leaves many residents high and dry.

Food insecurity

Climate change is increasingly shown to have negative impacts on yield of the primary staple grains and crops that make up a significant portion of global calorie consumption, through aforementioned increased flooding and drought patterns along with an expanded geographic range of pests. In addition, extreme weather puts strain on food supply chains.

Higher levels of CO2 have also been shown to reduce the levels of other important plant nutrients including protein, iron, and zinc. The decline of these micronutrients could reverse trends of improvement in global nutrient intake, especially in population groups that are already chronically undernourished.

Global warming itself also has direct negative impacts on livestock productivity and growth. In combination with ocean acidification and the water availability crises, the picture for global food systems is dire.

Urban risks

Cities and urban areas are growing as population centers - already home to more than half the global population and expected to encompass a great proportion of future population growth. More than 90 percent of near term population growth is expected to occur in urban areas in “less developed regions”.

Heat stress due to rising incidence of extreme heat waves, in combination with the urban heat island effect, is expected to take a major toll on cities in the coming decades. Low lying cities will be struck more and more often by “nuisance flooding” and eventually permanent inundation as sea levels rise, provided that temporary hard infrastructure fixes like seawalls are not implemented at great cost. According to the report, between $7 trillion to $14 trillion worth of coastal infrastructure will be under threat from sea level rise and flooding by 2100, affecting infrastructure across a range of uses.

Responding to Risks and Looking for Co-benefits

As all preceding IPCC reports have made clear, responding to the science of climate change is an urgent, society-wide responsibility. The direness of each succeeding synthesis report has only underscored the previous lack of urgency, and the increasingly complex nature of responding to those problems today.

AR6 represents a significant increase in attention given to climate displacement by the scientific community. The full summary of the Phase II report mentions displacement almost 450 times, specifically stating that, on the one hand, “higher agency migration, in which migrants have mobility options, allows migrants greater opportunities for integrating into labour markets at the destination, makes it easier to remit money home, and generally creates conditions for potential for benefits for migrant households and for sending and receiving communities” and, on the other, that “adaptive migration and the implied assumption that people can or should simply move out of harm’s way is not a substitute for investment in adaptive capacity building.”

Put another way, and in alignment with CDPI’s philosophy: migration is one adaptation pathway among many, and often one that will overlap with other approaches (e.g., a seasonal migratory pattern) and must be met with measures that enable in-situ and mobile resilience.

Situating with other Recent Adaptation Work

While AR6 does not lay out a definitive adaptation agenda (and especially for more niche topics like displacement), but the broad approaches have been clear out of COP26, the Global Center on Adaptation, and other recent Canadian work.


  • We must sustain ambition demonstrated with the significant strengthening of adaptation in the latest Paris Agreement Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) to ensure that the levels of adaptation ambition of every nation are fully updated and aligned with science and the new reality of a planet living through a fast-worsening climate emergency: stronger new NDCs and adaptation plans are needed by all. 

  • We must also continue to constantly raise adaptation ambition year-on-year to keep pace with this new phase of high-rate global heating throughout the present decade, a pathway that COP26 can establish.


  • We must rebuild confidence in international climate finance: clear delivery on the UN-agreed annual $100 billion where financial flows for adaptation must be a on par with financial flows for mitigation. 

  • We must pave the way to shift the trillions necessary into adaptation and resilience investments to support higher ambition and ever-bolder efforts to adapt our world, promoting innovative financing and unlocking the full potential of the private sector. 

  • We must leverage pandemic recovery resources for maximum climate benefit, including considering partial channeling of the $650 billion of newly allocated nternational Monetary Fund Special Drawing Rights as potential additional concessional support for building resilience, particularly in poor and climate-vulnerable countries, and small developing states.


  • We must seize the opportunity of COP26 to spur collaboration: with the world more connected than ever, only by supporting each other and forging shared solutions to shared crises of the scale of the COVID-19 pandemic and the climate crisis can we prevail. 

  • We must encourage all stakeholders to mainstream adaptation into every day business, community and social decision-making to prepare for and respond to an increasingly climate-disruptive world: new approaches to assess and manage risks of all kinds must be incorporated into every corner of our societies. 

  • We must promote bold and innovative partnerships for action to support the most vulnerable communities, such as through the GCA, African Development Bank and African Union’s Africa Adaptation Acceleration Program, which is mobilizing $25 billion to drive transformational adaptation actions on the African continent, and seeks to propel locally-led adaptation efforts.

While not all of these principles and intentions were fully realized at COP26, developed countries did agree double adaptation funding by 2025 through the Glasgow Climate Pact.

Displacement in the Canadian context

At the more immediate Canadian level and thinking more specifically about adaptation and displacement, CDPI and many others are working hard to bring forward best practices and building out the integration of climate risk and involuntary displacement into Canada’s models of climate impacts and disaster risk reduction. report from the Council of Canadian Academies (CCA) found that the “ongoing failure to fully integrate climate change adaptation into DRR [disaster risk reduction] activities, policies, and tools reduces the efficiency and impact of public investments in disaster resilience, leaving Canadian communities at risk.” To achieve this, breaking down silos within and between organizations that handle disaster response and social services (e.g. housing of displaced people) will be an essential part to realizing an effective adaptation agenda that can address displacement and a variety ofother complex problems.

In the end, the science of the IPCC is crucial to understanding the big-picture of climate change and its impacts, but the most powerful statements of these truthes can be found right on the ground. The record-setting 2021 season of fires and floods in British Columbia made it clear that climate displacement is already very much occuring in Canada. Residents of Lytton, BC, which burned to the ground, and the Fraser Valley who saw their homes inundated by torrential rainfall were in large part displaced to neighbouring communities and hotels. These events raised questions around the role of neighbouring communities and regions, as well as regional capacity for responding to climate displacement.

These disasters only further cement the findings and recommendations from CDPI over the years, particularly our two signature reports from 2021:

CDPI will remain engaged with the growing global body of work on climate adaptation and displacement, in order to continue to develop critical research, resources, and grow communities of practice for people moving within and to Canada.

Written by Walker Hathaway-Williams, with editorial support from George Benson.

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