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Climate change and migration

13/05/2019 | Berlin Social Science Center

Climate change refugees are accepted by the public in Germany at a far higher rate than economic refugees. However it is often difficult to seperate the reasons why people flee in the first place.


Climate change refugees are seen as genuine refugees and accepted by the public in Germany at a far higher rate than economic refugees. A study by Marc Helbling and Daniel Meierrieks at the WZB Berlin Social Center investigates if and to what extent Western societies feel morally obliged to help climate change refugees.

In the study, Marc Helbling and Daniel Meierrieks used an online survey to ask 1,000 German citizens about their attitudes toward different types of refugees: those who had fled political persecution, economic downturn, or the effects of climate change (rising sea levels and drought).

The survey revealed that climate change refugees were viewed just as positively as political refugees (63 percent). There was a marked difference in perception between these refugees (60 percent) and economic refugees (48 percent). Climate change refugees were seen as “genuine refugees” that had been forced to leave their home country for reasons beyond their control. Economic refugees, on the other hand, were viewed in a far less positive light. Nevertheless, the researchers point out that this difference is far from clear-cut. It is often difficult to separate the reasons why refugees flee in the first place; after all, climate change can also decimate a country’s economic development.

The positive attitudes toward refugees can be explained by the fact that this group, unlike other types of refugees, has barely featured in public debates about migration. Because climate change is a gradual and continuous process, it has not yet led to the sudden influx of large groups of refugees that is more typical of when people flee from war-torn countries. Climate change refugees are therefore perceived to make up a small group. Yet support for climate change refugees tails off dramatically when participants are informed that the effects of climate change are predicted to displace relatively high numbers of refugees.

“Our study offers the very first insights into Germans’ attitudes towards climate change refugees. This is important as it enables us to ask whether Western societies - the main drivers of climate change - are aware of the responsibility they bear in the matter. It also allows us to see how they might respond to future conflicts that arise from climate change,” Marc Helbling explains.

The study has now been published as part of a research project at the WZB and the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research, funded by the Leibniz Association.

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