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Climate Change and Humanitarian Shelter

Will changing weather patterns force people to leave their homes?

Key points

  • By the end of 2020, over 80 million people had been forced to move from their homes, over half within their own country.
  • Heat-humidity seems likely to force people to become climate change migrants.
  • Human-caused climate change leading to sea-level rise and ocean acidification are other possibilities for forced migration.

The UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) currently lists over a dozen emergencies across four continents. They calculate that, at the end of 2020, over 80 million people had been forced to move from their homes, over half within their own country.

Ilan Kelman
The headquarters of The UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) in Geneva.
Source: Ilan Kelman

All these people require a place to live. They deserve shelter for safety, security, health, privacy, dignity, and family life. They need local services and neighbors around them for the community, which forms a settlement. How does climate change affect humanitarian shelter and settlement?

First, we need to understand climate change. By United Nations’ definitions, climate change is weather statistics changing over decades; that is, long-term changes to the weather.

Climate change has happened since the Earth formed, and these natural influences continue. Today's concern is how rapidly and substantially human activity is changing the climate by releasing greenhouse gases and destroying ecosystems that remove these gases from the atmosphere. The increased greenhouse gas concentration in the atmosphere traps more heat from the sun, warming the planet, which changes the weather.

Will the changing weather force more people to leave their homes? Will people who are forced to leave their homes be more prone to disasters involving weather because of human-caused climate change? The answer to both questions is that we can make choices to avoid disasters involving weather.

The disaster is not what the environment does all the time, such as earthquakes or weather, because sometimes we get a disaster from these phenomena and sometimes not. The disaster is determined by how society deals or cannot deal with the environment, including whether or not humanitarian shelter and settlement support people in any weather.

Disasters are not natural and are not caused by the environment. They emerge from human decisions, including how well we support people to avoid being forcibly displaced and how well we support those forcibly displaced. As such, we avoid the phrase “natural disaster.”

Human-caused climate change is, by definition, affecting weather statistics which means that rainfall and wind patterns are changing. If someone has adequate shelter, then it will help them in any wind or rain. If not, such as being in a floodplain or having the roof blow off, then a disaster can result.

The usual saying is that there is no such thing as bad weather, only bad clothing. Families fleeing with only what they can carry might not be able to afford good clothing, sufficient umbrellas, or sturdy shelter from the rain and wind. Humanitarianism can ensure that people do not suffer from bad clothing or bad shelter.

Climate change, in just changing the weather, is not the issue for humanitarian shelter and settlement. Disasters, which are not caused by the weather or by changing weather, are the issue.

With exceptions. One huge exception is the higher heat and humidity from human-caused climate change. Heat-humidity combinations requiring indoor temperature control to survive are appearing more frequently and last longer.

Not everyone can afford indoor cooling, and many must work outdoors. Humanitarian shelter and settlement need to plan for heat-humidity affecting large numbers of populations lethally. Heatwaves are already big disasters and will become worse.

Another type of disaster is a conflict with populist phrases, including “climate conflict” and “climate wars.” Yet we don’t wake up in the morning, look at a thermometer and say, “Oh, it’s 34 degrees Celsius--yesterday was 33, so today I’m going to start a war!”

Same with resources. Human history is rife with examples of resource abundance leading to peace and conflict and resource scarcity leading to peace and conflict.

For conflict and peace, factors other than the environment and environmental resources are inevitably involved. These factors come from people, not the climate and not how the climate is changing.

For Syria’s drought conditions in the years before the war began in 2011, there was definitely a much higher likelihood of these conditions due to human-caused climate change. Yet over the previous century, Syria had had a handful of droughts that were as bad or worse than during this period. Meanwhile, over previous decades, Syria had been led by oppressive dictators who mismanaged the country’s water and agriculture.

The country was ripe for a conflict, irrespective of climate change. Even without climate change, a major drought would have happened at some point. For humanitarian shelter and settlement in Syria, the need emerged from poor leadership, not climate change.

Same with migration. The number of climate change refugees or climate refugees is unambiguously zero because the definition of “refugee,” for now, does not include climate or environmental reasons. Humanitarian shelter and settlement cannot deal with “environmental refugees” because, by definition, they cannot exist unless the definition of “refugee” is changed.

Heat-humidity, though, seems likely to force people to become climate change migrants. Large areas will become too hot to live in, so the choice will be to leave or die.

Human-caused climate change leading to sea-level rise and ocean acidification are other possibilities for forced migrants. Still, the science describes so many nuances and provisos that mass migration is not certain due to changes in the sea. Numbers we hear, such as 200 million or one billion, lack scientific credibility. Certainly, no one forced to move due to a storm or lack of rain is a climate-change migrant because storms and rain are weather, while disasters do not arise from such weather.

Overall, the importance of climate change for humanitarian shelter and settlement relates mainly to heat and humidity. We must be wary of exaggerations and misapprehensions instead of staying with the basic science while avoiding the rhetoric, buzzphrases, and errors often promoted.

In contrast, climate change’s populism means that it can bring in donations and project funding. Consequently, no matter what the science says, climate change becomes significant for humanitarian shelter and settlement.


Kelman, I. 2020. "Arctic humanitarianism for post-disaster settlement and shelter". Disaster Prevention and Management, vol. 29, no. 4, pp. 471-480.

Kelman, I., J. Ashmore, E. Leon, and S. D'Urzo. 2011. "From Research to Practice (and Vice Versa) for Post-disaster Settlement and Shelter". Environmental Hazards, vol. 10, no. 3, pp. 262-278.

Leon, E., I. Kelman, J. Kennedy, and J. Ashmore. 2009. "Capacity Building Lessons From a Decade of Transitional Settlement and Shelter". International Journal of Strategic Property Management, vol. 13, no. 3, pp. 247-265.

Opdyke, A., B. Goldwyn, and A. Javernick-Will. 2021. "Defining a humanitarian shelter and settlements research agenda". International Journal of Disaster Risk Reduction, 52, article 101950.