Climate refugees fleeing environmental breakdown have been predicted to sweep across the globe in a vast tide within the coming decades. These predictions have been used by well-intentioned actors to demand climate justice, by galvanising calls for extending protections under international rights frameworks. But this human wave is typically understood to move from the global South toward the relative safety of the global North, playing into existing worries over migration, deepening fear and insecurity, and calling forth the spectre of race.
The positioning of climate migration as a threat persists due to a lack of understanding of the links between climate change and migration, and overly simplistic ideas of the dangers posed by the joining of these two factors. It is imperative that we counter this trend by delving deeper into what we mean by “climate migration”, and by bringing to light the dangers of uncritically accepting the discourse of threat. These are the tasks which I will begin here.
The complexity of climate migration is so great that there is disagreement on the appropriate term for characterising the phenomenon (I use climate migration for ease of reference). In reality, migration patterns look very different for people who move as a result of sudden-onset natural disasters, compared to those who move due to slow-onset environmental change. Sudden-onset natural disasters (e.g. floods and wildfires) might induce large-scale human movement—Hurricane Katrina displaced more than a million people in the US in 2005—but those affected typically do not move far, returning as soon as they are able. Their intention is to rebuild and resettle once the disaster has passed.
On the other hand, slow-onset changes (e.g. sea level rise or drought) tend to result in more permanent migration, especially when they affect livelihood opportunities. People may also move further from their origin, as they look for suitable alternative livelihoods, but research has shown that communities do not always move en masse. The majority of migration also happens domestically rather than internationally, suggesting that there are many factors at play in the decision to migrate, the forms it takes, and in its timing.
Understanding the different drivers, forms, and temporal scales of climate migration in the context of sudden-onset and slow-onset changes—and adopting an appropriate vocabulary to reflect them—is critical to developing responsive and effective policy interventions.
Such interventions must account for the messy nature of climate migration, which is driven by economic, political, social and demographic forces in addition to environmental ones, and is closely linked to questions of race, gender, class and more. It is rarely possible to isolate a single factor determining a person’s decision and ability to migrate.
The determinism of the late twentieth century, which argued that environmental degradation was directly (and often solely) responsible for migration, has given way in both academia and policy to a more nuanced understanding of the relational aspect of drivers of migration. This development has coincided with the adoption in wider climate discourse of the concepts of vulnerability and adaptive capacity, which form a practical framework by which to measure exposure to climate risk, and predisposition to migrate in the face of climate change.
No longer is climate change seen only in terms of its most extreme (and catastrophic) impacts. Now, communities and households are regarded as potential entrepreneurs, granted opportunities to make the best of environmental degradation by engaging in adaptation strategies, of which migration is one. In one sense, this is a positive development. Migration is no longer seen as a failure to cope with environmental change, but as an active expression of agency. However, individualising adaptation in this way overlooks the wider historical, geopolitical and socioeconomic trends that make some communities and individuals more or less vulnerable than others (and therefore more or less able to adapt). It creates “adaptive” and “maladaptive” subjects, a binary division haunted by echoes of “good” and “bad” migrants.
Without a deep reflection on the conditions that create vulnerability and adaptive capacity—a reflection that must take into account historical responsibility and questions of climate justice—the discourse of climate migration risks fuelling populist notions of climate barbarians pushing at the gates of the developed world. The outcome will be an inevitable militarisation of borders and retreat into nationalism. To counter this, we must interrogate who it is that becomes an “adaptive migrant”, and how. And where does responsibility lie for those deemed unable to adapt? These questions will inevitably lead us down a path toward issues of marginalisation and exploitation based on race, gender, class, and even disability. Treading this path might become a journey of emancipation, but if we instead end our journey at the most superficial level of understanding, climate migration will become the next domain in which we continue to produce inequality and injustice.
Simon Loveday is a student on the MSc Migration, Mobility and Development programme at SOAS. He is currently researching migration in the context of climate change, focusing on how the narratives surrounding the phenomenon impact on our ability to advocate for climate justice. Simon is a passionate climate activist, and a BSAC scuba dive instructor in his spare time at SOAS.