Paper publication on the discourse of climate change and human mobility.
30 Sep 2016

Should we be concerned over the impacts that climate change could have on human mobility? For many, the answer is affirmative. And given the anxieties that currently surround both migration and climate change, it is hardly surprising that the concept of climate refugees has gained prominence. Conveying the idea that global warming (through desertification, drought, sea level rise and extreme weather events) could cause large-scale displacement in several regions, the figure of the climate refugee offers a compelling although problematic visualization of the dramatic impacts that climate change might have on human societies and on migration.

Photo Credit: Jitendra Raj Bajracharya

Lately, a number of less alarmist framings have gained ground and offer alternative understandings of how environmental and climate changes interact with human mobility –including the idea that migration might be a legitimate adaptation strategy. While this evolution has favored a defusing of tones – at least in academic and policy arenas – and facilitated a convinced engagement by the migration and development communities , the political and normative implications of the competing framings of the climate-migration nexus are still understudied.

A paper recently published in ‘The Geographical Journal’ addresses this gap. With co-authors Giovanni Bettini(Lancaster University), and Sarah Louise Nash (University of Hamburg), Giovanna Gioli (Livelihoods Adaptation Specialist at ICIMOD and team member of HI-AWARE) turns to the competing framings and interrogates how and whether they pose the question of (in)justice and responsibility in the face of the impacts of climate change.

The starting point of the paper is that the concept of climate refugees is flawed. As numerous studies have highlighted, it builds on a simplistic understanding of the interaction between ecological conditions and socio-economic processes; it reproduces environmental determinism and alarmism on migration; and it segregates those vulnerable to climate change in the role of voice- and agency-less victims. Therefore, if compared to the specter of climate refugees, the idea of migration as adaptation can be seen as a positive development. It does not resonates with the recent alarmist and securitized discourses on migration. And by praising remittances as source of funding for household and community resilience, it might contribute emphasizing migrants’ (economic) agency as well as the active roles vulnerable populations have in fostering climate adaptation.

Photo Credit:  Jitendra Raj Bajracharya

However, the article argues that, when read as an emanation of the widespread discourse on resilience, the narrative on migration as adaptation appears less benign. Indeed, it effectively moves the burden of responsibility from large emitters and States, to the individual migrant’s shoulders – as a good entrepreneur of herself, she has to resort to her ability to compete in and benefit from labour markets. The idea of migration as adaptation, replicating broader discourses on resilience, risks displacing justice claims in favour of a depoliticized, individualized and market-based idea of adaptation. The authors conclude by warning over the risk that this removal of structural injustices from the way in which the climate–migration nexus is understood could be symptomatic of a broader shrinking of the grounds for posing the question of climate justice. To find out more, please access a copy of the paper here.