David Durand-Delacre, University of Cambridge; Carol Farbotko, University of the Sunshine Coast; Christiane Fröhlich, German Institute for Global and Territorial Research, and Ingrid Boas, Wageningen University
Predictions of mass climate migration are making headlines that grab attention. For more than two decades, commentators have been predicting “waves” and “rising tides” from people being forced to move by climate change. A think tank report recently warned that the climate crisis could displace 1.2 billion people by 2050. Some commentators are now even arguing that the climate refugees, as the New York Times recently noted in the headline “The Great Climate Migration Has Begun,” warned us that we are indeed here.
These alarming statements are often well meant. Its aim is to raise awareness of the plight of people affected by climate change and to motivate humanitarian action on their behalf. However, such headings are not always accurate – and rarely have the intended effect.
Our main concern is that alarming headlines about mass climate migrations can lead to more walls, not fewer. Indeed, many right and far right are now lifting their climate denialism and linking climate protection measures with ideas of territory and ethnic purity. In this context of growing climate nationalism, even the well-intentioned narratives risk feeding fear-based invasion stories if they portray climate migration as unprecedented and massive, urgent and destabilizing.
The risk only gets worse when headlines point to racialized populations from the global south en route to the European Union, the US or Australia: places already in moral panic about migration.
We do not deny that climate change affects migration. We cannot ignore the damage done to communities around the world by rising sea levels, worsening droughts, and catastrophic forest fires. These pose new and serious challenges that we must grapple with. However, the above narratives are misleading and damaging when the concept of human mobility requires a deeper and more nuanced approach. It is important that we take these harsh realities seriously, but avoid being too alarming or seeing everything as climate-controlled.
In general, we are concerned about the inaccurate representation of migration. People have always moved under the combined influences of changing environments, economies, and sociopolitical dynamics. Climate migration is neither new nor extraordinary. It's not even that different from other forms of migration – climate migrants still tend to move to places they know or connect through their social networks.
These are key aspects of the idea of “climate mobility” that we developed in a commentary on natural climate with 31 co-authors, including anthropologists, geographers and political scientists. We point out that mobility in the context of climate change is very different – what the extensive empirical studies on this topic have shown is very different from the picture of mass movements of people moving abroad.
Instead, we see very diverse and fragmented climate-related trips. For example, climate mobility can take the form of short-term movements over short distances, migration from country to city or voluntary immobility. Contrary to the alarmist rhetoric of international mass migration, most movements are not about crossing borders. For example, a million Somalis were internally displaced by a drought in 2016-17 – dwarfing the number of people involved in international climate migration.
The drought of 2016 also displaced hundreds of thousands of people in Ethiopia – but here too, almost all of them stayed in the country. UNICEF Ethiopia, CC BY-NC-SA
In order to fully understand climate mobilities, a broader evidence base than is normally used is required. Many problematic narratives are largely quantitative modeling and only read people's experiences through this lens. Greater research collaboration with the social sciences and humanities would improve our understanding, as these disciplines can offer a sensitivity to context that models alone will never achieve.
Affected people tell their own stories
If we turn to a more diverse perspective, those affected need to be included. They are already telling their own stories in their own words. It is important that we listen, especially when they contradict our research and personal intuitions. For example, hearing from islanders in the Pacific tells us that simple stories about "sinking islands" are not the whole story. Activists across the region have distilled their message of themselves as powerful actors in the fight for climate justice (and against climate migration) in the Catchcry: "We don't drown, we fight".
"We don't drown, we fight," said Carol Farbotko, author
Halfway around the world, interviews with young farmers in Senegal who live in precarious situations have shown that while climate change is threatening their livelihoods, it is not their main concern and they do not see migration as a problem. They want stronger local government, more local economic opportunity, and the ability to migrate regardless of the cause, if it can mean better lives for them and their families.
Finally, research and reporting on climate migration need to take better account of target areas. Policy makers across the global north are notoriously unable and reluctant to consider the complex realities of migration until they sometimes disregard the research they fund. Instead, they justify anti-immigration measures such as Britain's “hostile environment” by portraying the interests and desires of the “native” population in competition with those of the newcomers.
These narratives of inevitable economic and cultural conflicts must be challenged. For this we can fall back on extensive work that shows that migrants are not all rich and successful or poor and excluded and that successful projects take these differences into account, migrants listen themselves and promote an open dialogue with established population groups.
Building an open, diverse and accepting society in times of crisis and change is a difficult task. We should be careful not to make it harder by promoting fear-based stories about climate migration.
David Durand-Delacre, PhD student in geography, University of Cambridge; Carol Farbotko, Human Geographer, University of the Sunshine Coast; Christiane Fröhlich, research assistant at the German Institute for Global and Regional Research, and Ingrid Boas, associate professor at Wageningen University
This article is republished by The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.