A world on the move

We need to shift our thinking when it comes to climate change migration

Carol Farbotko, Celia McMichael, Olivia Dun, Hedda Ransan-Cooper, Karen E McNamara, Fanny Thornton

Development, Environment & energy, Government and governance | The Pacific, The World

14 September 2018

If we’re to address the migration challenges posed by climate change, we need to stop seeing human mobility itself as the problem, Carol Farbotko, Celia McMichael, Olivia Dun, Hedda Ransan-Cooper, Karen McNamara and Fanny Thornton write.

Human mobility associated with climate change is a growing global reality. Far from a simple equation of climate change impacts + displaced people = human and international security risk, the picture is much more complex. Climate migration is interwoven with broader processes of urbanisation, land use transitions, globalisation, post-colonial relations, border regimes, carbon economies, adaptation to climate change, indigeneity, and sustainable development.

In this context, we suggest policymakers need fresh ideas, both to understand the phenomenon of human mobility associated with climate change and address its challenges.  

This task begins by questioning assumptions that see people on the move as a problem to be solved. Human mobility, as well as the mobility of ideas, money, and goods, are defining features of everyday life in a globalised world.

In mobilities theory, there is no orderly, sedentarist world in which migration counts as a transgression. Rather, the world is a complex system already in flux. With this understanding, we should direct more fruitful attention to the agency and wellbeing of mobile people and less on what ‘causes’ people to move.

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Mobility, however, is not necessarily welcome or fair.

A mobilities approach to climate migration seeks to analyse how changes in mobility can bring about social, economic and environmental goals. This approach can connect the dots across the multiple sites and scales of mobility, particularly to advance human rights and human security in a changing climate, as stipulated in the draft Global Compact for Migration.

Our perspective is called ‘transformative mobilities. It eschews the commonly used terms ‘climate change migration’ and ‘displacement’, which tend to be unhelpful when it comes to understanding the globalised, in-flux world in which human migration occurs.

Work to achieve ‘transformative mobilities’ involves finding ways to support mobility that contributes to community, national and regional development, and climate change adaptation objectives, in both origin and destination sites.

To achieve this, we need to place cultural identities, histories, human rights, and climate and development justice as priorities for policy and planning. For this approach to work, we must strive for participatory governance, thereby making the perspectives of at-risk mobile people themselves front and centre in policy decisions.

In our approach, human mobility in a changing climate is not premised as a problem in and of itself. On the other hand, we recognise that some types of mobility entail considerable risk and hardship, particularly involuntary and illegal migration.

Mobility-related challenges and risks can arise, for example, when destination areas are overcrowded or environmentally degraded, or where transit routes are dangerous. Yet being mobile can also provide opportunities for livelihood diversification, remittances, and adaptation to climate change across multiple sites.

In the Pacific Islands, populations are individually and communally responding to climate risk in various ways.

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Most are consciously choosing to stay put for reasons of spiritual and cultural resilience. Others in some low-lying homes and villages are relocating away from sites of coastal erosion and flooding. Some are choosing international labour migration to enhance their livelihood prospects, which can also create untapped opportunities for adapting to climate change challenges.

Others are still anxious about their future in the face of increasing climate change risks. Such people may benefit from participating in culturally sensitive policy and planning processes that empower them to make difficult choices.

‘Transformative mobilities’ accommodates each of these responses. In contexts where spiritual, cultural and historical attachments to place are disrupted, mobility can result in significant loss of culture, religion, and identity. Such losses can be extremely significant, whether people are moving across a bay, up a hill, or to a new country.

This approach can help to create space for populations themselves, in partnership with external planning and humanitarian agencies, to identify ways to minimise losses, including, for some, the prospect of voluntary immobility.

For those most at risk from climate change, deciding whether to stay or go can be a difficult choice. For policymakers, deciding to stop seeing human mobility itself as the problem should not be nearly so difficult.

This piece is based on the authors’ article in the Asia & the Pacific Policy Studies journal, Transformative mobilities in the Pacific: promoting adaptation and development in a changing climate. All papers in the journal are free to read and download.

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