Human migration as climate adaptation

28 January, 2014

Questions raised by the recent event on migration and climate change at the Overseas Development Institute (ODI).

What  links climate change and migration? How can we measure the number of environmental refugees both now and in the future? How can we respond to this growing issue when refugee crises on smaller scales already present such challenges? These were the kinds of difficult questions raised by the recent event on migration and climate change at the Overseas Development Institute (ODI).

The evidence is clear that the people most vulnerable to climate change are equally the least equipped to respond, and that climate change makes migration “more probable but less possible”. This ODI event went further and posed the question: can migration instead be a means of climate change adaptation?

Professor Dominic Kniveton made the case that research should move beyond an emphasis on vulnerability and instead focus on how migration can work for climate adaptation – as an “option” rather than a “threat”. His research illuminates the complex patterns of the causal relationships between environmental change and migration, which need to be better understood at the micro-level to make migration beneficial.

On the flip side, H.E. Mohamed Mijarul Quayes, the High Commissioner of Bangladesh, stated frankly that up to 25 million people being forced from their homes by sea level rise in Bangladesh can hardly be seen as “opportunity”, but rather “displacement, pure and simple”. He raised the example of Kiribati, whose very sovereignty is threatened by sea level rise. Kiribati’s “Migrate with Dignity” relocation programme throws the scale of Northern mitigation and adaptation programmes into stark relief.

Research in Bangladesh has gone some way towards increasing resilience, for example developing salt-resistant crops to cope with sea level rise. However, the High Commissioner was refreshingly candid about the bigger challenge of dealing with the range of international policy responses to climate change – that it is “here and now, here but not now, or now but not here”. He suggested that migration stemming from climate change, particularly across international borders, may need to be linked in to the securitisation agenda to really get governments taking it seriously.

One highlight was the Moving Stories report presented by the Climate Outreach and Information Network. Its testimonies from migrants affected by climate change show some migrants adopting innovative adaptation strategies, but more often demonstrate the tragedy of migration – as a response to the near impossibility of adaptation. Common to all such migrants is a lack of any formal government or international protection. The report thus makes a compelling case for a legal instrument to secure rights for people internally displaced or forced abroad because of climate change.

The discussion at the event also suggested that scientific research has a role to play. Research needs to better understand “tacit knowledge” influencing the behaviour of those who migrate. It needs to examine how the environmental drivers of migration relate to the broader political, economic and social determinants of migration, particularly with regard to gender. Researchers in urban planning need to think ahead to the infrastructure demands which will be placed on cities in the event of mass migration due to climate change.

Overall the message seems to be that migration could indeed be a means of adaptation – admittedly one that is imposed rather than chosen – but only through more evidence and longitudinal research which can inform national and international policy.

Is this page helpful?

Related Content