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The Centre for the Study of Global Human Movement


By David Durand-Delacre


Workers building a new sea wall near Bonriki International Airport, Kiribati, Tarawa. Though inhabitants of low-lying islands are often identified as "the first climate refugees" many are wary of migration and much prefer local adaptations that would enable them to remain. Photo credit: Lauren Day/World Bank via Climate Visuals


Part I: Breaking down common misconceptions

Over the past couple of decades, predictions of mass climate migrations across borders have become increasingly common. While there is no doubt that climate change is impacting patterns of human movement around the world, there is growing concern among academics that this relationship has thus far been discussed in terms too narrow to guide meaningful responses. In this short piece, I describe contributions from the emerging field of ‘climate mobilities’, which aims to provide much-needed nuance and complexity to discussions of ‘climate migration’.

Predictions of climate migration tend to be presented in dramatic and worrying terms. This is most visible in news reporting. For example, a New York Times Magazine / ProPublica feature recently warned that the “Great Climate Migration” has already begun. The press also made much noise about the Ecological Threat Register 2020. This report estimates that climate change, ecological threats, and related conflicts over resources will displace 1.2 billion people by 2050. The Ecological Threat Register also predicts that mass movements will affect “social cohesion and political stability” in North America, Europe, and Australia. Reading these accounts, one gets a sense that large numbers of people will flee their homes, spreading conflict and chaos with them.

On a superficial level, such claims seem sensible. We undoubtedly live in a time of climate crisis. The impacts of climate change are already severe for many communities. Sea-level rise is forcing populations living on low-lying islands and in coastal areas to consider relocating their homes. The livelihoods of many farmers are threatened by increasingly unpredictable and extreme weather patterns. And it is not just rural populations in the Global South who face threats to their homes and livelihoods, though they are among those most vulnerable. Areas susceptible to sea-level rise also include some of the world’s largest cities like Shanghai, Miami, and Rio de Janeiro. 2020 was the hottest year on record in Europe and saw raging wildfires in the United States and Australia, prompting some commentators to speak of now homeless US citizens as “climate refugees”. These dynamics will likely worsen unless drastic actions are taken, and even then, further change is inevitable. In these conditions, it makes intuitive sense to assume that some people will voluntarily choose to leave their homes in search of a safer climate.

And yet, it is misleading to suggest that climate change will be the only or even the dominant cause of migration. The emerging field of ‘climate mobilities’ seeks to develop a more nuanced understanding of the situated ways in which individuals and communities decide to migrate or stay home. It asks us to go beyond superficial, ‘common sense’ statements about climate migration. The mobilities approach emphasises (1) that migration is a multi-causal process that cannot be explained by climate change alone; and (2) that human mobilities take many different forms, not all of which are permanent and linear. It also specifically notes (3) that most migrants do not cross international borders.

First, migration is a multi-causal process.  It is the product of a mix of cultural, socio-economic, political, and environmental factors. In this view, singling out one factor, whether “the climate”, “the economy”, or any other, risks ignoring crucial aspects of people’s decisions to migrate. The experiences of young Senegalese farmers underline this point. While climate change does affect their livelihoods, they do not cite it as a cause of their own precarity. When asked about the reasons for their departure, they point to other causes. The changes they seek are relieving “debt, discriminatory public policy, distorted markets, and social conditions hostile to farmers staying at home”, all treatable causes that do not require climate action.

Second, we cannot assume that climate migration will be massive, permanent, or linear. In fact, migration in the context of climate change takes many forms. Research has shown that climate mobilities can be short-term or long-term, but also circular or seasonal. Individuals and communities react in diverse ways to similar environmental changes. In some cases, people who wish to migrate might find themselves trapped, unable to leave. Others are reluctant to move away from their homes even as their lives become increasingly precarious and uncertain. In the Marshall Islands, for example, a large majority of residents are wary of migration. They argue it negatively impacts Marshallese culture and offers only uncertain benefits.

Third, we cannot assume futures migrations will cross borders. In fact, displaced people tend to stay within their own country. Those who do leave tend to stay in neighbouring states and rarely reach countries in the Global North. For example, IOM data on West African migration for 2017-2018 suggests 95% of migrants remain within the region. When they do migrate internationally, their travels tend to follow complex trajectories. The trip from Sub-Saharan Africa to Europe is dangerous and expensive, often punctuated by long periods of waiting. Many are kidnapped, enslaved, tortured, or raped on the way. Unknown numbers die in the desert, while we know at least 20 000 have drowned in the Mediterranean. When we read articles that focus on the minority of people who reach Europe, citing climate change as the key cause of their migration, we can lose sight of this reality.

Predictions of impending mass climate migrations are also concerning insofar as they are easily used to fuel xenophobic rhetoric and anti-immigration agendas. The closing of borders – now a feature of a world in the grips of a pandemic – has long been a reality for migrants who seek fortune or refuge in countries richer than their own. Throughout the Western world, governments’ commitments to asylum are waning and migrants’ rights are being eroded. There are over 1000km of border walls in Europe. Australia has instituted a system of offshore prison camps. In France and elsewhere, police forces are used to violently harass homeless asylum seekers as a matter of policy. In the UK, Home Office Secretary Priti Patel has openly denigrated immigration lawyers as “do-gooders” for doing their job of protecting the legal rights to vulnerable people, even as her department pursues “hostile environment” policies that several reports have found deprive people of their rights, force many into poverty, and foster racism and discrimination. Pushing for climate action is a laudable aim, but, in such a context, using the fear of climate migration for this purpose is to play a dangerous game.

In short, a mobilities perspective permits a more contextualised, multi-faceted and non-linear understanding of the complex relationships between migration and climate change. It recentres people’s daily realities in narratives that are about them and explores how these experiences are embedded within wider dynamics on local, national and global scales. Ultimately, and contrary to dramatic accounts of mass climate migration, it helps counter the fear-based, security-oriented narratives and policies that are so damaging to all migrants, regardless of the cause of their migration.


"End of the world, end of month: change the system, not the climate": waves of protest in France since 2018 have seen increasing discussions between climate and solidarity activists about how the movements can converge Picture credit: Jules Xénard via Wikimedia Commons


Part II: Decolonising narratives, research, and activism

In the first part of this primer on climate migration, I showed how problematic climate migration narratives are when they predict climate change will force mass international movements of people. Where do we go from there? From my vantage point as a climate mobilities researcher, I see three positive steps to address the climate crisis and its links with migration in a manner that protects the rights of affected individuals and communities. In this short piece, I argue that we need to change our narratives, our research practices, and our activism on climate migration. My own research, which is ongoing, focuses on how actors in France have apprehended ‘climate migration’ over the last two decades. In my interviews with NGO representatives, politicians, civil servants and politicians, questions of justice and responsibility repeatedly come to the fore. Though the theoretical underpinnings of my thesis lie elsewhere, I am increasingly beginning to think of these questions in terms of decolonisation.

Decolonisation is a reckoning with history, especially past injustices, the effects of which reverberate as present inequalities. As a mode of action, decolonisation is a challenge to established institutional hierarchies and power structures. It brings questions of justice and responsibility to the fore. It requires more transparency, more reflexiveness, and more dialogue. Decolonisation requires new spaces for previously silenced voices to speak and be listened to. Ultimately, it is about changing power relations, as historically oppressed peoples gain back power and agency over their own fates and narratives, as well as an equal voice in the processes of democratic representation and civil action. Many of my interviewees with French NGOs, and researchers like myself, are only in the early stages of thinking through these questions. Some are reluctant to address them at all. I argue it is vital that we do and suggest here a few practical ways forward.  

Decolonising narratives

We need to change how we tell stories about climate migration. To do this, the voices of communities impacted by climate change need to be front and centre. This need not always be difficult. In many cases, they are already telling their own stories. In the Pacific, indigenous activists hailing from so-called “sinking islands” in archipelagic nations like Kiribati, Tuvalu, or Fiji, are challenging the views of outsiders. They do not want to be treated as victims of climate change, supposedly hapless in the face of a fate beyond their control. Instead, they demand that western states face up to their responsibilities. They point to rich countries’ contributions to cumulative greenhouse gas emissions, but also to their long history of treating colonised islanders as experimental subjects, notably through the testing of nuclear weapons on their lands. They demand action on climate change mitigation and support in their endeavour to adapt to new conditions at home. The Pacific Climate Warriors summarise this position in a simple slogan: “We are not drowning, we are fighting”.

Listening to people’s concerns in this way really underlines the disconnect between their experiences and narratives that present ‘climate migration’ as the sign of a coming apocalypse. The Potawatomi scholar and activist Kyle P. Whyte reminds us that many Indigenous peoples have “already endured one or many more apocalypses”, often at the hands of colonisers. Climate change is yet another assault on their ways of life. It is the continuation of an ongoing series of crises caused by colonialism and other forms of domination. Narratives which assume that climate migration is somehow exceptional and unprecedented risks erasing these realities. They also risk ignoring that Indigenous peoples have their own ways of making sense of and acting on their current predicaments.

Decolonising research

Recentring the voices of affected populations in climate migration debates is not just a matter of storytelling. It also requires changes to academic research. Giving local communities a voice requires early and sustained engagement with them at all stages of research and communication. Participation cannot be an afterthought.

Back in March 2020, community leaders from four Alaskan tribal organisations made a clear case for this in a letter to the US National Science Foundation (NSF). It is worth reading in full, but in brief, their diagnosis is simple: “We continue to lack meaningful access and voice in the vast landscape that is the ‘research process’”. They point to several inadequacies in the NSF’s funding process. The grants, they say, are going to researchers “who do not have meaningful connections in the Arctic communities” and who often approach tribal organisations at the last minute with ready-made proposals for which they only seek a local seal of approval. That is if they approach them at all, leading to “disappointing and inefficient” duplications with community-led projects. These problems are not the NSF’s alone. They are common across funding bodies and academia.

But there are solutions. The same letter provides recommendations specific to Alaska, but many are broadly applicable. Research projects can and should define their research questions in conjunction with local people. Funders can set aside more money for projects led by local knowledge-holders, and not just the ones who have earned a PhD. They can work to simplify highly time-consuming application processes. They can employ indigenous peer reviewers and judge projects according to transparent metrics that consider engagement with and impact on local communities.  

Decolonising research also means pursuing a wider diversity of methods than are currently used. There is currently an over-emphasis on quantitative studies that seek to predict the size and direction of migrants’ movements. These methods garner the most policy and media attention. In fact, sometimes a number is the only thing that really makes it into the news, as happened to the World Bank’s 2019 Groundswell report. For all its technical sophistication, it was often reduced to just one headline finding: “143 million people could soon be displaced by climate change”. While researchers cannot control news reports on their work, they can de-emphasise the importance of numbers, and point to the value of other forms of knowledge instead. Better headlines might simply invite deeper reflection, asking for example “How helpful is the term ‘climate refugee’?”, or they might acknowledge the inherent uncertainty behind sensational predictions.

Better research into climate mobilities requires greater participation, but also a renewed emphasis on qualitative analysis, especially via methods that can relate impacted populations’ understanding of their own situations, such as ethnography. Since the demand for numbers is likely to stay, more mixed methods also need to be developed. The problematic assumptions of quantitative models can be challenged and contextualised by ’grounding’ big data or using Q-methodology to integrate local populations’ perceptions and opinions on migration and environmental change into the analysis.  

Decolonising activism

Finally, my research with French NGOs is showing that climate and solidarity movements need to engage more in dialogue and collaboration. They are currently too disconnected. The academic Malcom Ferdinand speaks of sympathies-sans-liens to describe French environmentalists’ relationship to colonial history and antiracist movements. The term, meaning sympathies-without-ties, describes how the French climate movement, while it acknowledges the suffering of black and other racialised groups in France and its overseas territories, does so without drawing explicit links to France’s colonial past. It not only ignores the experiences of oppressed colonised subjects, but also that environmental destruction was a key feature of colonialism against which they have long stood up against.  This problem was also recently made clear in the UK in discussions about race, privilege, and representation in the Extinction Rebellion. Critics pointed to a visible lack of diversity in the movement. They also highlighted the largely unacknowledged privilege of engaging in a strategy of civil disobedience that consists in seeking mass arrests.

The good news is that many climate activists are re-evaluating the climate emergency narratives that so often rely on presenting climate migration as a threat. Though a minority of the population still clings to climate denialism, it seems to be on the wane. This leaves more space for climate activists to focus on other things than battling sceptics. In the past year, the worldwide impact of the Black Lives Matter movement has also brought racial issues to the attention of many environmentalists. One concrete example of this evolution is the Framing Climate Justice research project, led by the global grassroots climate campaign, recently investigated different messaging strategies, all aimed at convincing the British public of the need for climate justice. It concluded that activists should not rely on an emergency narrative, which has often backfired, making people “more likely to say climate change has no impact on existing injustices”. They concluded that solidarity, rather than emergency, would provide a more effective basis for future messaging.

There are also signs that climate, international solidarity, and anti-racism movements are building ties with one another. In France, recent protests have brought them together under joint slogans such as “Fin du mois, fin du monde: même combat” (“End of the month, end of the world: same fight”) and “On veut respirer” (“We want to breathe”). The NGO collective Des Ponts pas des Murs (“Bridges, not Walls”) is currently mapping NGO perceptions of environmental migration, to explore whether this topic might serve as a useful convergence of movements.[1] Much remains to be done before these growing alignments translate into effective joint action, but the signs are encouraging.


Creating new ties and forging new collaborations can be difficult, especially when we ask this of people who have little time and resources to spare. Mastering dialogue facilitation and participatory processes takes training. Re-evaluating established beliefs and practices can be challenging. Even then, there is no guarantee that policymakers will listen. Migration scholars know from experience that their research is often disregarded even by the institutions funding it.

Decolonisation in practice, however, provides an opportunity for researchers, journalists, and activists to think and work through these challenges. This work appears all the more important given that climate migration debates today are marked by what Sarah L. Nash describes as a “self-perpetuating circle of research, policy, and knowledge production”. This circle privileges the views of a small elite in academia and international organisations and omits the voices of people whose mobilities may be affected by climate change. Decolonisation offers one way out, expanding the boundaries of who can legitimately speak about climate migration, and recentring the debate around inputs from communities impacted by climate change. 


[1] As a necessary disclosure, I am currently sitting on the advisory committee for this study.