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date: 24 April 2017

Climate Change and Migration

This is an advance summary of a forthcoming article in the Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Climate Science. Please check back later for the full article.

A fast growing body of academic literature, countless reports by governmental institutions and NGOs, and strong media interest all demonstrate how politically and emotionally charged is the discussion on how climate change is driving human migration. This discussion raises issues that go to the heart of social and environmental justices and developments in the 21st century.

Since the 1990s, research has been dominated by issues around the prediction of future migration trends and numbers, the so-called minimalist vs. maximalist debate, and discussions of the terminology relating to environmental migration and refugees. The appropriateness of migration as an adaptive response to climate change and ways of measuring and identifying direct interrelationships between environmental change and migration decisions have been heatedly discussed. Many of these questions remain unanswered, and their lingering persistence makes most scholars cautious of making such direct links. Instead, current research tends to focus on how the complex and multiple mechanisms forcing migration processes, as well as more voluntary or even emancipative projects, are nonetheless linked to environmental change.

From the outset, the debate has embraced legal aspects relating to questions of voluntary or forced migration and safeguards for the rights of environmental migrants. Discussion has considered options for new treaties connected to the 1951 Refugee Convention or to the UNFCCC (United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change) treaties, which would offer better protection for internal (e.g., The Peninsula Principles) and international (e.g., the Nansen Initiative) migrants alike. So far these efforts have evolved in the realm of soft law and largely policy-oriented approaches, such as declarations and initiatives. Rights-based solutions for environmental migrants that go beyond humanitarian duties have not emerged.

Climate change can cause slow-onset degradation, such as sea-level rise and changing weather patterns, but also acute disruptions, such as droughts, floods, and severe storms. Owing to their geographies and natural environments, but also due to their densely populated coasts, some regions of the world are particularly vulnerable to climate change. New strategies for current and future environmental migrants in places such as Bangladesh, Africa, and the Pacific region need to be found. Climate justice often plays an important role in these negotiation processes, and the solutions found could be of interest for other regions.

Recent debates have taken up the theoretical impetus emerging from analyses of the discourse of climate change migration, from challenges to power relations in general, and the relationship between knowledge and power in particular. Some researchers advocate a re-politicization of the debate and contest the image of passive victims frequently associated with the “drowning” climate change migrant; they criticize the alarmist voices that may trigger perceived security interests of the countries of the Global North. Postcolonial perspectives and critical theories are utilized to analyze facets of the debate that have racist, de-politicizing, or naturalizing tendencies or that exoticize the “other.”