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date: 01 May 2017

Climate Change and Migration

Summary and Keywords

The topic of climate change and migration attracts a strong following from the media and produces an increase in academic literature and reports from international governmental institutions and NGOs. It poses questions that point to the core of social and environmental developments of the 21st century, such as environmental and climate justice as well as North–South relations.

This article examines the main features of the debate and presents a genealogy of the discussion on climate change and migration since the 1980s. It presents an analysis of different framings and lines of argument, such as the securitization of climate change and connections to development studies and adaptation research. This article also presents methodological and conceptual questions, such as how to conceive interactions between migration and climate change. As legal aspects have played a crucial role since the beginning of the debate, different legal strands are considered here, including soft law and policy-oriented approaches. These approaches relate to questions of voluntary or forced migration and safeguarding the rights of environmental migrants.

This article introduces theoretical concepts that are prompted by analyzing climate change as an “imaginative resource” and by questioning power relations related to climate-change discourses, politics, and practices. This article recommends a re-politicization of the debate, questions the often victimizing, passive picture of the “drowning” climate-change migrant, and criticizes alarmist voices that can trigger perceived security interests of countries of the Global North. Decolonizing and critical perspectives analyze facets of the debate that have racist, depoliticizing, or naturalizing tendencies or exoticize the “other.”

Keywords: climate change, migration, refugees, climate justice, adaptation, resilience, vulnerability, securitization, law, soft law, Pacific region


Today, many environmental issues can be responsible for displacement. They are usually grouped according to temporal dynamics. Distinctions exist between slow-onset environmental changes, such as desertification, sea-level rise, and soil degradation, and rapid-onset changes, such as tropical cyclones, heavy rains and floods, and disasters such as earthquakes and volcanic eruptions. As most researchers agree, the main environmental factors that can cause displacement and will become more significant in the coming years due to anthropogenic climate change are the increased strength and frequency of storms and floods, droughts and desertification, and sea-level rise (IOM, 2014, p. 38; Piguet et al., 2011, p. 6). Experts expect the effects of a warming world and more frequent extreme weather events to exacerbate already existing vulnerabilities, mainly in the global South, in the realm of food security, health issues, and fresh water supply (IOM, 2014, p. 38). Furthermore, sea-level rise can make coastal areas and low-lying islands uninhabitable. However, the ways in which these environmental phenomena and environmental changes will interact with population movements and individual migration projects are being debated. Although climate-change migration is a rapidly expanding research field, the links between environmental change and migration remain under investigation (IOM, 2014, p. 28).

Climate change and migration as a research topic emerged in the 1980s. The debate connects an enormous variety of actors involved inside and outside academia. Natural scientists, social scientists, public institutions and governments, NGOs, and international organizations are publishing and contributing to the debate on the links between climate change and migration. This leads to a vast heterogeneity of perspectives. All of these actors bring their own intellectual histories, paradigms, methodologies, and interests to the discussion. This vast intersection also leads to very different attempts to frame and conceptualize the phenomenon of climate change migration, to inconsistent terminology, and to debates on methodology and scientific rigor. The main divide in the academic field is the division between natural science and social science. This divide, among others, is caused by tension between the wish to create general models that can illustrate the phenomenon of climate-induced migration and the difficulties of grasping the complexity of human mobility and of migration decision-making (Hastrup & Fog Olwig, 2012, p. 7). Migration researchers with a social science background provide a perspective that underlines the complexity of migration decisions and of human mobility.

Since it began in the 1980s, the debate on climate change and migration has been a forum for heated political discussions because of the aforementioned different interests and heterogeneous perspectives to which it is linked and because it touches upon questions that are of worldwide importance, such as the North–South divide, environmental justice, and global solidarity (White, 2011; Bettini, 2014; Klepp & Herbeck, 2016). This debate also challenges fundamental concepts of our societies, such as nationhood and citizenship, as climate change seems to put whole nation states at risk.

How powerful the discourse on anthropogenic climate change can become, especially the debate surrounding climate change migrants—often referred to as the “human face of climate change” (Gemenne, 2011, p. 225)—has been underlined by different researchers. Daniels et al. emphasize that since the publication of the first Assessment report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) in 1990, anthropogenic climate change has increasingly become the worldwide “big story” (Daniels & Endfield, 2009, p. 215). In the course of this development, the global South has increasingly become “the locus of Western moral concern” (Cosgove quoted in Daniels & Endfield, 2009, p. 216). Hastrup and Fog Olwig present a variety of social and scientific interpretations and meanings connected to climate and climate change. Together with Mike Hulme, Hastrup encourages us to address and analyze climate change as an “imaginative resource shaping collective and personal projects” (Hastrup & Fog Olwig, 2012, p. 2) to imagine collective futures rather than seeing climate change as the “greatest problem facing humanity” (ibid.). Thus, in addition to providing an overview of the most important discussion points of the debate on climate change and migration, this article also presents several underrepresented perspectives. Perspectives on the topic that are alarmist or connect climate change and climate-change migration closely to discussions of security or “millions of climate refugees” and North–South cross-border migration seem to dominate the debates at the beginning of the 21st century. However, most empirical findings amount to less drastic results, and less catastrophic or victimizing approaches should support the search for viable solutions for current and future environmental migrants. Discussing climate change also as an “imaginative resource” (Hastrup & Fog Olwig, 2012, p. 2) for our collective futures, and acknowledging historical responsibilities for anthropogenic climate change and global solidarity could strengthen the search for opportunities and solutions for environmental migrants that are emancipative, migration friendly, and that take climate justice aspects into account (Klepp & Herbeck, 2016). Regional negotiation processes on environmental migration going on in the Pacific region are a good example in this regard, and discussion of these processes appears at the end of this article.

The following article comprises five sections and a conclusion. After the introduction, the second section briefly presents the main features of the topic. The third section illustrates the developments of discussions since the 1980s. The fourth section provides insight into current research and methodologies. As the protection of environmental migrants through legal or political instruments is an important feature of the debate, section five presents different approaches to safeguard environmental migrants. The article concludes with an outlook on some research desiderata and recent research perspectives in the field of climate change and migration.

Setting the Scene: Environmental Change, Climate Change, and Human Mobility

Due to anthropogenic climate change, experts expect the strength and frequency of storms and floods, droughts and desertification, and sea-level rise to increase. Experts also expect environmental developments to cause migration and displacement. Regarding more exact predictions, there is disagreement on estimated numbers of environmental and climate migrants in the early 21st century and in the future. Some question the sense of such estimations altogether (Nicholson, 2011); others see them as tools to build illegitimate horror scenarios (Castles, 2002). Either way, numbers are a main feature in the public debate. They can lead to more “restrictive attitudes towards migration and (. . .) to a militarization of CM [climate migration]” (Bettini, 2014, p. 184). Despite sensational reports that see millions of “climate refugees” moving from the global South to the global North directly driven by climate change in the future, findings of empirical studies are often counterintuitive. The influential 2011 Foresight report by the UK Government Office for Science underlined that environmental change can render individuals or communities even less mobile, as they can become too poor to move. The report speaks of “trapped” populations in this regard (2011, p. 11). Other studies showed that in the aftermath of the tsunami in the Indian Ocean in 2004, the disaster acted as a pull factor rather than a push factor, as relatives moved to the area to support their families and aid and reconstruction projects offered labor for migrant workers (Piguet, Pécoud, & de Guchteneire, 2011, p. 7). These studies show the overall complexity of migration as well as the connection to the respective local and regional contexts. In its 2014 Fifth Assessment Report, the IPCC Working Group II underlined the highly context-specific, mostly multi-causal, and complex nature of environmental migration. The development of socioeconomic factors, adaptation measures, and climate change scenarios plays a main role in this regard. Nonetheless, generally speaking, the IPCC expects an increase in the displacement of people (Nurse & McLean, 2014, p. 20). According to IPCC 2007 (Parry et al., 2007) the regions most affected by climate change are

  • the Arctic, which will be especially affected by global warming;

  • Africa, due to the predicted strong effects of climate change and low adaptation capacity;

  • small islands, mainly due to stronger storms and sea-level rise; and

  • Asian and African mega deltas, which are densely populated, often have low adaption capacity, and are vulnerable to rising sea levels.

Floods caused by tropical storms are typical examples of rapid-onset phenomena that can cause population displacement. With an increase of climate change, the already high numbers of millions displaced every year (CRED & UNISDR, 2016) could grow but are difficult to estimate. In the case of drought, empirical studies give mixed insights: in Northeast Brazil, periodic drought and desertification seem to have contributed to migration between the 1960s and 1980s (Leighton, 2006). Other studies underline that various livelihood and survival strategies have stopped people from migrating in drought areas (Piguet et al., 2011, p. 8).

Experts predict that sea-level rise and higher tides, coastal erosion, and salinization of fresh water reservoirs will affect those people living in low-elevation coastal zones and on small islands. Populations that live at an altitude of less than one meter above sea level could become threatened by a further rise in sea level within a few decades, although it is difficult to foresee exact time frames, and adaptation measures can postpone the necessity to leave (Nurse & McLean, 2014; Donner & Webber, 2014). The fact that some island states, such as Kiribati, Tuvalu, and the Maldives, lie only centimeters above sea level and often lack financial resources for large coastal protection programs shows that they are generally vulnerable to climate change. Regional differences and complex environment–human interactions, such as coastal protection infrastructures, must be taken into consideration, making predictions of future effects of climate change difficult (Donner &Webber, 2014).

In general, at least three main distinctions divide environmental migration, although they are not defined or used systematically Piguet, Pécoud, & de Guchteneire, 2011, p. 15). First, a division exists between short- and long-term displacements. The UN suggests a differentiation between temporary displacement, which is less than three months, short-term migration, which means three months to one year of mobility, and long-term migration, which is more than one year from home. Seasonal migration or cyclic mobility, which can connect, for example, to droughts or flooding, should be taken into consideration as well (United Nations, 1998).

Short- or long-distance migration and the difference between internal migration and the crossing of international borders is another key factor described in the studies on environmental migration. Although researchers agree that internal displacement will play a more important role in the future than migration from the global South to the global North or other international moves (Foresight: Migration and Global Environmental Change, 2011, p. 37; White, 2011, p. 47), many contributions today are studying cross-border migration.

The third and perhaps most-discussed distinction appears between forced and voluntary migration. Hunter sees the various forms of environmental migration “across a continuum from forced to voluntary” (Hunter, 2013, p. 297). Due to the complexity of migration processes and the legal and political implications linked to this distinction, many dispute this aspect in the debate on climate change migration.

One more very important feature regarding discussions on climate change migration is the inconsistent terminology. It is evident, when analyzing different lines of the ongoing debates, that there are fundamentally different perspectives on the topic that lead to conceptual disagreements. In addition to different research approaches and methodologies, the debate has always touched upon the categorization of environmental migrants and on adequate terminology that implies different political and normative standpoints. The following factors are taken into account and are disputed regarding their importance and range: the (inter)dependence of migration decisions and environmental causes, the more or less assumed “voluntary action” or “forced migration,” temporary or permanent migration, and the questions of distances and the crossing of international borders (cf. Zetter, 2011, p. 4). These factors also relate to different viewpoints of how states and the international community should deal with persons affected by environmental migration and are closely connected to the debate on terminology. However, a consistent terminology or common definition is still missing. As Black wrote in 2001: “An initial difficulty in dealing with ‘environmental refugees’, or ‘environmental migrants’, is that there are perhaps as many typologies as there are papers on the subject” (Black, 2001, p. 1). Scholars have criticized terms such as “environmental refugee” or “climate refugee” and “environmental migrant” or “climate migrant” for suggesting environmental change will directly cause migration and for merging this with the concept of political refugees, reducing the complexity of real situations (Upadhyay et al., 2015; Castles, 2002, p. 5; Hastrup & Fog Olwig, 2012, p. 7; Felgentreff, 2015). The International Organization for Migration (IOM) provides a “working definition” of “environmental migrant” that “remains a common point of departure” (White, 2011, p. 29): “Environmental migrants are persons or groups of persons who, for compelling reasons of sudden or progressive changes in the environment that adversely affect their lives or living conditions, are obliged to leave their homes or choose to do so, either temporarily or permanently, and who move either within their country or abroad” (IOM, 2014, p. 6). The monocausality is still given in this definition, however.

The vaguest term that relates migration to environmental change is “environmentally induced migration” or “environmentally induced population movement.” used by the United Nations Environment program (UNEP). Another term often mentioned is “environmentally displaced person” (Zetter, 2011). The term “environmental migrants” is used here to refer to the phenomenon more generally, although in most cases it is used in reference to human mobility in the context of anthropogenic climate change.

Genealogy and Different Framings of the Debate

This section presents the genealogy of the debate on climate change and migration and illustrates the most common narratives connected to it. In addition to some influential actors outside academia, such as think tanks and NGOs, which have influenced the debate, this section shows the most important academic discussion threads. We must critically analyze the development of the discussion on climate change migration and its most important influences, manifold framings, and different narratives, as these factors powerfully shape the public and academic debates and define the categories in which taking action can occur (cf. Dreher & Voyer, 2014).

The Early Years of the Discussion

Until the appearance of the figure of the “environmental refugee” in 1985 (El Hinnawi, 1985), migration studies were shaped by a lack of taking environmental aspects into account—although migration driven by environmental factors has historically been a consistent phenomenon and played an important role in the first scientific migration theories (e.g., Ravenstein, 1885). Between 1985 and 1990, three reports contributed to reconnecting environment and migration and shaped future debates in the media and among policy makers. They also set the scene for understanding environmental migration mostly as climate change migration later in the discussion (Piguet et al., 2011, p. 4).

A United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) paper written by El Hinnawi (1985) first called attention to the term “environmental refugee,” but only a report by Jacobson (1988) for the Worldwatch Institute suggested a concrete number, stating that there were 10 million “environmental refugees” at that time. Jacobson first mentioned the idea that climate change could drive huge population movements and displacement. In addition, strong neo-Malthusian assumptions informed her study (Morrissey, 2012, p. 114) on the impact of drought in the West African Sahel that never totally left the debate. The third of these influential early writings, the first IPCC report in 1990, stated that climate change “could initiate large migrations of people, leading over a number of years to severe disruptions of settlement patterns and social instability in some areas” (IPCC Overview, 1990, p. 55).

Arguing in the same vein, the often-quoted studies published in 1993 from the biodiversity specialist Norman Myers drew a very direct, simplistic link between environmental change and migration. He speculated that up to 25 million “environmental refugees” already existed and predicted an increase to 200 million by 2050 (Myers & Kent, 1995). These figures are currently the most well known in the public debate. Even though they are methodologically problematic and outdated, they are still often quoted (Foresight: Migration and Global Environmental Change, 2011, p. 28; Nicholson, 2011, p. 12).

The early reports that were driven by an agenda of raising awareness for climate change and environmental protection (Nicholson, 2011, p. 10) (mis)used the topic of climate change and migration to give a “human face to climate change” (Gemenne, 2011, p. 225). Until today, an enormous body of “grey” literature has been published on the climate-change migration nexus, which is more or less directly linked to the political agendas of the organizations financing these studies and reports (ibid., p. 228). Unsurprisingly, NGOs and humanitarian organizations often follow alarmist narratives that urge policy makers to “do something about the situation.” Such approaches soon turned climate change, and especially climate change migration, into a security topic.

“Maximalists” versus “Minimalists”

The critique that followed the alarmist voices soon set the scene for a polarized debate known as the “alarmists” versus “skeptics” or “maximalists” versus “minimalists” (Piguet, 2013, p. 154). First described by Suhrke (1994), the “maximalist approach” “tend[s] to extract the environmental variable from a cluster of causes and proclaim the associated out-migration to be the direct result of environmental degradation” (Suhrke, 1994, p. 477). The “minimalist approach,” on the contrary, underlines that migration is a complex, multi-causal phenomenon and “Environmental degradation by itself is not an important cause of migration, nor can it be quantified easily [. . .] to isolate the relative weight of individual variables” (ibid.).

This divide has remained relevant until today, although there seems to be more consensus recently that simplistic linkages between environmental change and migration decisions should be avoided (Piguet, 2013; Hillmann et al., 2015; Klepp & Herbeck, 2016). During the mid-1990s, the response to “alarmist” narratives, which environmental studies scholars primarily wrote, came from social scientists, especially migration researchers. They criticized the estimates as methodologically unsound and argued that migration decisions are far more complex and that there are no indications for environmental changes to be the only cause for migration (Castles, 2002; Black, 2001; Kibreab, 1997; McGregor, 1993). Black stated that one could assume that political and socioeconomic factors are more likely to be reasons for migration. Furthermore, we must also take into consideration the adaptation strategies of different societies in view of environmental changes. Thus, according to Black, it is misleading to talk about environmentally induced migration or climate migrants, and the expressions should therefore not be propagated (Black, 2001). The term environmental refugee was also questioned for its “depoliticizing” effect regarding environmental problems that are most often closely connected to political conflict and to socioeconomic factors (Felgentreff, 2015, p. 41; Piguet, 2013, p. 155; Kibreab, 1997). One concern was also that it would play into the hands of actors that are linking the “floods of migrants” evoked in alarmist estimates to security and border protection debates (Elliott, 2010; Adamo, 2009) and away from mitigation efforts (McNamara & Gibson, 2009, p. 480).


Security threats and rising conflicts through climate change, especially triggered by climate migration movements, were brought up by different reports of the military or national advisory boards by the late 2000s (Wissenschaftlicher Beirat der Bundesregierung Globale Umweltveränderungen [WBGU], 2007, CNA Military Advisory Board, 2007), but also by NGOs (Kolmannskog, 2008; Friends of the Earth Australia, 2007). Some criticize these reports as taking up deterministic perspectives on the climate change and migration nexus informed by a top-down research approach, which neglects the social and cultural context and adaptation possibilities (Findlay & Geddes, 2011). Topographies and maps of so-called hot spots of existing and expected climate-change migration have proven to be powerful assets in the debate on climate-change migration but actually say little about migration processes.

Various authors argue that perspectives underlining security threats triggered by climate change migrants are a significant feature of a broader securitization discourse that depicts climate change as an increasing threat to national security (White, 2011; McDonald, 2013; Herbeck & Flitner, 2010). Here, climate change is illustrated as a threat multiplier that overstretches the adaptive capacity of societies and leads to instability and violence (Oels, 2012, p. 198; Elliott, 2010, p. 179). Writings or reports that expect climate-change migrants to become a security threat often do not consider historical or cultural aspects or differences. Oels claims that one can observe different configurations of security in the debate and even speaks of a “climatization” of the security sector that has “discovered” climate change as a new working field (2012). While defense representatives of countries of the global North are concerned about national security consequences of climate change, most developing countries and UN bodies as well as some NGOs are focusing on the well-being of affected populations and individuals and discussing climate change as a sustainable development and lately as a human security issue, as discussed critically by Oels (2012). According to Oels, the “climatization” of the security and defense sector contributes to the “securitization” of migration in general (2012, p. 199). A variety of actors fuel racist discourses and fears of “millions of climate refugees” based on the vague assumption that an alarmistic scenario would increase the motivation of people and industries to protect the environment and to reduce emissions. These include environmentalists, with slogans such as “if not literally flooded, (we) will most certainly be flooded by the climate refugees” (Kolmannskog, 2008, p. 9).

Development Studies and Development Aid

Early in the debate, Hugo underlined that, especially in least developed countries (LDCs), “the deeper underlying causes of environmental migration are not environmental but rather linked to political, economic, social and demographic processes” (Hugo, 1996, p. 118). Coming from the field of development studies, contributions by Amartya Sen (1981, 1999) emphasizing the social, economic, and political reasons for famines entered the climate change and migration debate (Ziegelmayer et al., forthcoming). Inspired by these discussions, studies on the household level and on the diverse livelihoods of environmental migrants, including translocal livelihood strategies (Tacoli, 2011; Islam & Herbeck, 2013; Sakdapolrak, 2014), also entered the debate. The fact that livelihoods that are closely entangled with their natural environment and subsistence farming or fishing can be more likely to migrate is one outcome of these studies (Hunter et al., 2012).

Studies that focus on gender issues often relate to studies on different livelihoods and their socioeconomic and cultural embeddedness. These studies frequently take an approach relating to power relations on various levels and show how they are critical in understanding the migration decisions of men and women (Carr, 2005; Chavez-Rodriguez, 2014; Perez et al., 2015). One can observe that environmental change as well as migration experiences are lived and handled in different ways by men and women (McKune et al., 2015). Often, gender relations seem cemented in times of environmental change or disaster (Chavez-Rodriguez, 2014). However, although climate change and gender and migration and gender are two vast research fields, so far there are few studies on the specific topic of the interlinkages between climate change, migration, and gender (Chindakar, 2012, p. 3). The limited literature indicates that the main issues women face in the context of climate-induced migration are security and adequate emergency relief, like other displaced women in the context of hazards (Enarson, 2006; Brown, 2008; Brody et al., 2008).

A critical thread of the debate underlines the deterministic connections drawn between a deterioration of the environment and the displacement of persons often picture migrants as objects for humanitarian interventions and development aid (Kolmannskog, 2008; Warner et al., 2009; critical: Bettini, 2014; Klepp et al., forthcoming). The frequent representation of “drowning” Pacific islanders as the “canary in the coal-mine” (Farbotko, 2010) especially portrays a victimizing, racialized picture, but the global South as a whole is also presented in this way when it comes to the effects of anthropogenic climate change (Oels, 2012; Baldwin, 2013). Critics state that a developmental and humanitarian framing, e.g., by actors such as NGOs, international organizations, and the European Union (EU), outsources the problems geographically and politically and has impeded politicization of the discourse and its connection to climate justice debates (Bettini, 2014; Gesing et al., 2014; Klepp & Herbeck, 2016).

Adaptation, Vulnerability, and Resilience

Closely connected to concepts that are widely used in development studies, the impact of climate change on society is frequently framed in terms of adaptation, vulnerability, and resilience (Fiske et al., 2014, p. 41 ff.). These concepts are subject to competing definitions that are rarely made transparent when applied (Fog Olwig, 2009, p. 314; Kelman, 2008) and that are used in a highly contested and politicized way (Arnall et al., 2013; Taylor, 2015). One point of discussion in this regard is whether migration is a “failure of adaptation” altogether (Brown, 2008), a positive adaptive strategy, or a matter of survival. Hastrup and Fog Olwig underline that environmental migration today is based on a very “sedentary understanding of human society” (Hastrup & Fog Olwig, 2012, p. 12). Human mobility in times of changing environments historically has always been an important adaptation measure, and generally, migration is a normal societal process and not an exception.

Bassett and Fogelman (2013) identify three different adaptation concepts in the climate change literature: adjustment, reformist, and transformative approaches to adaptation. The different approaches, which understand vulnerability in more or less political terms as a consequence of physical processes such as climate change or in the context of societal structures and relationships of power, imply different strategies for reducing vulnerability. In the context of climate change, adaptation, resilience, and vulnerability have also been widely condemned as ignoring aspects of climate justice as well as social, cultural, political, and economic conditions on the ground (Bravo, 2009; Barnett & Campbell, 2010). Some also criticize concepts of resilience for framing the social effects of climate change using a vocabulary of ecological risk, which is condemned for being too technocratic and fails to reflect the complexity of human societies (Bravo, 2009, p. 259; Cannon & Müller-Mahn, 2010; Hastrup, 2009, p. 26). As a result, political and normative issues raised by the effects of climate change risk depoliticization if they are framed with concepts of resilience and vulnerability (Hastrup, 2009, p. 26; Felli & Castree, 2012; Gesing et al., 2014). The so-called “mainstreaming approach” often suggests technical fix and top-down solutions (cf. Schipper, 2007, p. 6; Hillmann et al., 2015, p. 6). In contrast, approaches that define vulnerability as being far more dependent on context regard sustainable development or more radical system change as the means to reduce vulnerability and strengthen adaptation capacity (Schipper, 2007, p. 8).

Hastrup calls for a new concept of social resilience that has fewer systemic features and is characterized by a far more “bottom-up complexity.” With a view to local negotiation and adaptation processes, this approach emphasizes the agency of local actors (2009, p. 28). Many other authors also urge the inclusion of the populations affected by changes in adaptation planning and the weakening relativization of the dominant role of climate change sciences in favor of local (environmental) knowledge and climate change interpretations (Farbotko & Lazrus, 2012; Kelman, 2010; Lazrus, 2009; Crate & Nuttall, 2009; Crate, 2011; Rudiak-Gould, 2011).

In the realm of environmental migration, Sakdapolrak (2014) introduces the concept of translocal resilience, which emphasizes the importance “of translocal linkages (understood as the multiple connectivities between people and places, involving networks, identities, and flows of resources and ideas) for vulnerability and resilience” (Sakdapolrak, 2014, cited in Hillmann et al., 2015, p. 7). The concept of translocal resilience is a good example of how ideas of adaptation, vulnerability, and resilience can entwine with perspectives of migration studies. They help us to better analyze more or less “resilient” livelihood strategies and migration decisions and underline once more the importance of social context (Ziegelmayer et al., forthcoming). A number of case studies that refer to environmental change and migration have used translocal and transnational perspectives (cf. Greiner et al., 2014; Islam & Herbeck, 2013).

Generally, since 2010, the debate on climate change migration has increasingly emphasized the individual responsibility of “more resilient” climate-change migrants (Felli & Castree, 2012; Bettini, 2014). The “resilient lives” (Felli & Castree, 2012, p. 4) of individuals and communities, as discussed in Felli & Castree’s criticism of the 2011 Foresight report, are discussed in terms of their ability to be absorbed by foreign labor markets. This approach sees climate-induced migration as a successful adaptation strategy and a solution rather than (as was previously the case) a problem of securitization within a discourse of environmental migration (Methmann & Oels, 2015). Lately, reports of international organizations have also highlighted the agency of the individual migrant, trying to reframe the securitization of the debate in terms of successful migration management (IOM, 2014; UNHCR, 2015). The danger here is that the populations concerned may find themselves allocated into groups of resilient and nonresilient inhabitants according to age, education, and potential success in foreign labor markets. They may experience new forms of discrimination and control as the nonresilient “others” (Gesing et al., 2014, p. 11). Emphasizing aspects of more or less successful migration management in the realm of environmental migration could foster debates on which aspects of climate justice are excluded altogether.

Climate Justice

Contrary to this, one can find manifold contributions in the literature that underline the close linkage between climate change migration and controversies about social, political, economic, and ecological justice in North–South relations (Risse, 2009; Dietz & Garrelts, 2014; Baldwin, 2014; Upadhyay et al., 2015; Klepp & Herbeck, 2016; McNamara et al., 2016). Here, the debate is closely linked to climate justice aspects. This linkage points to the fact that the historically high greenhouse gas emissions of industrialized countries and related responsibilities for changes in global climate have been subsumed under the notion of “shared but differentiated responsibilities” but have not resulted in far-reaching concessions toward the developing world (Dietz, 2009). Climate justice aspects are especially prominent in discourses on the linkages between climate change and migration where nation states and individuals face current or future loss of land and livelihoods and the uninhabitability of whole nation states (Risse, 2009; Blitz, 2011; Klepp & Herbeck, 2016; McNamara et al., 2016). Contrary to a humanitarian framing of the debate, Sachs (2009) emphasizes the importance of dealing with climate change as a decidedly rights-based issue, meaning that the problems of affected communities should be reframed as human rights issues (2009, see also Dreher & Voyer, 2014).

Furthermore, authors increasingly demand a consistent re-politicization of adaptation research in opposition to the across-the-board depoliticizing of the climate change issue through the climate change sciences (Bravo, 2009; Bettini, 2014; Methmann & Oels, 2015; Gesing et al., 2014; Klepp & Herbeck, 2016), through international cooperation (Tanner & Allouche, 2011) and, to some extent, as a result of disempowering adaptation concepts.

One standpoint that goes even further aims to supplant current vulnerability and resilience concepts with a broader “citizenship approach” that emphasizes the agency of affected people and political aspects in adaptation debates (Bravo, 2009).


Closely connected to debates on terminology and aspects of “measuring” voluntary or forced migration decisions, methodologies to research the phenomenon of climate change migration are contested and varied. In addition, due to the heterogeneity of the field, a systematization of applied methodologies is difficult. Nonetheless, after mentioning the most important standpoints and threads of the debate, the different methodologies applied are discussed in the following section. Research strategies can be differentiated into more descriptive approaches, e.g., reports on hotspots or studies based mainly on future prognosis (WBGU, 2007; CNA Military Advisory Board, 2007; Kolmannskog, 2008; Friends of the Earth Australia, 2007). However, more publications are moving toward analytical stance, analyzing the multiple causes motivating migration in the contexts of changing environments. Here, qualitative empirical research methods or ethnographic approaches are often chosen (Morrissey, 2012; Tschakert et al., 2013). Mixed methods, taking statistics and other quantitative data into account, are the basis of other studies (Scheffran et al., 2012; Suckall et al., 2015; Neumann & Hilderink, 2015). Generally, the different interpretations and perceptions of people of anthropogenic climate change (discourses) are of growing importance in research. Arnall currently observes a “third wave” of research on climate change and migration (after a first wave of studies predicting high numbers of “climate refugees” in the mid-2000s and a second wave mainly built around the 2011 Foresight report and “drivers of migration”) that brings “the voices and experiences of ‘ordinary’ people into the frame” (Arnall, 2015). This trend is partly a response to the critique of the leading roles of natural scientists and technocratic views in adaptation policies and planning.

Nonetheless, rather deterministic understandings of the climate-change–migration nexus also persist. Cultural and social specificities, such as how people mediate and interpret environmental change and the idea to migrate, are often underrepresented here, presenting the local population as passive victims and not as knowledgeable actors (Warner et al., 2009; Kolmannskog, 2008; Friends of the Earth Australia, 2007; critical: Farbotko, 2010; Piguet, 2013). In their review on different ways of conceptualizing and contextualizing links between climate change and migration, Upadhyay et al. criticize how studies often downplay wider political contexts and root causes for migration (2015). They see a reluctance of political will to address these root causes (2015, p. 395).

Conceptually, research today is moving away from identifying direct causal linkages between changing environments and migration (Abu et al., 2013, p. 7; Black et al., 2011; Morrissey, 2012; Mortreux & Barnett, 2009; Schraven & Rademacher-Schulz, 2015). Since the mid-2000s, the literature on climate change migration seems to have become more differentiated, increasingly overcoming the methodological divide (Castles, 2011, p. 419) and developing into manifold directions. Furthermore, the discussions on political and legal aspects of the climate change migration nexus and on how to conceptualize the phenomenon coherently are ongoing.

Many studies have revealed the importance of socioeconomic context and the possibilities of adaptation related to different livelihood strategies as well as the significance of various cultural backgrounds and different historic migration experiences (Oliver-Smith, 2016, p. 72; McLeman et al., 2016; Black et al., 2011, p. 2). The analyses of interlinkages between environmental stress, socioeconomic factors, and migration decisions seem to determine the agenda of most empirical studies today (Morrissey, 2012, p. 115). Most researchers include the socioeconomic context and take cultural diversity into consideration (Castles, 2011, p. 419; Hillmann et al., 2015). A broad variety of research designs are possible in this regard, including quantitative and qualitative methods, studies based on the mobility of mobile phone users (Lu et al., 2016), and comparative studies (Tacoli, 2011; Marino & Lazrus, 2015) or single-case studies (Zhang, 2015). Nonetheless, alarmist and simplistic approaches also persist; contributions from the media and the political sphere especially still connect the climate change migration debate to security issues (Klepp & Herbeck, 2016, p. 61).

Several scholars have argued that the debate on the climate change–migration nexus partly lacks scientific rigor (Hillmann et al., 2015; Piguet et al., 2011) and has severe pitfalls. Despite the confusion in terminology and the entanglement of the debate with political interests, Hillmann et al. argue that so far, questions of different spatial levels and their transparent and meaningful conceptualization have received too little attention (2015, p. 3). The authors underline the usefulness of a regional research framing on environmental migration as “the place where the local, the national and the global scales meet (. . .)” (ibid., p. 2).

Focusing on regions that are especially vulnerable to environmental change and lack adaptation capacities, most research focuses on the climate-change–migration nexus today in the global South. Low coastal zones, such as Bangladesh (Lu et al., 2016; Molla et al., 2014; Joarder & Miller, 2013; Islam & Herbeck, 2013), drylands, e.g., in Africa (Selby & Hoffmann, 2014; Morrissey, 2012), and mountain regions are among those that are most exposed to global environmental change. Here, we can also find the most case studies. Most of the time, institutions and scholars from the global North conduct these case studies. However, transnational perspectives that decenter Eurocentric and exclusively sedentary perspectives on society and prevent a “methodological nationalism” (Wimmer & Glick Schiller, 2002) are developing more and more (Greiner et al., 2014; Islam & Herbeck, 2013; Klepp & Herbeck, 2016) in the research field of environmental migration. These perspectives can broaden restricted research epistemologies and pluralize a debate that is often led in a too narrow and alarmistic way (Baldwin, 2014). Arnall et al.’s study shows, for example, that more differentiation is urgently needed: their research findings indicate profound gaps in interpreting climate change and migration discourses between elites and nonelites in the Maldives based on different understandings of the timescale of climate change and connected perceptions of urgency and crisis (Arnall & Kothari, 2015).

Researchers have also conducted studies as part of larger networks. A number of networks and data collections are important in the field. COST IS1101 Climate change and migration: knowledge, law and policy and theory was funded by the European Union and led by Andrew Baldwin from 2012 to 2016. It aimed to build a broad body of social science research concerning climate change and migration and provided networking opportunities. The Environmental Migration Portal, equally funded by the EU and set up by IOM, “seeks to provide a one-stop service website to promote new research, information exchange and dialogue, intended to fill the existing data, research and knowledge gaps on the migration-environment nexus.” The CliMig bibliographic database at the Institute of Geography of the University of Neuchâtel is a collection of publications focusing on migration, the environment, and climate change.

The Protection of Environmental Migrants Through Legal or Political Instruments

Since the beginning of the debate on climate change and migration, experts have raised questions relating to safeguarding the rights of environmental migrants. The following sections provide some insights into these highly controversial discussions, relating again to difficulties of conceptualizing the nature of the phenomenon. As Saul asks, is it a “refugee issue, a migration issue, a human rights issue, an environmental issue, a security issue, or a humanitarian issue (left to the political discretion of individual governments and regulated outside the law?)” (2008, p. 3). The following sections highlight some proposals for instruments that can lead to a legally binding protection regime or to protection policies for environmental migrants, as intended by the initiators. These proposals come from a multitude of actors that bring drafts for legal treaties, soft-law approaches, and initiatives into the discussion. Recently, the debate has been more concentrated on policy-oriented solutions on a regional level, creating a normative protection gap (Zetter, 2011, p. 24) and a political stalemate (McNamara, 2007) regarding legally binding treaties on a global level.

Legal Instruments for the Protection of Environmental Migrants at the Global Level

All displaced persons are entitled to fundamental human rights. These rights include the right to life, health, shelter, food, and movement. Regarding the development of more specific rights that guarantee the protection of environmental migrants, single governments, scientists, international organizations, and NGOs aimed at the creation of a new legally binding treaty or an expansion of existing treaties in international law, especially at earlier stages of the debate. On one hand, these aims related to the 1951 Geneva Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees. Until now, people forced to move as a result of climate change have not fit its legal definition of a refugee. The proposals made in this regard mostly aimed at an opening of the conceptualization, including “environmental refugees” in the 1951 Geneva Convention (Cooper, 1998; Republic of the Maldives, 2006; Conisbee & Simms, 2003; Kozoll, 2004). On the other hand, suggestions proposed a treaty connected to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) (Biermann & Boas, 2010; Williams, 2008). Outside existing international frames, specific climate change displacement treaties (Docherty & Giannini, 2009), such as a new international convention on environmental displacement (Prieur et al., 2008), a specialized agency to protect environmental migrants (Hermsmeyer, 2005), and an International Coordination Mechanism for Environmental Displacement (ICMED) (King, 2006), among others, have been suggested. All proposals differ in their configuration regarding the status of the persons protected and whether the status would refer to the individual or to a collective dimension regarding, e.g., an objective country of origin.

UNHCR and other organizations, on the contrary, stress the point that the word “refugee” should be linked exclusively to the 1951 Geneva Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees (Warner, 2011, p. 2). Already, in 2001, Black scrutinized a direct link between environmental change, conflict, and refugee protection in a UNHCR working paper (2001). McAdam also questions if a general treaty for environmental migrants would best serve the interest and the rights of persons displaced by climate change (2011). Underlining the complex and differentiated reasons for environmental migration, in most cases not caused by climate change alone, McAdam points to the fact that different needs arise from environmental migration, especially with respect to slow-onset environmental changes in small island states, that could not be covered by a treaty (McAdam, 2011a, p. 22). Furthermore, there remains the risk of creating a concept that establishes new forms of inclusion and exclusion (McAdam, 2011b). McAdam also sees many political obstacles for a new treaty, mostly grounded in a lack of political will by countries of the global North (2011a, p. 15 f.)

In the search for how to improve the protection of environmental migrants, several new concepts and issues have been introduced to the debate, fostering aspects of environmental responsibility in the realm of environmental law at the global level. According to Michelot (2006), the figure of the environmental migrant embodies current threats facing humanity, and the acknowledgment of “environmental refugees” implements the principle of environmental or climate justice. Risse underlines a common responsibility to protect environmental migrants, referring to a concept based on human rights and on a common ownership of the earth (Risse, 2009). Looking at the future possibility of the loss of whole nation-states, some authors discuss implications of the loss of sovereignty of states (Willcox, 2012; Badrinarayana, 2011; Esteban & Yamamoto, 2010; Rayfuse & Crawford, 2011) and statelessness of persons (Blitz, 2011).

At the level of the UNFCCC negotiations, the international climate change regime remains more concentrated on mitigation. Adaptation measures are found in the Cancun Adaptation Framework (CAF) and have been invigorated in the Paris Agreement of 2015. In the CAF, the Conference of the Parties (COP) of the UNFCCC agreed upon paragraph 14 (f):

to enhance action on adaptation under the Cancun Adaptation Framework [. . .] by undertaking inter alia, the following: [. . .] Measures to enhance understanding, coordination and cooperation with regard to climate change induced displacement, migration and planned relocation where appropriate, at national, regional and international levels.

A relatively new concept in the UNFCCC negotiations is loss and damage. Lately discussed in the Warsaw International Mechanism on Loss and Damage from Climate Change (2013), it addresses the possibility that mechanisms of mitigation, adaptation, and insurance could not be enough to deal with the effects of climate change (Oliver-Smith, 2016, p. 77; McNamara et al., 2016).

Soft-Law Responses at the Global and Regional Levels

Most options regarding the protection of environmental migrants at the international level are linked to existing disaster relief mechanisms and to the protection of internally displaced persons. Unlike the 1951 Geneva Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, they exist mostly in the realm of soft-law approaches, leading to a fragmented regime of policy initiatives, guidelines, and declarations. Contrary to the global stalemate regarding a legally binding solution, a growing number of soft law instruments for environmental migrants refer to the international and the regional level alike. Soft law is defined by Snyder as “those rules of conduct which, in principle, have no legally binding force but which nevertheless may have practical effect” (Snyder cited by Zerilli, 2010, p. 7). The most important ones give insight into which developments we can observe at the international level and then introduce some initiatives regarding the regional level.

The response to natural disasters and displacement remains fragmented among different UN organizations and other state-led international organizations such as UNHCR, the Office for Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), UNICEF, IOM, and the World Health Organization (WHO), and myriad actors that are not directly linked to the UN. The Inter-Agency Standing Committee (IASC), founded in 1992, has a coordinating role within the UN system in the realm of humanitarian assistance also regarding people displaced by disasters. The most far-reaching document within the UN system is the Operational Guidelines on Human Rights and Natural Disasters from 2006. Here, we can find operational responses to natural disasters that translate into concrete protection policies regarding the security and well-being of the persons affected. What is missing the most in disaster response generally is that no one addresses long-term processes of environmental change and that policies only refer to emergency situations and contemporary displacement.

As empirical studies show, most people moving due to environmental reasons are internally displaced persons (IDPs) (UNHCR, 2015, p. 8). In 1998, the General Assembly of the UN adopted the Guiding Principles of Internal Displacement, which contains thirty recommendations regarding the protection, dignity, and security of IDPs. One aspect of the Guiding Principles is the participation in decision-making by the affected person regarding displacement, return, or relocation (Zetter, 2011, p. 21).

An international group of experts and representatives of states generated an instrument that refers explicitly to climate change migration: the Peninsula Principles on Climate Change Displacement within States. The Peninsula Principles was adopted in 2013 and tried to set rules for internal displacement driven by environmental change that focus on the victims and require the protection of human rights and the delivery of humanitarian aid. They underline the shared responsibility of the global community and the home state of the displaced person.

Regarding international migration, the Nansen Initiative is a bottom-up, state-led consultative process initiated by the governments of Norway and Switzerland in 2012 that tries to involve many stakeholders. Its aim is to provide better protection for intentional migrants displaced by disasters and climate change. After a series of regional intergovernmental consultations and a global intergovernmental consultation in October 2015 in Geneva, the Nansen Initiative launched the Agenda for the Protection of Cross-Border Displaced Persons in the Context of Disasters and Climate Change in December 2015. The so-called Protection Agenda is an approach that focuses on raising awareness for the phenomenon of environmental migration and on the integration of best practices by states and organizations into their own legal and administrative frameworks.

Especially in the Pacific region, more regional soft-law approaches can be observed. In this region, the predictions for future effects of climate change are threatening the very existence of nation states. Therefore, the negotiation process on climate change and migration is vibrant, and novel regional soft-law approaches are being developed (Klepp & Herbeck, 2016; McNamara et al., 2016). The Moana Declaration from 2009, launched by the Pacific Conference of Churches (PCC), contains conventions and solutions for environmental migrants and shows the variety of actors involved. The Niue Declaration on Climate Change, published in 2009 by the Pacific Islands Forum Secretariat (PIFS), commits to “Pacific-tailored approaches to combating climate change” (Niue Declaration on Climate Change, 2009).

Generally, long-term solutions for environmental migrants are missing in most instruments, and migration-friendly approaches are difficult to realize in a global context of ever more security-linked migration policies. The manifold suggestions on how best to protect environmental and climate migrants have contributed to further conceptualization of the debate. They have also contributed to a further divide of environmental and migration scholars, as most proposals were published in environmental law journals, as Gemenne argues (Gemenne, 2011, p. 242). Overcoming the legal and political stalemate is difficult because it would include an acknowledgment of responsibilities for anthropogenic climate change and its effects (McNamara, 2007). Therefore, in the near future, the protection and status of environmental migrants remain uncertain regarding binding international law.

Conclusion and Outlook

This article has examined the main threads of the debate on climate change and migration. It is clear that this debate is deeply entangled with global questions of our time, such as growing social injustices and the fact that transnational as well as interdisciplinary cooperation is necessary to tackle the societal challenges posed by climate change—including environmental migration. The article has discussed some of the interpretations, interests, and “imaginative resources” (Hastrup & Fog Olwig, 2012, p. 2) connected to the debate on climate change and migration. They will shape the future conditions and our collective dealing with the phenomenon. Possible solutions, legally binding or politically established, must take the illustrated entanglements into account to find ways for the future that are also acceptable for the most affected populations in the global South. This article closes with a discussion of areas for future research, as well as a presentation of current research perspectives that could further differentiate and pluralize a debate that is often led in a way that is too restricted and deterministic and that could do more justice to such a vast and complex topic (Baldwin, 2014). Although the research field of climate change migration currently seems to show more and more agreement on the complex nature of environmental migration, some perspectives that could make the debate more coherent are still lacking or underrepresented. They could also help us to better understand the phenomenon of climate change migration in terms of social justice and social innovation.

To suggest alternative narratives contrary to the negative images that seem to prevail in research on climate related movements today, Hastrup and Fog Olwig underline the role of archeologists, physical anthropologists, linguists, and others that look at the development of human societies in a long-term perspective. Today, large-timescale perspectives are mostly missing in the debate on current environmental migration. The social effects of climate change should be studied from a particular angle that cannot be captured with the short-term analysis that dominates today (Hastrup & Fog Olwig, 2012, p. 11). Apart from deeper insights into migratory movements, large-timescale research on early climate-related movements shows a heroic picture of those who are moving (ibid.) that could provide a counternarrative to much of the recent climate migration research. Historical perspectives and the acknowledgment of historical responsibilities for climate change and global solidarity could also strengthen the search for opportunities and solutions for environmental migrants that are decisively migration friendly and take into account climate justice aspects. Negotiation processes on environmental migration in the Pacific region are a good example in this regard. The scientific predictions for many small island states that take into consideration the uninhabitability of whole-nation states have led to a proactive search for decisively migration-friendly solutions. They could also play a key for other regions in the world. The government of the Republic of Kiribati, especially former President Anote Tong (from July 2003 until March 2016), is looking for migration possibilities that could secure self-determination and include South–South migration options (Klepp & Herbeck, 2016; Weber, 2015). The main slogan in this regard is “migrate with dignity,” and individual as well as community relocation is negotiated under this motto. A future refugee status should absolutely be avoided, as the people of Kiribati emphasize (Klepp, 2014; Klepp & Herbeck, 2016).

In addition, Black et al. are opting for a more historicized perspective on migration as a social phenomenon and driver for change (Black et al., 2011, p. 2). They criticize the current focus on natural disasters and individual migration decisions as underestimating the role of respective societies and migration cultures, such as translocal livelihoods and the entanglements with the physical environment (ibid). In the foreword of Hugo’s anthology “Migration and Climate Change,” which includes many of the most significant writings in the field, he also underlines the importance of society’s migration experience with collective and individual migration dynamics (2013, p. xvff). Again, the Pacific region, with its rich transnational migration traditions (Lee & Tuopai Francis, 2009; Farbotko, 2012; Kempf, 2009), especially before the colonization of the area, could connect to these histories of migration and find solutions for environmental migrants that are “concrete, local, social and connective” (Klepp & Herbeck, 2016, p. 72). The negotiation processes initiated by the government of Kiribati also aim at less restricted mobility in the Pacific region (see also Farbotko, 2012) and repoliticizes the debate by directly connecting it to postcolonial questions and aspects of climate justice (Klepp, 2014; Klepp & Herbeck, 2016). This line of analysis is contrary to debates in the global North, where discussions have been caught up in the widely distributed abbreviations of development and security. A decentering of the debate by closely analyzing regional negotiation processes on environmental migration and questions of climate justice can open up new perspectives for the search for accountable and responsible migration and climate policies.

Furthermore, the discussion on the environment–migration nexus lacks the influence of two more research perspectives: one on migration studies and one on the close entanglement of nature and society. More emancipative attempts to conceptualize migration, such as the “autonomy of migration” approach, (Andrijasevic et al., 2005; Mezzadra, 2004, 2007; Moulier Boutang, 2007; Tsianos, 2007) underline the agency and creativity of migrants and migration movements. They deny a rather deterministic picture of migration depending exclusively on structural and economic pressures or, regarding the topic of this article, on environmental change.

In addition, it became clear that a conceptual divide between social and natural phenomena is the basis of attempts to analyze the environment as an isolated parameter in migration decisions (Hastrup & Fog Olwig, 2012, p. 13; Nicholson, 2011). Political ecologists (Fairhead & Leach, 1996; Castree, 2005) and others have successfully questioned this divide. In effectively dealing with climate change, more and more researchers are asking for fresh perspectives on the entanglements of socio-natural phenomena that can do justice to the complex effects of climate change on society and can overcome the methodological divide and conceptual constrictions (Piguet, 2013). These new perspectives include an acknowledgment of the manifold political aspects of climate change and its social consequences, such as questions of regional and global responsibility and solidaritym as well as historical and current power relationships and dependencies (Upadhyay et al., 2015; Bettini, 2014; Gesing et al., 2014; Klepp & Herbeck, 2016).


Climate Change Adaptation as Motivation for Resettlement—A Case Study from Inner Mongolia, China

The book Pastoralists and the Enviromental State: A Study of Ecological Resettlment in Inner Mogolia, China, by Qian Zhang (2015), relates the recent phenomenon of linking resettlement to climate change adaptation focuses on Inner Mongolia, China. Ecological resettlement has been used as part of large-scale environmental programs by the Chinese state for more than 15 years and was recently reframed as climate-change adaptation by the government. Seeking to determine whether resettlement is a viable approach for adapting to climate change, Zhang carried out seven months of field research between 2008 and 2011 in the area of Xilitu Sumu. She interviewed 70 pastoral households in a Mongolian pastoral township where two subsequent resettlement projects were carried out as part of a large-scale environmental program to reduce sandstorms and to restore degraded grasslands. Zhang’s work relies mainly on theoretical approaches of political ecology and environmental governance that help us to better understand the complex social and political processes that mediate responses to environmental changes in the governance regime of adaptation. Her results show how political and social processes shape the relationship between environment and migration decisions in the context of state-led resettlement in Inner Mongolia through the mediation of power relations in a specific context (p. 216 ff.). The implication is that the result of resettlement is perceived negatively by the people resettled and does not have the declared positive effect on the environment. Adaptation in this case is a powerful framing of environmental governance through the state that tends to dominate local planning and neglect local settings and interests.

The Foresight Report—A Large-Scale Study

The Foresight report, published by the British government in 2011 with lead author Richard Black, is a large-scale analysis that takes a global perspective, focusing on drylands, low-elevation coastal zones, and mountain regions. Based on more than 350 experts from different disciplines and more than 70 commissioned studies, this report tries to develop an understanding of how climate change could affect human mobility in a temporal horizon until 2060. Several peer-reviewed journals (e.g., Black et al., 2011) also published the outcomes. The report tries to capture the complexity of the environment–migration nexus by developing a framework of “drivers” of migration that interact with social, economic, environmental, and other factors. One important outcome of the study is that environmental change can make migration less likely (2011, p. 9). The report suggests that environmental change can render individuals or communities too poor to move and speaks of “trapped” populations in this regard. Another conclusion of the authors is that migration in the context of climate change needs a new strategic approach that acknowledges the role of migration in adapting to climate change and searches for migration-friendly policies for environmental migrants. The authors underline the risk of cities in low-income countries that face “double jeopardies”: rural–urban migration and, at the same time, increasing threats regarding environmental change. Leading to a critical debate, Felli et al. stress the way in which the report connects to neoliberal forms of migration management and the “resilience” and “marketable workface” of individuals (2012), which runs counter to attempts to connect the debate to climate justice considerations (see also Bettini, 2014; Baldwin, 2013).

Environmental Migration in the Pacific

The Pacific Islands consist of 22 countries and territories with an estimated 10 million people living on more than 300 islands spread across the ocean. Moreover, 6.9 million of these people live in Papua, New Guinea. Despite the small populations and the fact that they are often administrated by a combination of Western and customary government systems, the Pacific Islands are culturally, socially, and, in terms of language variety, very rich and highly diverse.

Historically, Pacific Island countries are very dynamic in terms of human mobility linked to voluntary migration, transnational livelihoods, forced displacement, and planned relocation (Lee & Tuopai Francis, 2009). Storm tides, cyclones, flooding, earthquakes, tsunamis, and coastal erosion regularly affect many Pacific Islands. Climate change impacts such as rising sea levels and coral bleaching due to rising sea temperatures as well as the salinization of fresh water stores and agricultural lands become more and more important (Nurse & McLean, 2014). Although predicted sea-level rise has to take into account global, regional, and local variabilities that make predictions difficult, Pacific Island states that are atoll islands, such as the Republic of Kiribati, Tuvalu, and the Marshall Islands, are described as being especially vulnerable. Here, the habitability of entire nation states, their sovereignty, as well as the livelihoods of their citizens are at risk (Risse, 2009; Barnett & Campbell, 2003).

Currently, most environmental displacement is internal following sudden-onset disasters, and people return shortly after the disaster. However, more and more migration in the Pacific is linked to natural disasters and environmental degradation (The Nansen Initiative, 2013). Some countries are beginning to resettle communities due to environmental change, including sea-level rise and extreme weather events (e.g., Fiji, Vanuatu). While many policies in the region aim at adapting to climate change and on mitigation on a global level, some governments are starting to develop strategies and policies for future population movements that guarantee the human rights and the dignity of their citizens (Campbell, 2010; Bedford & Bedford, 2010; Boncour & Burson, 2010; Klepp & Herbeck, 2016). These strategies are migration friendly, and development on a bilateral or transnational basis could be an important example for other regions affected by environmental migration.


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