Part of the problem or part of the solution? Migration as adaptation to climate change

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Can migration allow people in some of the poorest parts of the world to sustain their lives and livelihoods in the face of environmental and climate change?  Too often migration both within states and internationally is seen as a crisis, disaster or last resort. This is a mistake. Instead, it should be seen as a form of adaptation.

I’ve just returned from a National Workshop on Migration and Global Environmental Change in Delhi, India organised by UNESCO, UKAID and the UK Government Office for Science (GOS).  The meeting looked at climate change implications for India and neighbouring states, such as Pakistan, Bangladesh, the Maldives, Nepal and Sri Lanka, that are flood and drought prone, have economic activity in climate sensitive sectors such as agriculture and have experienced significant migration, particularly internal migration from rural to urban areas. Environmental and climate change impact on the poorest people, exacerbate existing inequalities and can lead to migration.

Climate change driven migration as threat

Let’s not forget that the effects of environmental change are evident in the UK too. Extreme rainfall and flooding recently hit parts of England. Concern in the UK was not about mass migration but, even looking nervously over his shoulder at the climate change sceptics on his backbenches, Prime Minister Cameron said there could be a connection between the floods and global climate change. Others were more certain. In February 2014, Lord Stern, author of an influential 2006 report on the economics of climate change, reiterated his view that global climate change could lead to hundreds of millions of people being forced to migrate. Labour leader Ed Miliband said that climate change could lead to mass migration and conflict over resources, such as water.

By this reasoning, migration is understood as a threat both to the people that move and the places to which they move, but can migration be a form of adaptation that allows livelihoods to be sustained? New evidence shows that the links between environmental change and migration are more complex.

True, hundreds of millions of people are exposed to environmental risks, but this does not mean that they will all migrate. Even if they do, it doesn’t tell us who will move, where to and for how long.

Exposure to risk is on a huge scale. The population of Dhaka in Bangladesh was just 1.4 million in 1970 but will be over 14 times that by 2025 with significant flood risk. All major Chinese and Indian cities have seen significant growth, sometimes on a massive scale. Much urban growth is in fast growing cities in low lying coastal areas. In Africa and Asia there are estimates that a further 192 million people will live in urban areas on coastal floodplains by 2060 by which time there are also estimates of 178 million more people in Africa, Asia, Latin America and the Caribbean living in rural coastal floodplains. The UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s 5th Assessment of 2014 demonstrates global links between environmental change and human security.

But does exposure to risk mean that people migrate? Apocalyptic predictions of mass migration by hundreds of millions of people understand environmental change as a simple trigger mechanism, but migration is embedded within a much more complex choice matrix. Even if the intention is to flag the urgent need for a response to climate change, migration can end up being presented as some kind of natural disaster.

Thinking differently

Let’s think differently. Rather than assuming that environmental change is a simple trigger mechanism, it makes more sense to see environmental change as one potential driver of migration alongside others, such as – crucially – the effects of economic change.

This means thinking about how environmental change interacts with economic change and other important political, social and demographic changes. This makes it very difficult to disentangle the effects of environmental change from other causes of migration and to identify a group of people that could fall into the category of ‘climate refugees’ or ‘environmental migrants’.

It also means recognising that migration may not simply be a flight from danger or risk. People may actually move towards and not away from risk. The best example of this is the current large scale movement primarily for economic reasons to urban areas.  Around 150 million people currently live in water-stressed cities and this number seems only likely to grow.

Thinking about interactions between environmental change with economic, political, social and demographic factors also highlights how environmental change can erode the resources that are necessary for migration. Environmental change can have negative effects on livelihoods with the result that millions of people living in areas in which they are exposed to serious environmental risk are actually unable to leave and could be trapped.

People may move, but they may move towards risk while some people may well not be able to move. By broadening our understanding, the links between migration, environmental change, economic development and adaption can be rethought.

Migration is part of the solution

What does this mean for policy? Internal and international migration to fast-growing cities in Africa, Asia and the Middle East are key vectors for population growth and raise questions about urban governance, the necessity to maintain rural-urban linkages and requirement for political and legal frameworks at state and international level to protect the rights of migrants and the displaced.

Measures that seek only to control or prevent migration may well serve only to increase the sum of human misery.  Strategies of control and prevention typically see migration as a natural disaster, a last resort, as a failure to adapt; but migration can be a powerful form of adaptation that allows income diversification to sustain livelihoods.

This does not mean that migration is an incontrovertible good to be supported and encouraged at all times. It does mean that migration can enable people to make choices that allow them to sustain their livelihoods. We need to move away from apocalyptic predictions of mass migration and conflict and instead focus on measures that mitigate the effects of climate change and allow people to adapt to the changes that have already occurred. Migration is part of the solution.