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Climate change and migration – reflections from the Paris summit

Submitted by on 30 Mar 2016 – 11:43

Though it is important that migration was mentioned at the Paris Summit, Dr Giovanni Bettini, Lecturer in Global Climate Politics and International Development says relying on the UN’s climate policy to solve migration means “hoping for a silver bullet that does not exist”

Bettini Giovanni The question of how climate change will influence human migration has become a source of growing concern – not surprisingly, considering the centrality that global warming has gained in international politics and the frequency with which mobility is in the spotlight (most often a negative light) of media and policy debates. Indeed, even the best-case scenario following the new climate agreement (signed last December in Paris) will still lead to rising sea levels, harsher droughts and more destructive storms – all of which will hit those with least protection the hardest, and add to existing factors of political instability. So, is the current “refugee crisis” only an anticipation of what will happen when climate change kicks in? Are we going to see waves of “climate refugees” pushing on Europe’s gates and jeopardise our security?

One would think so, at least judging from the way the media talks about the issue. Time after time, the figure of ‘climate refugees’ is mobilised to provide dangerous global warming with a human face. Usually, to highlight the security implications of climate change. Recently, this narrative has surfaced in relation to the Syrian tragedy and the way that the conflict and the related displacements have been attributed to climate change by research papers – and even Prince Charles.

Such alarmism might be appealing to media outlets, and the spectre of an invasion by the victims of climate change resonates with the “moral panic” that, as sociologist Zygmunt Bauman recently pointed out, surrounds migration in these turbulent times.

But these alarmist framings are at odds with most of the research on how climate change will interact with migration.

Against alarmism

The figures of hundreds of millions of so called climate refugees have been widely echoed in the media but the headline numbers are at the least controversial if not outright scientifically unsound. The entire concept of “climate refugees” is evocative but misleading.

Let’s begin with the obvious: people migrate for lots of different reasons and, in most cases, it is impossible to single out environmental degradation. When people do move in response to a sudden storm or flooding, they usually stay in the same region and return home as soon as they can. A growing number of interventions point out that migration, in presence of the right conditions, can also represent a proactive strategy to cope with stress or adapt to change.

Finally, there’s no simple link between climate change, displacement and security. Environmental stress can exacerbate tensions, but also increase cooperation. And we should not conflate things playing out at different scales: the idea that food stress (and the poor) causes war is very problematic – a quarrel over a loaf of bread is not the same as an armed conflict between states.

None of this means the issue is unimportant. Climate change will have the biggest impact on the weakest and most exposed – whether they are migrants or those without the means to move. Indeed, (im)mobility will be one of the currencies through which vulnerable people will pay the price of the international community’s failure to avoid climate change.

How does climate policy deal with migration?

The Paris agreement establishes a “task force” to “develop recommendations” on displacement. Some hoped for stronger wording – an earlier draft included the creation of a “coordination facility”, presumably with more powers. This was only removed in the last days of the summit. Yet in order to keep the issue on the table, a mention in the treaty is a step in the right direction.

However, I am not sure we can expect too much from the UN’s climate process. An emissions deal was clearly the highest priority for this phase of diplomacy. With a “refugee crisis” shaking European institutions and the reaction to the terror attacks in Paris adding to the international tension over migration, the topic was just too controversial. In this context, it wasn’t exactly realistic to expect states in Paris to accept any legally-binding obligations to facilitate the movement of vulnerable people.

But, on top of the question of political feasibility, it is also worth asking whether UN climate policy should even be addressing migration at all.

Migration isn’t a problem to be solved

The idea we should “solve” climate migration is rooted in a view of mobility as pathological as the result of a failure to develop, to adapt to climate change, or to be more resilient. But in reality, contrarily to the anxiety and fears that currently surround it, migration is an ordinary social, economic, and political process.

Of course, it would be naive to overlook the divisive questions that migration brings to the surface. And we should always remember that people on the move (or stuck somewhere they don’t want to be) are often exposed to many wrongs and suffering.

But relying on the UN’s climate policy to sort these matters out means hoping for a silver bullet that does not exist – it is an illusory shortcut that obfuscates the inherently political character of migration and will lead to poor policies. To make a provocative comparison: would we ever expect the UNFCCC (or any single policy) to “solve poverty”?

Yes, it is important that migration was mentioned in the Paris agreement, and we should talk more about the links between climate change and mobility. But more as a matter of climate justice than one of security. And not as a contingent problem to be solved (or that can be solved) – rather as one of the ways in which we deal with the highly political question of the kind of mobility and society we want for the decades to come

An earlier version of this article appeared in The Conversation.