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Foresight on migration and climate change

Author: Neil Adger

Every clarion call on the consequences of climate change inevitably ends with a warning of mass migration by climate refugees, conflict between nations, and disruption of life and livelihood. Yet ten years ago, the UK’s Chief Scientific Advisor and this team suggested, in a landmark report, that one of the main problems with climate change, rather than migration, was not enough mobility. Vulnerable populations and communities trapped by cycles of floods and droughts in increasingly insecure places were the under-appreciated problem.

How then has the ten years since the release of the prescient report, Migration and Global Environmental Change by the Foresight office, played out?

The Report was released on this day in 2011. It brought together everything then known by climate scientists, demographers and economists and looked to the future that very much resembled an incoming perfect storm, in the words of John Beddington. I was part of the team trying to bring the intellectual effort of the global community together. It was exhilarating.

The Report showed that climate change would disrupt migration flows and systems. It showed that many places are highly sensitive, in terms of whether people stay or leave. Hence the involuntary displacement of people in the face of climate change could change rapidly. But it also showed that a lack of mobility for vulnerable populations was at least an equal challenge and that without facilitated movement, large increases in the demand for humanitarian assistance may be required.

The Report was globally connected, with the Chief Scientist and the group of authors engaging with governments and civil society in key countries such as Turkey, South Africa, Bangladesh and Nepal. Those countries emphasised the facilitation of movement in the face of climate change rather than its prevention.

At first, the efforts of Foresight seemed to bring an informed view of the contribution of migration to the climate change table. By the Cancun Agreements (the 16th Conference of the Parties of the Climate Change Convention), migration had been identified as a legitimate and highly effective option for adapting to the risks posed. The UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change in 2014 reinforced the evidence, and showed that migration would be central to maintaining human security and a dignified life for all under the shadow of climate risks. The EU had formed a position based on this evidence. And indeed the Biden Administration has this year re-energised the topic with their Executive Order to plan for the impact of climate change on migration in policy-making.

Outside the rarefied world of climate change diplomacy and action, the portrayal of mass involuntary migration as a spectre from climate change continues unabated. But fear of the other will not induce positive change to decarbonise the economy and promote human security. It is as likely to generate fear and suspicion and revert back to closed borders and closed minds.

The simplistic discourse in climate refugees persists and indeed is amplified by the security-oriented portrayal of migration and entirely negative for those involved and for destination communities. Perhaps the persistence is a product of the Syrian refugee crisis, where Europeans and many outside of the region portrayed Syria as a climate change conflict. Similarly the emphasis of movements from central American countries towards the US is dominated by discussions of climate change and lost livelihoods for those desperate to be moving.

The climate refugee idea is understandable, but neither an effective nor accurate way to portray the dilemmas the world faces.

The real questions include how migration can contribute to more sustainable and fairer societies. International migrant workers in many regions, for example, are disproportionately represented in health and social care sectors, filling skills gaps and contributing mightily during the Covid-19 pandemic. The group of progressive cities known as the Mayors Migration Council is tackling this head on: from Bristol, to Freetown to Los Angeles. They are guided by principles such moving people away from hazard prone areas and integrating migrants and natives into positive climate action. These recognise the demographic realities of ageing populations in many countries and the need for rebalancing by migration, with benefits to both source and destination areas. And it demonstrates that the impetus for action may be moving away from an obsession with borders and migration as a problem to be managed.

Countries at risk are tackling the climate migration issues through positive action. The Government of Bangladesh is developing an Action Plan for internally displaced people that promotes their rights and seeks to integrate them into growing cities. For many countries this is real Loss and Damage and will be highlighted at the upcoming COP26 in Glasgow.

The ten years since the release of Foresight Report on migration and climate change have not been smooth. Neither should we expect any let up in uncertainty in the incoming decade. But ultimately demographic realities and the global dilemma of climate change is likely to make the portrayal of people not from here an outdated way to look at the world

About the author:

Neil Adger is Professor of Human Geography at the University of Exeter and was one of six Lead Experts of the Foresight Report, Migration and Global Environmental Change, released on 20th October 2011.

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