Moving targets, moving people: confronting the challenge of climate change and migration

Why climate change makes the politics of mobility more important than ever before.   

Ethemcan Turhan Sarah Louise Nash
14 November 2016

"Pollution - Guatemala City." Credit: Doron Derek Laor/Flickr. Some rights reserved.

“Climate change is the defining challenge of our time.” These words spoken at the UN Security Council in 2011 by Antonio Guterres, then the head of United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and now incoming UN Secretary-General, highlight the significance that climate change has acquired in global debates surrounding mobility of populations. Such statements are becoming increasingly mainstream in the highest echelons of global politics, with many echoing Gutteres' link between climate change and people on the move. This connection is referred to in a diverse range of sources. It appears in international NGO reports trying to attract attention to the sheer scale of the crisis. However, it can be found just as often in the security-focused narratives of global security think tanks. The latest reiteration of this link was in the New York Declaration for Refugees and Migrants agreed upon by the UN General Assembly in September 2016, which included a reference to “the adverse effects of climate change” as a potential driver of human mobility. 

In such statements there is an emphasis on the direct and/or causal link between climate change and mobile people or the challenges of governing mobility in an age of climate change. However, the purpose of these statements is frequently opaque. Do they serve as a warning against possible dystopian futures of uncontrollable global migration (however inaccurately perceived as being inevitably towards the global north); as motivations to prevent the worst effects of climate change; as a call for ever-increasing border controls; or, in a more progressive tone, calls for global (climate) justice and a reconsideration of how people on the move are understood, portrayed and treated?

Negotiating climate futures

The 22nd Conference of Parties (COP22) to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), whose second week kicks off today, provides an occasion to reconsider these global debates and urgent calls for policy development on the climate-migration nexus. The UNFCCC has time and again considered human mobility as one of the key societal effects of climate change, albeit with limited consensus on the policy front. However, given the varied purposes of statements made linking climate change and human mobility this is not surprising. In early iterations, human mobility has served as just another item on a long list of spill-over effects emphasising the importance of climate change mitigation. In one of the first-ever open debates exploring the relationship between energy, security and climate by the UN Security Council in April 2007, former British Foreign Secretary Margaret Beckett pointed out that “recent scientific evidence reinforced, or even exceeded, the worst fears about climate change” and warned “of migration on an unprecedented scale because of flooding, disease and famine.”

In early iterations, human mobility has served as just another item on a long list of spill-over effects emphasising the importance of climate change mitigation.

This statement was shortly followed by the UK government’s major Foresight report (2011) titled ‘Migration and global environmental change: future challenges and opportunities’. However it wasn’t until 2010 that UNFCCC process included migration as a key concern in the global climate negotiations. In the first agreed-upon reference to human mobility in the UNFCCC, in paragraph 14(f) of the 2010 Cancun Adaptation Framework, human mobility is listed as a potential element of climate change adaptation. Yet it is possible to suggest that since 2012 there has been another shift which led human mobility to be considered under the heading of Loss and Damage within the climate regime. Loss and Damage is a fairly young component of the UNFCCC, with the first institutional seeds also being sown in the Cancun Adaptation Framework and then being formalised in the Warsaw International Mechanism on Loss and Damage (WIM) in 2013.

The shift towards considering human mobility within this architecture does not appear to be a passing trend and it has already been institutionalised within the UNFCCC on two separate instances. Firstly, human mobility has been included on the work plan of the (WIM) since it was created in 2013. Secondly, the decision of the Paris climate change negotiations in December 2015 created a task force situated within this mechanism to “develop recommendations for integrated approaches to avert, minimize and address displacement related to the adverse impacts of climate change.” These intricacies of the UNFCCC bureaucracy, and the situation of human mobility within them, have an important impact on how people on the move are framed and understood. Moreover, as Nina Hall from Hertie School of Governance observes in her recent investigation on different levels of organisational engagement in the climate regime, different actors also steer the climate-migration debate in order to ensure funding for their actions. This is sometimes in an entrepreneurial fashion beyond their mandates.

Recalibrating understandings of mobility

The consideration and institutionalisation of human mobility as an element of Loss and Damage indicates a recalibration of how mobility is being understood in the context of climate change. Human mobility, as a potential strategy of adaptation to climate change, carries with it positive connotations of the potential for development (or sheer survival) provided by labour migration. However, Loss and Damage is laden with expectations that human mobility will entail incurring losses and damages for the people involved. The nature of these anticipated losses and damages is open-ended. Economic losses, of assets and livelihoods, are prominent. It is likely that less quantifiable losses, such as cultural heritage, political autonomy, and social relationships, will also be drawn into the debate. However, states have also taken care to head off potential claims of responsibility, with the Paris agreement also including the carefully-placed caveat that the articles on Loss and Damage do not “involve or provide a basis for any liability or compensation.” Indeed, this caveat gets to the root of a tension within the politics of Loss and Damage. Technically, Loss and Damage falls under the adaptation pillar of climate politics, with developed states being particularly resistant to creating a new pillar to address Loss and Damage. Liability and compensation are also purposefully excluded from this institutional context, although they are vital components of the wider Loss and Damage discourse. This caveat has therefore already raised opposition from groups who see climate debt and historical responsibility as the basis for any just settlement of the climate-related migration debate.

An approach to migration under climate change, taking climate justice principles at its core, would necessitate discussions surrounding responsibility for the root causes of the problem and thus also compensating for the adverse effects of climate change. Rather, this tangle of political narratives within the current Loss and Damage debates, and also global (geo)politics more broadly, suggests a preoccupation with the prevention of large, uncontrolled movements of (unwanted) people. The occasion for the New York Declaration, being movements of people from mainly (but not solely) Syria towards European countries in 2015-16, also clearly ties related debates to preventing particular movements of particular people. In an ironic twist of fate, Brexit will likely lead to a substitution of unskilled EU migrants with that of non-EU migrants. Similarly at the other end of the migration route, Turkish agriculture is likely to be guarded from the country’s turbulent political down spiral, economic stress and climate impacts by massive intrusion of Syrian migrants in a race to bottom in precariousness and vulnerability.

Moving targets

Having said this, we contend that human mobility, as considered under Loss and Damage, cannot be divorced from climate change politics both inside and outside of the UNFCCC. As targets move for how much warming the world is willing to endure, whether more than 4°C warming that would be likely under a business-as-usual scenario, the 2°C target at the core of the Paris Agreement, or the more aspirational 1.5°C target also contained in this agreement, the way human mobility is impacted also realigns. A politics in which mobility is not presented as a pathology or adverse side effect but rather as part of the human condition is more conceivable in a world where rampant climate change does not force people to move unwillingly from their homes or make them more vulnerable in places where they arrive when they flee persecution or war. However, as climate change influences migration, a new politics of mobility will become all the more important.

This is why climate change itself may only be half of the challenge. By far the more challenging will be confronting how we understand and pathologize people on the move and imagining new mobilities against the background of climate change.


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