Environmental Migration Adapting to Climate Change

In Amhara the deforestation process and erosion, has increased the area’s proneness to droughts and flooding.
In Amhara the deforestation process and erosion, has increased the area’s proneness to droughts and flooding. | Photo (detail): © Flickr CC BY-SA 2.0 European Commission DG ECHO

The flight from inhospitable places is one of the most ancient strategies of humanity. As a result of climate change, creeping environmental changes and weather-related natural disasters will increase significantly. Climate policy should respond to this, claims political scientist Steffen Bauer.

The IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) has confirmed in a special report published in 2012 that, as a result of climate change, creeping environmental changes and weather-related natural disasters will increase significantly. The torrential rains that struck England and Wales in February 2014, and the typhoon Haiyan that devastated parts of the Philippines in November 2013, illustrate vividly what we may expect in future from global warming and rising sea levels.

It stands to reason that such extreme events can also influence the migration behaviour of the people affected. This is especially true of people living in places where developmental conditions impede effective adaptation to changing circumstances. For example, densely populated coastal regions in developing countries are particularly vulnerable. Here it is of secondary significance whether the storm disaster can be traced to natural weather extremes or to man-made climate change: those for whom the necessities of life threaten to break away must respond to this threat.

The question about the cause of migration is nevertheless a controversial issue in politics and international law, as the debates about so-called climate refugees show. Unlike war refugees and those persecuted for reasons of religion, people who migrate as a result of changed environmental conditions fall through the cracks in international rights and rules on migration. Although more and more attention is being paid to this problem, appropriate political and legal instruments are still lacking to grapple with it usefully. The excitement with which the supposed millions of climate refugees are conjured up as an international security risk is of little help. On the contrary, it fails to recognize the complexity of the migration process.

The term climate refugees is misleading

Migration research shows that under conditions of poverty individual members of primarily smallholder households migrate so as to live and work for a limited time in another place. When, against the odds, they succeed in earning money there, they generally use it to support their families back home. These families are dependent on such help to cope with the negative effects of environmental changes – for example, drought-related crop failures. Thus environmental migration is by no means automatically about permanent expulsion, but more often pragmatic strategies of adaptation.

Clear causal relationships between the effects of climate change and migration behaviour are difficult to prove. The individual decision to migrate usually has many grounds and should also be evaluated within the context of economic and social factors. The question whether this hurricane or that drought is a direct consequence of climate change can hardly be adequately answered. For this reason alone it is not useful to focus only on climate change as a cause of flight in seeking answers to the challenges of environmental migration. Moreover, a consistent policy addressed only to climate refugees would have to exclude migration resulting from non-climatic natural catastrophes such as earthquakes. This would be ethically and politically hard to justify. In addition, it is difficult to distinguish between voluntary and forced migration in environmental migration. In very few cases, however, can migration due to environmental change be described as flight in the sense of international law.

Defensive migration policy is not appropriate

An initiative promoted by Norway and Switzerland takes up the issue of environmental migration within the context of an international consultation process in order finally to develop appropriate solutions compatible with international law. Even if here, too, many questions remain open, the Nansen Initiative, named after the first High Commissioner for Refugees at the League of Nations, points in an encouraging direction. Required above all, however, are national and international frameworks that are friendlier to environmental migration. The defensive reflex prevalent in the European Union, in accordance with which migration is above all to be restricted and curbed, is no longer appropriate given the real challenges of a globalized world. Especially in the context of climate change, migration remains a legitimate adaptation strategy whose importance will increase in coming decades.