Climate Change and Human Mobility: New Perspectives on Climate and Migration, Displacement and Relocation

    Climate Change and Human Mobility: New Perspectives on Climate and Migration, Displacement and Relocation
    by Julia Blocher
    Climate Change, Migration & Displacement

    Full Report Available Here


    • Dr Cosmin Corendea, United Nations University Institute for Environment and Human Security (UNU-EHS) – Climate Change and human mobility: What lessons from regional approaches? 
    • Dr Tamer Afifi,German Federal Office for Migration and Refugees (BAMF), former Senior Scientist at UNU-EHS – Climate change-induced human displacement: From field to policy
    • Dr Bishawjit Mallick, Karlsruhe Institute of Technology (KIT), Oxford University, and Vanderbilt University –‘Non-migration as adaptation’ for the people at risk: A Policy Proposal
    • Dr Susana Adamo, Centre for International Earth Science Information Network at the Earth Institute, Columbia – Climate change, migration and sustainable development in South America: Conclusions of a regional seminar
    • Prof Maxine Burkett, University of Hawai’i at Manoa School of Law and Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars – Justice and Climate Migration: A View from The U.S. Pacific


    • Ms Julia Blocher, United Nations University (UNU) Office in New York


    Human mobility, climate change and the environment are interrelated. While a relatively new field in migration studies, the implications of this complex nexus had been considered by scholars and practitioners for over a decade. This seminar considered several issues related to how climatic and environmental changes interact with human mobility through the findings from empirical studies in Africa, Southeast Asia and the Pacific, North America and South America. Panellists offered expertise on different types of mobility that may be affected by climatic and environmental changes, namely migration, displacement and planned relocation, as well as to the reasons why people affected by the same stimuli do not always migrate.

    These questions were discussed through research findings from case studies from East Africa and the Sahel (Lake Chad Basin, the Tillabéri region in Niger, eastern Tanzania); coastal and riverine Bangladesh; the U.S. Pacific (Majuro, Maloelap Atol and Mejit Islands in the Marshall Islands; and Oahu and Big Islands in Hawai’i); the continental U.S. (Ile de Jean Charles, Louisiana; and La Push, Hoh, Queets, and Taholah Villages in Washington); and the Pacific Island States of Kiribati, Nauru, and Tuvalu.

    Climate Change, Environmental Degradation and Migration

     Environmental degradation can influence the social, political and economic drivers of migration, altering people’s ability to migrate. The impacts of climate change exacerbate and accelerate these drivers in complex ways. More people may be left without the resources to migrate, and rendered immobile or trapped in risky environments. Others may be compelled to migrate more frequently, to farther destinations, or more permanently, in search of natural resources and to find employment.

    Panellists underlined the devastating effects of land degradation, drought and dryness on rural agricultural communities. Perversely, when people suffer from environmental degradation, they also accelerate the rate of human impact on environmental degradation, such as deforestation, due to the need to seek out new livelihoods. Overexploitation of the soils due to agricultural intensification, deforestation, and other causes of land degradation leads to a vicious cycle of environmental stresses. Common causes of overexploitation, combined with other anthropogenic factors such as pollution, compound climate-induced dryness in a worsening cycle.

    Historically, relatively unhindered seasonal migration has been common across the world, as resource-dependent peoples followed the seasonal cycles of temperature and rainfall. In a warming world, such migration may become more long term. Due to the strength of environmental stressors, movements are no longer associated with seasonal events but rather the needs of livelihood-distressed households. This raises the likelihood that such movements – which are presently mainly internal – will become cross-border in the future. However, household characteristics and the attributes of individual household members are integral to migration decision-making. According to the results of another multi-country research project conducted in East Africa, survey respondents did not identify migration as the first or only adaptation strategy employed by the household in response to erratic rainfall. Many also noted other ways of diversifying their livelihoods, modification of crop preference, and reducing daily consumption of food for some or all members of the household. In the Lake Chad river basin, for example, land degradation and erosion has contributed to silting up with sand, which causes the river to become shallower. This leads to quicker and earlier drying of the lake overflow area and has negative effects on fish and food stocks.

    One issue of common concern across case studies is how climate-related migration can deteriorate social and cultural integrity. For example, plans to relocate indigenous island communities away from their ancestral areas in the Marshall Islands have been strongly resisted by the at-risk communities themselves. The Marshallese islanders interviewed for the project strongly resist the idea that the islands could become uninhabitable, and many see the risk of socio-cultural rupture from abandoning their home lands as more alarming. In Africa, the Boudouma tribes native to the Sahel used to identify strongly as cattle herders of vache kouri, a species of cattle that has almost died out as a result of worsening droughts. The species’ endangerment contributed to the tribes’ migration away from the area as well as a crisis of their localised identity.

    Similar concerns emanated from research on coastal communities in Bangladesh. Expressions of place attachment are common among survey respondents, as a response from a fisherman exemplifies: “I know people are coming outsides in our village and are saying that in few years there will be no Gabura [village] on the map, it will be disappeared under water…. [But] I would like to die at my birthplace. You know, when I smell the mud of my home I forget all my melancholies.” Scholarly work has increasingly considered ‘immobility’ as a response to climate change, a point often absent from policy debates. Overall, 79% of people surveyed from 1,204 households in Bangladesh said they did not want to migrate away, even though they were aware of economic opportunities elsewhere.

    The empirical evidence brought forward by the panellists underlined that socio-cultural integrity can be perceived by at-risk communities as greater or more pressing than the threats of land degradation and loss of land that may be propagated by climate change. This perspective was reinforced by a quote from a Bengali fisherman when asked if he would migrate in the face of mounting natural hazards: “Since I was born here, I am living with floods, coping with cyclones and fighting with hunger – where should I go? Migration is not the solution to me and my family.”

    Yet images of drowning islands remain in the popular media, and the issue of planning community relocations for potentially stateless populations is occasionally mooted in policy discussions. The insights brought forth by the panellists, however, suggest that the choice to leave or to stay is not simple or binary. When the risk perception of affected populations is nuanced, community-based responses are paramount.

    At Which Level are Policy Approaches Effective?

     The seminar provided an opportunity for scholars to share practical measures and good practices related to addressing communities affected by climate change. Panellists considered how regional, national and local level approaches could address climate related migration, how these approaches are linked, and what comparative advantages exist at each level.

    Panellists agreed on the need for policy interventions to begin at the local and community levels. Community knowledge and participation are key to ensuring the success of such measures, for example, in ensuring solutions for at-risk populations, protections for displaced people, planning relocations or resettlements for at-risk communities.

    Panellists argued that while all forms of migration are multi-causal, climate-related migration may be considered differently from other ‘types’ of migration because it is the result of a series of economic and political decisions resulting in differential impacts across the globe. Many of these near- and long-term impacts have been discounted in the global political economy. That poor and vulnerable people in developing countries, who have contributed least to the problem – in particular, in coastal and island communities – carry a disproportionate burden of the impacts of climate change, is an injustice. Exploring the concept of ‘climate migration’ is an exercise that tends to lead to more tailored responses in order to ensure the rights protection of those unjustly affected.

    Climate change may not be one of the most important drivers of population movement currently, even as it is already cited as one in the Pacific. However, climate change is not static, and the rate of change is increasing over time. The climate signal as a driver of migration may be entangled with other factors now, but may be stronger as a stand-alone factor in the future.

    There is no theory of environmental rights that leads to environmental duties, and little jurisprudence on the environmental duties of states. Yet while the climate signal may be too trivial or difficult to parse, it has been recognised as something more than an ‘act of God’ or purely natural by member states through the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCC). The panel questioned how the progressive interrelation between climate change, human rights and human mobility advance the implementation of climate policies and how they can be effectively integrated into the implementation of existing mechanisms seeking to assist climate-related migration and displacement (the Paris Agreement, the non-economic component of the UNFCCC Warsaw International Mechanism for Loss and Damage, the states-led Platform for Disaster Displacement). Ultimately, if the international community were to craft rights protection that adequately match the grievances of affected populations, there would be a question of whether such rights are individually and/or community-based. Some claims and grievances, as noted above, are made by individuals at the community level or by a community as a whole.

    Today, panellists emphasised, governments and the international community have an opportunity to address the concerns of at-risk communities and minimise future harms of climate change. This would better be conducted in a reparative – rather than accommodating – manner with the full participation of the affected community.

    Each study presented reinforced the necessity of community need for climate change solutions. Since the impacts of climate change act as a risk multiplier, it affects people’s livelihoods, health, food security, water security and human mobility – all of which are related to the basic rights to life, food, freedom of movement, and more. It is important that affected people’s rights are safeguarded, including their controversial right to development.

    In some communities, particularly those governed by customary law as in the Pacific, a basic understanding of human rights may not be coherent with a common institutional human rights perspective. Of survey respondents in Vanuatu, for example, over 70% were found to have a different cultural understanding of human rights, as compared with standards found in international law. This reality underscores the risks inherent in attempting to implement international legal frameworks, such as the Paris Agreement and the New York Declaration, at the local and community levels.

    Policy interventions conceived at the international level occasionally contradict the solutions and approaches to the impacts of climate change already developed by affected communities, including migration. To best make these community-based solutions and approaches sustainable, however, they should be supported by a legal framework. The rule of law needs to be brought into the climate change process at the local, national and international levels in order to protect rights, reduce risk, build resilience, empower people, and facilitate positive migration. This will have the progressive dividend of reducing involuntary migration en masse.

    Panellists noted that in the case of recurrent natural hazards, the households that moved away were the wealthiest, while under-resourced households became trapped in a spiral of vulnerability. The conditions of the household prior to migration determines how ‘successful’ the household will be in employing migration to attain greater income opportunities. Disaster-induced displacement is a situation that is ever more permanent for at-risk communities affected by structural inequality and battered by increasingly frequent and intense hazards. Furthermore, the poorly managed and sudden movement of people can also entail significant effects on surrounding ecosystems.


    There are generally five pathways in which climate change can affect human mobility: sudden-onset disaster(s); slow-onset environmental degradation; destruction of Small Island States; designated Prohibited Areas (for Human Habitation); unrest, violence, or conflict (understood broadly) over resources. These point to the main areas for policy interventions, which should be tailored to specific contexts and informed by research.

    To address slow-onset environmental degradation and ‘distress migration’, governments and international organisations can:

    • Invest in land restoration irrigation projects to reduce the pressures of climate variability and dryness that can precipitate movement by livelihood-stressed populations.
    • Better invest development aid; for example, by mainstreaming migration into development projects and ensuring a longer-term climate lens is taken in resilience-building projects. This can help ensure policy coherence of development interventions, while maximising benefits for target populations.

    The risks of forced migration resulting from climate change impacts, such as social disarticulation and immobility, disproportionately affect island and coastal communities. Land use is identified as one of the priority areas where action can be taken. A global compact on migration could include:

    • Member States’ commitment to build on regional and bottom-up approaches.
    • Assurances of right to stay, the right to land and resource use, and the continuity of community rights; these are all issues where customary law may prevail over other types of law, therefore community-specific and sensitive solutions are needed.
    • Commitment at the regional and global level to support bottom-up solutions through adaptation financing and support, for example, for National Adaptation Plans (NAPs).
    • Reinforcements of institutional and infrastructural development aiming to reduce livelihood vulnerability to natural hazards.

    The panel advocated for a reconciliation of the disconnect between the current body of research and policy making in this field for example, through:

    • Better inclusion of policymakers in multiple stages of project design and development.
    • Policy makers can be clearer with researchers about their priorities.
    • A greater encouragement of involvement by the private sector, particularly in terms of meeting the technical and financial challenges of climate change adaptation.

    More interdisciplinary research is needed to understand the complex and multi-causal links between climate change and human mobility, including the indirect impacts of climate change. Greater attention to household surveys and focus groups may be needed in the case of slow-onset events. This should include longitudinal research designs, albeit costly and time consuming, to better research migration through a systems approach. In the case of displacements, it is crucial to analyse the temporality of movements: how long migrants are away for, how these temporalities are determined by a strategy in each household, and if and how large-scale migratory flows can be reversed.

    With a better understanding of differential risk exposure – as climate change and variability particularly affects the poorest people, particularly women, children, the elderly – a better comprehension of the relationship between population movements and climate change vulnerability as well as adaption may be possible. Panellists concurred that understanding migration necessitates understanding why people do not want to leave and help governments work to foster the right to stay. Such efforts should address not only the causes of the movements, but also the factors that explain why people are tied to certain places.

    Panellists cautioned against directly associating migration with climate change, but supported efforts to translate global climate phenomena into regional or local level impacts. Due to the uncertainties of down-scaling global climate impacts, more research and cross-fertilisation with natural scientists would be beneficial.

    Human mobility related to unrest, conflict or violence over scarce resources did not feature strongly in the discussion, as the link in tenuously drawn in most scholarly work.