On the Move: How Nations Address Climate-Driven Migration

Over time, the norm of territorial sovereignty has become increasingly tied to the idea of nationalism—the belief that groups sharing a common language, history, culture, etc., are entitled to govern themselves and preserve their own cultural identity, typically within a geographic area to which they have an historical attachment.

Given the desire to preserve one’s homeland and national character (whatever that may be), it is not surprising that states want full authority to determine who may enter, transit, or remain within their territory.

He concludes:

I wish I knew how to solve this problem, but it’s a safe bet that it will get worse in the years ahead. Demographics, continued economic inequality, political violence, and climate change are going to encourage even more people to seek richer or safer locations, and destination countries are not likely to put out the welcome mat to the extent necessary to accommodate the numbers involved. If recent trends are any indication, the reverse is more likely.

In the new RAND report, titled Addressing Climate Migration: A Review of National Policy Approaches, researchers provide a framework for understanding how nation-states are developing policies to respond to climate migration and mobility. They review examines policies in six countries: Bangladesh, Kiribati, Kenya, Norway, the United States, and Vanuatu. The authors of the report note that each country has different means and faces different climate mobility pressures, but by evaluating these case studies, the authors identify a variety of policies and programs that governments are undertaking to prepare for, enable, channel, assist, or prevent the climate-induced human movement that is already ongoing in some places and is expected to increase significantly in both number and geographic scope in the coming decades.

The report uses this analysis to identify the reasons that states pursue climate mobility policies, and identify categories of policy responses that countries are enacting. “These findings can provide policymakers with high-level options when considering the broad needs of climate migrants and their host communities and when designing their own policies,” the report’s authors write.

Here are excerpts from the RAND report:

What Is Climate Migration?
Defining climate migration can be a challenging task but is necessary for policymakers. In the public imagination, climate migration results from catastrophic upheavals, such as rising seas flooding homes, that send desperate people fleeing for their lives. But this is only one part of a wider and more complex story. Climate-induced migration can take many forms across many geographic and time scales, reflecting a spectrum of felt urgency. In general, however, climate change is making some places less safe and amenable to live in, prompting inhabitants to move elsewhere. This is part of a longer trend in human his-tory, in which environmental stresses have often prompted movement (Hunter, Luna, and Norton, 2015; McLeman, 2013). From prehistoric migrations, such as the one across the Bering Strait (Fagan, 2004), to more-recent events, such as the mass migration from North America’s Great Plains in response to the Dust Bowl of the 1930s (McLeman and Smit, 2006), both abrupt and long-term shifts in the cli-mate have affected human settlement and migration patterns. As climate change impacts intensify—for example, through sea level rise; drought; and more-extreme weather events, such as storms and heat waves—human mobility is once again expected to intensify (Adger et al., 2014, Chapter 12; Hauer, Evans, and Mishra, 2016; Hauer et al., 2020; Masson-Delmotte et al., 2018, pp. 244–245; Rigaud et al., 2018; Robinson, Dilkina, and Moreno-Cruz, 2020).

But the relationship between climate change and migration is not straightforward. Migration in any context is a product of many interacting factors—including eco-nomic, social, political, demographic, cultural, and environmental conditions (Black et al., 2011; McLeman, 2013; UK Government Office for Science, 2011)—and climate change can affect each of those factors directly or indirectly. For instance, climate change influences long-term weather patterns, resulting in changing environmental conditions across different geographic areas. In turn, these changes can shape the viability of economic production that depends on the environment (e.g., agriculture) and the localized and broader economies that rely on those resources. The Sahel region offers a concrete example of this point: There, a changing climate is creating shorter rainy seasons and longer dry seasons, which is reducing grassland vegetation growth and altering the local pastoralist livelihood structures and the larger economic systems (World Bank, 2020). As livelihoods are increasingly stressed, the resources needed for people to remain in the region are growing larger than the resources needed to leave, prompting greater seasonal and permanent migration and creating an imbalance with deep equity concerns. These social and economic impacts of drought can be tempered—or exacerbated—by the natural management techniques in place and by early-warning and early-action drought response systems (Fitzgibbon and Crosskey, 2013; Mortimore, 2010).

In addition, there may be specific obstacles and facilitators of migration, such as legal frameworks, government policies, social networks, and personal and household characteristics and resources. For example, when considering migration, residents might consider the health care, education, jobs, and environmental resources that they can access at home and elsewhere, as well as the communities with which they are connected. Indeed, even drastic environmental change does not lead unequivocally to migration if households or populations do not have the resources necessary to move away from negative climate impacts (UK Government Office for Science, 2011). Alternatively, potential migrants might decide to remain where they are if they have the right resources to endure change and not just survive but thrive. People’s circumstances are what creates their vulnerability to climate-related hazards and can place them in positions of peril, but those circumstances can also give people the capacity to adapt and thrive in the face of adversity (Wisner et al., 2004). Finally, mobility has been a common response to environmental variability through-out human history. Whether it is seasonal migration or a broader shift to adapt to a changing climate, this form of mobility is not new, even if it is becoming increasingly common and notable. Migration, in this sense, is a form of adaptation (Black et al., 2011).

As a result of this complicated relationship between climate change and migration, climate migration is very hard to quantify and differentiate from other forms of migration (Adger et al., 2014, p. 768; Boas et al., 2019, p. 902; Kelman, 2019; Mayer, 2016). These conceptual and methodological difficulties are partly what has led to the wide array of estimates of environmentally displaced migrants noted earlier, and some experts even recommend against trying to provide a count (Associated Press, 2020; Bernstein and Hay, 2020; Crepelle, 2018; Kelman, 2019; UK Government Office for Science, 2011; U.S. Census Bureau, 2021). On a more human level, many migrants whom some experts classify as climate migrants do not see themselves as such and instead classify themselves as other forms of migrants. For instance, residents of Tuvalu, a country frequently labeled as being home to some of the first climate migrants, push back against being called climate migrants. Instead, they describe their migration as linked to historic patterns derived from long-standing migration-related practices (Farbotko and Lazrus, 2012). In the box on the next page, we offer three additional examples of populations that some would classify as climate migrants and some would not.

In the literature, definitions of climate migration are still being developed; although this is not a new issue, it is newly studied because of its growing prevalence. Climate migration differs from such popular terms as climate refugee, which calls attention to only certain forms of movement and thus neglects the complexities present when circumstances force people to stay in affected places. That term also typically misuses the legal category of refugee, which focuses on the threat of persecution and has an internationally agreed upon definition from the 1951 Refugee Convention (United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, 2010).(2)

Although a single definition of climate migration is elusive, many scholars have focused on categories of movement that constitute the category. For example, some scholars have developed definitions that focus on the causes of migration. Walter Kälin (2010), for instance, identifies climate migration as migration caused by sudden-onset disasters, slow-onset environmental degradation, the sub-mergence of small island countries because of rising sea levels, planned evacuation from high-risk areas, and unrest or armed conflict resulting from climate-induced resource shortages. Benoît Mayer (2016, pp. 15–16) suggests adding four more categories of causes or motivations to this definition: new economic opportunities created by positive impacts of climate change, development projects related to climate change mitigation, economic incentives related to action on climate change mitigation, and the inf lux of climate migrants to their home area.

Other scholars address the nature of the movement. The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change’s 2010 Cancun Adaptation Framework, the first international climate agreement to mention migration related to climate change, presents three categories of the nature of movement induced by climate change: displacement (when people are forced to leave because of disasters related to climate change), migration (when people leave because of the broader and slower impacts of climate change), and planned relocation (when some central authority, such as a state, makes efforts to relocate people) (United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, 2011, para. 14(f); see also Warner et al., 2013). In these definitional debates, Jane McAdam (2012, p. 17) points to whether the movement is voluntary or involuntary; whether the trigger is a rapid-onset disaster or a slow-onset climatic process; whether the movement is internal or international; whether there are political reasons to connect the movement to climate change; and the role of human intentionality, such as discrimination, in driving or aggravating the movement.

Rather than attempt to circumscribe precisely what climate migration includes or excludes, we follow recent scholarship (Baldwin, Fröhlich, and Rothe, 2019; Boas et al., 2019; Wiegel, Boas, and Warner, 2019) and adopt the term climate mobility to describe the intersection of human movement and climate change. The term’s breadth highlights the range of mobile individuals’ and populations’ many timelines (from temporary f light and seasonal

departure to permanent relocation), geographies (from just up the hill to another country altogether), and motivations (from desperate escape to hopeful opportunity-seeking). As noted earlier, one mobility decision is immobility, which can be a deliberate choice or can result from people being unable to move because of government policies (see next section) or a lack of resources. Climate mobility is there-fore a more expansive concept than climate migration and climate displacement, which are generally understood to refer to movement that is voluntary or forced, respectively, as well as unidirectional and permanent. Using the term climate mobility also acknowledges that examining the related impacts requires more than examining just migration flows; equitable climate mobility policies must focus on both people with the privilege to remain behind in stressed areas and those whose lack of resources prevents them from moving. Expansiveness notwithstanding, analyzing climate mobility provides sufficient boundaries to be useful in dis-cussing what constitutes climate mobility policy.

Key Insights

·  Climate change is contributing to human mobility. But because migration stems from a combination of factors, estimates of how many people will be displaced because of environmental changes by 2050 vary widely, from 25 million to about 1 billion.

·  Most climate migration happens within rather than across national borders. The nation-state will be the primary entity man-aging climate migration and therefore will bear the most responsibility for policymaking, but multilateral organizations could play a larger role in transnational climate migration policy.

·  This projected surge in migration could result in positive or negative outcomes for migrants and their host communities and countries. Government policies related to housing, jobs, health care, and other issues will play a large role in determining these outcomes.

·  We established a definition of climate mobility from the existing literature and used insights from that literature to define climate mobility policy, which has lacked a widely accepted meaning.

·  The reasons that states enact climate mobility policies fall into five categories: security and rule of law, rights, development, preservation of customs and cultures, and resilience. These reasons can reinforce each other but can also lead to conflicting policies. We refer to these five categories as policy frames.

·  We also identified that countries are enacting climate mobility policies in five categories: mobility control, social protection, built environment and physical adaptation, government reform, and planned relocation. Although there is no single recipe for climate mobility policy, it is important for governments to consider the full set of needs of climate migrants and their host communities when making policy decisions. These five categories could serve as a menu of options for states making climate mobility policy or as a checklist of issues to not neglect.

·  A climate mobility strategy can have valuable forcing functions (i.e., catalysts for change) that call attention to such issues as the human rights of migrants, national security, and the need to reinforce the resilience of precarious communities or pillars of cultural heritage. But the impact of climate change on a population is dependent on and influenced by broader policies. Thus, we do not recommend that every country have a comprehensive, national climate mobility strategy. Instead, we recommend that countries integrate climate mobility considerations into a variety of other policies and adopt climate-specific policies where necessary. The physical impacts of climate change may make some amount of human migration necessary, but how much mass movement occurs and whether it leads to mass suffering are, to a large degree, up to policymakers. Impacts on households and communities are not inevitable. Instead, decisions about economics, politics, the natural and built environment, public services, and other issues will determine whether and how people cope with the effects of climate change (Wisner et al., 2004). In other words, policies shape populations’ ability to manage the risks related to climate change; in particular, policies can influence people’s exposure to climate-related hazards,

Three Examples of U.S. Climate Migration

These three examples illustrate the difficulty in defining who is and is not a climate migrant. In each of the following examples, the individuals or communities involved could reasonably be classified as climate migrants. And yet, as each example shows, there are confounding factors that make it difficult to separate climate change impacts and mobility from other challenges not related to climate change.

Sea level rise–related migration: Relocation of Isle de Jean Charles, Louisiana. Many places in the United States, as across the world, are expected to become uninhabitable because of sea level rise directly associated with climate change. For example, residents of the Isle de Jean Charles in the Gulf Coast region of Louisiana struggled with rising sea levels for decades before efforts began to resettle the tribal community that lives there. Formal resettlement efforts are ongoing, but some of the community has already left. The media and others have described the community as the first climate migrants in the United States (see, for example, Crepelle, 2018; Davenport and Robertson, 2016). But the sea level rise in Isle de Jean Charles is not related solely to climate change. Rather, the sea level rise results from a combination of climate change and environmental degradation, such as the destruction of wetlands associated with activity by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the Gulf of Mexico’s petrochemical industry, as well as a lack of investment in mitigation.

Climate hazard–related migration: 2020 Oregon wildfires. Climate change is increasing the intensity and frequency of many climate-related hazards, and populations that migrate after these hazards occur could be classified as climate migrants. For example, in 2020 in Oregon, 40,000 people temporarily evacuated in response to wildfires. The fires also destroyed five towns, prompting longer-term migration. Although climate change can increase the intensity of wildfires and other climate hazards, such events are also a product of natural resource management and other social structures that influence the way that the built environment is managed.

Economic-related migration: Truckee, California’s shrinking ski season. The city of Truckee is a winter tourism hub on the northern California side of Lake Tahoe. The ski industry contributed hundreds of thousands of jobs and nearly $1.4 billion to California’s economy in 2009–2010 (much of that money is focused on the northern Sierra Nevada mountains around Truckee), as well as about $82 million to nearby Nevada’s economy (Burakowski and Magnusson, 2012, Table 4). Climate changes are forecasted to decrease the number of cold days—defined as those with temperatures below 32 degrees Fahrenheit—by 80 per-cent by the end of the 21st century, to a total of just 20 days per year on average (McCusker and Hess, 2018). These shifts will place obvious economic pressure on Truckee and the neighboring metropolitan areas of Sacramento and Reno that could lead to economically driven migration by both seasonal and permanent residents.

(1)  In this paper, we use climate migration to refer to the migration that results from the impacts of climate change. The International Organization for Migration defines the term as “the movement of a person or groups of persons who, predominantly for reasons of sudden or progressive change in the environment due to climate change, are obliged to leave their habitual place of residence, or choose to do so, either temporarily or permanently, within a State or across an international border” (International Organization for Migration, 2019, p. 31). Later in this paper, we offer more detail on our definition of this and related terms.

(2)  There is currently no legal category of climate refugee in international treaties. See McAdam, 2012.

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