The politics of climate justice, migration and mobility

Special series on Migration, Mobilities and the Environment

Migration Mobilities Bristol (MMB) and the Cabot Institute for the Environment bring together researchers from across the University of Bristol to explore connections between movement and the environment from a multi-disciplinary perspective. These diverse approaches highlight the importance of developing frames that incorporate both migration and environment, and in so doing benefit our understandings of both. Here, the directors of MMB and the Cabot Institute introduce the blog series.

By Bridget Anderson and Guy Howard.

Migration is often mobilised to illustrate the enormity of the challenge of climate change. Some Small Island States in the Pacific, for instance, may become uninhabitable with sea-level rise. Highly vulnerable countries in South Asia, including Bangladesh and the Maldives, may see large proportions of their populations forced to move because of sea-level rise, floods and salinisation of water. US climate envoy John Kerry recently fuelled fears of a future where food production collapse would force a ‘hundred million people’ to move. His comments strongly implied that even those of us who imagine we are protected from the frontline of climate change will be faced with the challenges of ‘climate refugees’ in their millions.

Seven Sisters Park flooded, 2020 (image: Peter Castleton on flickr)

Kerry’s remarks were heavily criticised, but this is not to deny that there is a connection between the world’s ecosystems and environment and human movement. It is easiest to causally relate environmental factors to migration in situations of ‘rapid onset disasters’ – destructive events that occur suddenly, such as typhoons or floods. In these situations, people move to survive, but often to a place of safety a short distance away, and they return to rebuild homes and lives once the emergency has abated. But many environmental changes are taking place over periods spanning two or three generations. ‘Slow onset’ environmental change can be a primary or contributing factor to deteriorating socio-economic conditions – increasing periods of drought, or crop yields declining rather than collapsing, for instance. In these circumstances, migration can be an important way to diversify income streams. Environmental change may also contribute to shifts in land usage and land ownership, which again may result in migration.

Declining resources can also prevent people from moving, especially when resources are slowly depleted over a generation or more. Limited access to capital can force people into illegal or exploitative migration or lead them to delay moving until forced to do so in an unplanned way – perhaps because of a rapid onset disaster that they no longer have the resilience to cope with.

The challenges faced by people who don’t move may become more severe when combined with conflict. For example, in Somalia, armed conflict has hindered the movement of pastoralists, who would otherwise relocate as a response to drought. It has also limited the possibilities of humanitarian organisations to assist them. Human mobility and environmental change are deeply interconnected but need to be understood systemically not simplistically if we are work towards climate justice.

Understanding the relationship between migration and environmental change in a more holistic and integrated way has important policy implications. For example, economic factors can mean that people migrate to places of environmental instability as well as migrating from places of environmental instability. Currently 55% of the world’s population lives in cities, and it is forecast that by 2050 this will increase to nearly 70%; nearly 60% of forcibly displaced people move to urban areas (World Bank, 2020). Many cities are extremely vulnerable to future environmental change, and already experience high temperatures, sea level rise, water stress and threats to health. Rural to urban migrants are often especially vulnerable, as they tend to move to neighbourhoods with high population density that are prone to environmental risks – think of the favelas in Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo, or the slums of Dhaka, Nairobi and Mumbai.

In these contexts, migrants, whether rural-urban or international, can be represented as an environmental problem in themselves. The movements of the poor are also represented as a root cause of problems: migration destroys carbon sinks, ‘environmental refugees’ put pressure on already scarce resources and services and so on. Rather than seeing the interconnections of human movement and climate change, the risk is that the politics of climate and the mobility of the poor – that is, ‘migration’ – are framed as oppositional. As a result, in wealthy countries we are seeing increasing tensions between politics of the environment and politics of migration, as illustrated by John Kerry’s remarks.

It is critical, then, to recognise the complexity of the connections between (human) movement and ecosystems. This new blog series, co-published by MMB and the Cabot Institute for the Environment, draws attention to some of these connections and raises questions for further research to help us understand in more depth the relationship between movement and the environment, and its political significance. The contributions in the series approach this relationship from many angles, ranging from the role of water access in shaping migration to debates around the status of the ‘environmental refugee’. One analyses the environmental footprint of home working versus office working to explore the sustainability potential of our increasing immobility. Others focus on animals and plants on the move: we have writing on the ecological context of bird migrations and on the hyper-mobility of the European eel. Meanwhile, other posts look at the movement of goods and how humans locate themselves in, and move through, landscapes of extraction and risk. In bringing together such diverse topics we hope this series will encourage new conversations about the connections between migrations, mobilities and environments.

Bridget Anderson is Professor of Migration, Mobilities and Citizenship at the University of Bristol, and Director of Migration Mobilities Bristol. Guy Howard is Global Research Chair Environmental and Infrastructure Resilience at the University of Bristol, and Director of the Cabot Institute for the Environment.

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