Why the climate migrant narrative is problematic

Alarmist rhetoric about an imminent climate migration crisis may make for a flashy headline, but it fails to capture the nuances of climate-induced migration.

As climate change continues to exacerbate extreme weather events around the world, climate migration promises to be a key point of discussion at the 26th United Nations Climate Change Conference, or COP26, which is currently underway. For such a widely-discussed topic, however, climate migration is too often misunderstood.

Estimates of the number of people who will be displaced by climate change range wildly, with some placing the number at tens of millions while others predict that over one billion people will be displaced. Although forced migration scholars warn against believing these estimates at face value, popular media continues to paint a future where hordes of migrants escaping natural disasters in the Global South flood into the West. But this is a grave misconception.

Displacement projections are often based on broad conclusions drawn from researchers’ crude approximations of which areas are vulnerable to sea-level rise and the expected population growth within those areas. As a result, projections of the amount of people who will be displaced by climate change are truly just the number of people who live in at-risk areas. This methodology assumes that people who live in climate change vulnerable areas will automatically want to move when disaster strikes, but there are several reasons why this may not be the case. Some people do not have the economic means to relocate, and others simply do not want to leave the land that they have strong ties to. Among people who do choose to leave, the majority of movement is within borders.

Although those who tout the inflated migration statistics often mean well and reference them as a rallying cry to push for stronger action against climate change, this rhetoric will adversely impact migrants in the long run. Anti-immigrant governments can frame climate migration as a security threat and use this narrative as a vehicle for xenophobic policies. Due to the fear of unabated climate migration, for instance, support for former U.S. President Donald Trump’s notorious border wall project increased.

In contrast with the narrative of an impending overwhelming influx of climate migrants, climate migration is generally a gradual process. Pacific island countries have lobbied for migration assistance for decades. For example, Tuvalu spent the 1990s seeking controlled migration opportunities to Australia as a response to overcrowding. However, once the climate displacement narrative became more popular, the international community forgot about the effects of resource constraints on Pacific islander migration and focused solely on the influence of climate change. While climate change can certainly factor into a person’s decision to move, it is typically more of a compounding factor — or more officially, a threat-multiplier — than the main cause.

And perhaps the most harmful aspect of the alarmist rhetoric about the climate migration movement is that it disempowers the very communities on the frontlines of climate change.

As environmental researchers Jon Barnett and John Campbell write in their book Climate Change and Small Island States: “Discourses on the vulnerability of the Pacific islands largely emanate from outside the region: the vulnerability of the islands is a symbol used by researchers who need problems to investigate, journalists who need problems to sell, and NGOs who need problems to solve.”

These vulnerability narratives imply that Pacific island countries need saving from foreign sources, when in reality, local knowledge on sustainable climate adaptation already exists. Pacific islanders are on the frontlines of climate innovation, from Fijian solar- and wind-powered sea vessels to Samoan techniques for rapidly multiplying banana propagation. The Pacific Climate Warriors, a group of indigenous climate activists, have also organized a successful blockade of an Australian coal port and several divestment campaigns.

In the fight to combat climate change, the voices of Pacific islanders are crucial. The advocacy of Micronesian leaders at COP21 in 2015 led to the now-popular “1.5 to stay alive” campaign, which aims to cap global warming at 1.5ºC.

This year, prior to COP26, the Pacific Climate Action Network released a list of demands that called for ending fossil fuel subsidies, mobilizing $100 billion annually toward supporting sustainable communities in the Pacific, and holding polluters accountable. However, few Pacific island delegates are attending COP26 due to challenges in navigating COVID-19 quarantine requirements, lack of vaccine access, travel costs, and visa rules. The lack of accessibility of the conference for the countries most affected by climate change speaks to the inequity of COP26.

But the Pacific Island delegates who were able to attend are ensuring that their citizens’ perspectives are still being represented. At the opening ceremony on Nov. 1, 23-year-old Samoan climate activist Brianna Fruean implored world leaders to remember that their promises are hollow without meaningful action. She also spoke to the inspiration she found in her fellow activists in the fight against climate change.

“We are not just victims to this crisis. We have been resilient beacons of hope,” Fruean said. “We are not drowning. We are fighting. This is our warrior cry to the world.”

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