Climate change will have enormous effects on the ability of people to live and earn a livelihood in many areas of the world. This is often assumed to mean there will be a ‘flood’ of cross-border out-migration from the most-affected areas.
This narrative is inaccurate, harmful, and pervasive despite longstanding criticism. This blog explores the reasons behind this narrative and its effects, and suggests a different view for communications and policy.
A narrative of mass international displacement
Addressing the UN Security Council in February, Antonio Guterres warned that climate change will result in “mass exodus on a biblical scale”. The US ambassador to the UN predicted “billions… displaced as climate refugees.” This is not a new claim, and it is one that has again been seeing more airtime at COP28 in Dubai. From the first IPCC reports in the late 1980s, when the panel suggested that the greatest single impact of climate change might be on human migration, the link has become the default. It has been picked up by left-leaning and right-leaning newspapers; by thinktanks of every stripe; by public intellectuals writing alarmist books; and, unsurprisingly, increasingly by the public itself.
Politics reflects this consensus. ‘Climate migration’ has been referenced three hundred times in British parliamentary debates, with a recent intervention in the House of Lords suggesting that “climate change by itself, let alone the conflicts it is already causing, will lead to at least 800 million more refugees in total by 2050.” Similarly, ‘climate refugees’ have been mentioned thirty-five times in US Congress debates, with representatives arguing that “the climate crisis… will lead millions to flood across borders as stateless climate refugees.”
In the British media, those moving in the context of climate change are presented as one of two things: victims, with little agency and needing protection, or security threats likely to destabilise recipient countries. An analysis of representations in the BBC and Al Jazeera adds two further categories: activists, angered by their unjust situation, and abstractions, distantly referenced in passing in discussions of academic debates. Across the spectrum, the migrants discussed are almost invariably presented as moving from the Global South to the Global North, with little attention given to those remaining in their countries of origin.
An inaccurate narrative
The academic consensus is that climate migration will not lead to ‘floods’ of refugees. One influential article goes so far as to argue that “predictions of mass climate-induced migration are inherently flawed.” This is the case for four reasons.
Firstly, there is the very real definitional issue: it is not possible to say that one person is a ‘climate migrant’, and another is not. Efforts have been made to predict future migration flows within estimated future climate scenarios, but these are indicative at best.
Secondly, of those who do move in climate-affected circumstances (but very seldom ‘because of’ climate change) the vast majority will move within their own country. Where they do move across borders, they will typically remain within their own region.
Thirdly, climate change will make migration less accessible, leading to ‘trapped’ populations. Climate change will erode assets, leaving many affected populations without the money to undertake expensive movement, both internal and international. Those still with the resources to invest in migration will be among the richest in their areas— and the numbers are not likely to be as large as often suggested.
Fourthly, most people do not want to move. Even when movement is available, most prefer to remain where they have cultural connections and family. In the academic discourse, this is referred to as ‘acquiescent immobility’: people who are immobile, and content to be so. In the Pacific, in particular, the desire to remain in place is now a key touchstone. When New Zealand offered a ‘climate’ visa in 2017, it was shelved due to lack of interest; the new climate-related pathway offered by Australia has attracted opprobrium in Tuvalu.
The opposing motivations behind the narrative: mitigation and security
There are broadly two groups continuing to boost the narrative that climate change will result in enormous migration flows.
The first group comprises those deeply worried about climate change. For them, the ‘flood’ narrative is intended to spur audiences towards greater action on reducing emissions. They may believe that humanising future livelihood loss and displacement will motivate action out of solidarity and empathy. It may also be made out of a desire to exploit fears of ‘mass migration’ in the Global North. See, for example, a briefing arguing that “the presentation of climate migration as a security risk… is a measured and reasonable assessment”, and that in this assessment, moreover, is the “perhaps unique” opportunity to “upgrade” the climate emergency “from being ‘important’ to being ‘urgent’”. Guterres falls into the group making this argument, as do many other well-meaning advocates.
The second group, by contrast, directly uses the climate-migration link to argue for increased border securitisation. These include members of the security industry spying a chance to expand their influence; politicians taking advantage of nativist rhetoric; and actors seeking to increase fear of increased future migration to justify repressive measures. For example Frontex, the EU’s highly controversial border agency, argued in its 2022 Strategic Risk Analysis that of all ‘megatrends’, “climate change will possibly have the greatest effects on border security in the future”, justifying increased activities. Several border security companies have proposed that climate change will drive increased demand for their products. Across Europe and elsewhere, migrants are already being unfairly blamed by right-wing politicians for environmental damage in both their country of origin and their new host country.
The narrative’s unintended consequences
Does this narrative achieve its proponents’ goals? For the border securitisation crowd, the answer appears to be yes. While it is impossible to establish any direct relation between the securitisation of the ‘climate migration’ discourse and restrictive immigration practices, spending continues to increase. A 2021 report found that from 2013-2018, seven of the highest-emitting countries spent at least double on border security and immigration enforcement than they supplied in climate finance. If public opinion buys into the prevailing ‘flood’ narrative, this could prompt greater funding for border securitisation, and greater support for anti-immigration populists able to provide simple narratives.
What about the group using the narrative to drive emissions mitigation? Does the ‘migrant flood’ story make people more sympathetic? Frustratingly, the answer here is no. In a study in the US, reading about ‘climate-induced migration’ has no effect on participants’ climate concerns or support for green policies. In Japan, a study finds that participants are less likely to support even climate adaptation funding for countries predicted to send greater numbers of climate migrants. Finally, in the US, a representative YouGov poll of 1,000 Americans found that exposure to the narrative does not change attitudes. Instead, responses appear to follow pre-existing political divides and wider perceptions on climate. Democrats are more likely to believe in anthropogenic climate change, and in resulting mass displacement— but these people already support actions to reduce emissions. Republicans are more sceptical of climate change as a phenomenon, and therefore also disbelieve the ‘climate migration flood’ narrative. In other words, the narrative appears unlikely to change hearts and minds.
Nearly two thirds of Americans think that climate change will cause mass displacement
Worse, it seems to also risk harming attitudes towards immigrants. The study in the US found that reading about ‘climate-induced migration’ (as opposed to immigration unrelated to climate change) resulted in more negative attitudes toward immigrants, invoking a nativist response.
The ‘flood’ narrative therefore doesn’t seem to successfully reach new audiences and convince them of the need for greener policies. It is inaccurate, and does not work. Worse still: based on the little research conducted so far, it may do harm. The narrative increases distrust of migration, but does not compensate through any positive effect on climate positions. Beyond this, it is also possible that the focus on ‘big numbers’ and ‘migrant floods’ may suggest unavoidability, creating despair or apathy.
Those who care about the effects of climate change must look beyond their siloes. A narrative that is ineffective in one silo (mitigation policy) and causes harm in another (migration and adaptation policy) should be abandoned.
What are the alternatives?
If climate activists want to spur support for green policies, their pitch should focus on unjust heightening of vulnerability, at home and elsewhere. Personal, emotionally informed stories of the effects of climate change—such as of children going hungry in climate-worsened drought–can evoke empathy and spur support for greener policies, especially if they arouse anger at injustice. Migration-related narratives, by contrast, can create empathy among some audiences, but can also create fear, especially when migrants are largely presented as members of overestimated crowds.
Those not in the border securitisation industry should therefore avoid a focus on international ‘climate migration’, and especially avoid dubious big numbers, in favour of stories with less risk of triggering outsize fear responses. Positive stories of migrants contributing to host and origin communities, or assisting in the green transition, may help to partially counterbalance the fear-inducing narratives that prevail.
Such stories would be easier to come by if migration policy was more climate-conscious. In policy and academic circles, there is increasing recognition of the potential migration has for adaptation to climate change. (We examine its possibilities in a recent report). Haitians working in the US after the 2011 earthquake, for example, could earn around 1,400 percent more than in their disaster-struck communities, supporting post-disaster reconstruction. The opportunities offered by migration go far beyond those offered by any other development intervention. A narrative focused on fear and helplessness overlooks these opportunities.
The prevailing narrative does not achieve its goals. It is inaccurate; it risks backlash; and it does not change the views of those not already convinced. A better approach is sorely needed. At COP28, representatives should take heed.
CGD blog posts reflect the views of the authors, drawing on prior research and experience in their areas of expertise. CGD is a nonpartisan, independent organization and does not take institutional positions.
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