E.g., 04/11/2021
E.g., 04/11/2021

The Complex Relationship between Climate Change and Human Mobility Requires Collaborative, Flexible Thinking about Adaptation

Press Release
Wednesday, December 16, 2020

The Complex Relationship between Climate Change and Human Mobility Requires Collaborative, Flexible Thinking about Adaptation

WASHINGTON — The relationship between climate change and human mobility is far more complex than is often portrayed. Despite tendencies to use the label climate migration, it is difficult to predict the impacts of climate change on human mobility, in particular given that climate effects such as drought and coastal flooding can actually suppress movement under certain conditions. Increased mobility also is sometimes uniquely attributed to climate change even as other factors, such as globalization and urbanization, are involved.

A new report for the Migration Policy Institute’s Transatlantic Council on Migration, New Approaches to Climate Change and Migration: Building the Adaptive Capacity of Mobile Populations, explores the multifaceted ways that individuals and communities adapt to environmental risks, including but not limited to mobility.

Drawing on case studies from the Pacific Islands, West Africa and Southeast Asia, Carol Farbotko of Australia’s University of the Sunshine Coast argues that a framework that prioritizes the agency of affected communities not only permits a more nuanced understanding of risk-mitigation strategies but also highlights the importance of collaboratively designed solutions.

The concept of “adaptive capacity” provides a useful framework to understand how individuals and communities respond to climate hazards, based on individual and household characteristics, resources and infrastructure, institutional responses and cultural or religious beliefs. While certain individuals experiencing the impacts of climate change may choose to migrate, others, due to resource limitations, cultural ties to their land or trans-local support may not. Rather than a failure to adapt, mobility represents one of many strategic responses that might be adopted.

Despite international efforts to mitigate the impacts of climate change on at-risk communities, programs have been largely unsuccessful. In order to improve livelihoods, reduce vulnerabilities and facilitate sustainable adaptations, officials should work collaboratively with affected communities to tap into local knowledge and respond to context-specific, oftentimes overlapping needs. To support this process, the report presents an alternative “adaptation pathways approach,” through which incremental, flexible responses can be co-developed by governments, affected communities and other stakeholders.  

Potential strategies could include:

  • Experimenting with innovative labor mobility: Given the interconnected nature of economic and environmental pressures, policymakers should explore innovative labor mobility opportunities. At the same time, it will be crucial for these programs to mitigate the vulnerabilities often associated with temporary labor migration programs by addressing the needs of workers and providing opportunities for upskilling.
  • Improving access to labor mobility programs: Governments already benefitting from regional mobility could consider how to gradually modify current programs to make them more accessible to those from areas most affected by climate change.
  • Leveraging public opinion in destination countries: Building support for policy solutions that address the needs of both receiving and sending countries, such as addressing workforce shortages through labor migration from climate-affected areas, might garner more public support in politically divisive environments than purely humanitarian-focused programs.

“Policy solutions that assume that mobility is evidence of a failure to adapt miss an important point: mobility can itself be adaptive, but it can also compound existing economic and social marginalization,” Farbotko writes. “Local, national and international development approaches need to better understand and address this relationship and work across portfolios to craft creative solutions accordingly.”

This report is the first of the Transatlantic Council’s series entitled “Coming Together or Coming Apart? A New Phase of International Cooperation on Migration.”

Read the report here: www.migrationpolicy.org/research/climate-change-building-adaptive-capacity.

And for more on climate change and migration, please check out a special series in MPI’s online journal, the Migration Information Source, as well as a new podcast, Changing Climate, Changing Migration.

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The Migration Policy Institute (MPI) is an independent, non-partisan, non-profit think tank in Washington, DC dedicated to analysis of the movement of people worldwide. MPI provides analysis, development and evaluation of migration and refugee policies at local, national and international levels. MPI’s Transatlantic Council on Migration is a unique deliberative body that examines vital policy issues and informs migration policymaking processes across the Atlantic community.