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Weathering the storm

By Alex Randall on July 7, 2019

Men bring their jerry cans to a flooded area to collect water near the town of Jowhar, Somalia

Previously posted on Le Monde Diplomatique

How do we view those who choose to move location to escape the effects of climate change? Are they competition for resources or hardy survivors?

Abdulkadir (1) is caught in the middle of a deep political schism over climate change and migration. He probably doesn’t know this, and it’s not so much about him as his migration; or, more precisely, how western governments should see his migration.

He’s one of millions of migrants whose experiences are now deeply contested. In 2012 he talked to researchers from the United Nations University (2) who wanted to understand the experiences of people on the move, and whether they saw climate change as driving their migration.

He told them he had moved from the rural area of Bimbi to a nearby town in Somalia. His family farmed fruit and cereals, but drought had started to make that harder: ‘The rain did not start at the normal time.’ This had led to a decline in output, and the loss of income meant finding an alternative. ‘I moved to a nearby market town to sell products. The town was five hours away [walking]. I also worked as a carpenter in the town.’

We should not assume this was ever intended to be a permanent move, as migrating with the rain was part of the plan. Moving other family members to balance the needs of the farm and income generation was a conscious strategy, too. ‘When the rain came, I would return to farm in Bimbi. But because of my absence, my wife wasn’t able to sustain the farming work by herself. So at one point, when it hadn’t rained for a long time, the whole family decided to move to the market town.’

How should we see this family and its migration? Are they victims, forced from home to undertake a dangerous journey, the human face of climate change, deserving our pity or charity? We could think of them as hardy, resilient citizens who looked climate change in the face and found a way to adapt to it. Perhaps people and policy makers in wealthy countries should see them as champions of coping. Without the assistance of any government programme, they used migration as a way to deal with what the weather had thrown at them.

When the rain came I would return to farm in Bimbi. But when it hadn't rained for a long time, the whole family decided to move to the market town."

This idea of migration as adaptation has become the focus of a political and ideological debate, an idea that’s gaining respect. It’s controversial, but the approach is now being considered by the International Organisation for Migration. Climate change makes adaptation essential; we’ve long since passed the point where we can simply reduce emissions and carry on with life as we did before. So the concept of migration as adaptation should also be an option; for some, the best way of adapting will be to move, as with Abdulkadir, for whom it is a strategy for resilience.

Not victims or a threat

Westerners may see ‘climate refugees’ not only as victims but also as potential fighters in an undefined resource war. The media may show them as desperate people who need assistance and services, or as potential terrorists. Either way, the perception is that their existence will make people’s lives in developed countries harder, less comfortable or less safe.

But once we begin thinking of migration as a way to adapt to climate change, migrants are not victims or a threat but resilient adapters, who have moved, found work, integrated, taken the initiative, not waited to be rescued or hung around hoping some programme will solve their climate-related problems.

These hardy migrants probably haven’t moved far and may not even have crossed an international border. They’ve probably moved from a rural farming area to a nearby city and found alternative work — one less struggle to farm in a drought-hit rural area, one more in the global service economy. Such hardy migrant-adapters cannot be seen as victims or threats; they are no longer fighters or terrorists, or a horde coming to developed countries. They don’t match reactionary views about refugees or migrants, and their narrative doesn’t fit the apocalyptic climate change story.

Migration as adaptation isn’t just a policy idea, but a different way for policymakers to think about migrants. Above all, it’s a fundamentally different way of thinking about responsibility for climate change and its uneven impacts across the world. This is definitely an improvement, but it also falls apart fast.

Who in this new view is responsible for the welfare of people who move because of climate change? It is no longer governments, or the governments of high-emitting countries, but migrants themselves. As empowered, resilient citizens, they are responsible for their own adaptation. If their current location has become unliveable then it is up to them to organise migration. They are free to do so. No one stops them investing their own money in migration. (If they want to cross a border, that’s different.)

Of course, no advocate of migration as adaptation promotes this abdication of responsibility by high-emitting countries. But it subtly shifts the balance. The idea edges us further towards individual responsibility, and slightly further away from collective, state-level responsibility of high-emitting nations. The responsibility is now slightly more on the individual to be a resilient, mobile, adaptive citizen, to leave home and family behind in search of income and safety. The responsibility is slightly less on governments to provide help, or on high-emitting countries to provide funding.

At the heart of this idea is migration to find work, but work is never a certainty, whereas the impacts of climate change are. People will need to adapt. If we are asking them to adapt by moving to find work, then we need to be certain there will be work. Global employment dropped right after the financial crash of 2008, and few economies bucked the trend. We probably cannot promise our adaptive migrants that this will never happen again, so we have to ask if a strategy based around finding a job is robust enough, given the state of the global economy.

Chance to set up and profit

There is also the possibility that governments and businesses might take advantage of climate change impacts to find cheap labour. Imagine an area tormented by drought that needs an escape route for its residents. Jobs are scarce in nearby cities, so people are trapped in the countryside. Farm income is declining; migrating to find work isn’t an option for most. Perhaps the government creates a special area, just beyond the drought-hit zone, designed to attract employers; within it, the government’s usual laws do not apply. Taxes for businesses are lower. Labour regulations are degraded; environmental laws may not apply or are weaker. It is a perfect environment for companies to set up and profit, as minimal regulation and a desperate workforce mean costs can be cut dramatically.

This may sound like a dystopia, but special economic zones where regulation is loose are common across the world, in both developed and developing countries, and operate just like this. They are usually set up where labour is cheap because unemployment is high.

Several countries have experimented with setting up such zones especially for refugees. In Jordan, they have been established to create work for the millions who have fled Syria since the start of the civil war. We might argue that working a job in such a zone is better than languishing in a refugee camp, but working a badly paid job, in an unregulated, possibly dangerous environment, is not the best solution.

We could easily imagine that such zones might become part of the migration as climate adaptation agenda. Perhaps people might be persuaded to leave particularly vulnerable places through the creation of such zones and their jobs, which might then become a reason not to offer other kinds of adaptation to certain places. The creation of alternative work, and the chance to migrate to it, could become a get-out, an excuse not to invest in other forms of adaptation.

I believe there is a migration as adaptation narrative that can serve the rights and welfare of migrants, a version of the idea that works for them rather than for those who would exploit them. But it has to start by recognising that the responsibility for climate change rests with high-emitting countries that have benefited economically from a history of fossil fuel use. The emitters still have to pay the costs of adaptation.

By Alex Randall

Alex manages the Climate Change and Migration Coalition – an alliance that exists to challenge the lack of long-term strategies to support and protect people at risk of displacement linked to environmental change. Before joining Climate Outreach, he worked at the Centre for Alternative Technology. He has also worked for the Public Interest Research Centre on their Values and Frames project. He co-founded Cheat Neutral, a spoof offsetting company, and UN Fair Play, an organisation that works with small island states at international climate change negotiations.

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