Giving Compass' Take:

• Elizabeth Ferris raises key questions around climate migration that need to be addressed as climate change intensifies and forces massive displacement. 

• What resources can funders provide to assist those working to answer these questions? 

• Learn about voluntary immobility in the face of climate change.

Global warming caused by human activity is already having major impacts on our planet and is likely to make parts of the world uninhabitable, leading to migration, displacement and planned relocation. But we know that the relationship — with a few possible exceptions — is not as straightforward as the early writers on this issue predicted.

In particular, I want to highlight three difficulties with understanding mobility in the context of climate change:

First, how can we responsibly deal with the multi-causal nature of population movements? Can we even talk of “climate change-induced displacement or migration?” We know that decisions to move are rarely mono-causal and that the line between “voluntary” and “forced” is often quite blurry. Even in seemingly straightforward cases such as Syria, where all those leaving the country are assumed to be forcibly displaced given the brutal civil war, it is not so simple. Two weeks ago in Turkey, I was struck by the importance of economic factors in determining mobility. I kept hearing about families trapped in Aleppo, being bombed daily who said they could not leave because they did not have the funds to support their families in another country. People may feel they need to flee because of conflict and violence, but be unable to do so for economic reasons. Even within families, people were reaching different decisions based on their individual risk assessments of the costs of going versus staying.

Secondly, there is no consensus in our field about the appropriate terms to use about the people we are talking about. Climate change refugees, climate change-induced displacement, environmental migrant, environment-induced migrant, eco-migrant, crisis migrant — our terms are all over the place. Many of us recoil from the term “climate change refugee,” but at least it conveys a meaning that our alternative language struggles to address. We use different terms, often with different meanings, which confuses policy-makers.

Thirdly, there is the difficulty of how to situate those who move because of the effects of climate change in the broader context of population movements undertaken for other reasons. The fundamental question is: Should people displaced by the effects of climate change receive preferential treatment compared to those displaced by volcanoes or tsunamis, in comparison with those forced to leave their communities because of wars or grinding poverty?

A fourth difficulty in the policy realm is that we really don’t know how many people we are talking about.

Read the full article about the future of climate migration by Elizabeth Ferris at Center for Migration Studies.