People on the move-migration in the face of climate change

  • 2014•11•10     Bonn

    Photo by UN Photo/Eskinder Debebe

    In Conversation with Koko Warner. The following interview was conducted by Laura Caciagli and published on Climate Science and Policy on 12 March 2015:

    Put aside any prophecy of doom. Let’s talk about something that could be used as a resilience-enhancing strategy. Something that could help to prevent people from being forced to move later on. Something that does not exclusively belong to our time and has always taken place in the past; a topic that lies in the area of collaboration between climate science and policy. To learn more about climate induced migrations, we asked Koko Warner some questions. Academic at the United Nations University, where she leads a research department on climate resilient society at the Institute for Environment and Human Security in Bonn (Germany), and lead author of the IPCC Fifth Assessment Report (AR5) on adaptation, Dr. Koko Warner is considered one of the most active and influential women in the international debate on climate change. “All regions and countries are affected without exceptions,” – she explains while addressing the complexity of the climate induced migrations topic – “Today, the overlapping effects of a constant increasing global population, different political and government assets, and the impacts and implications of climate change have caused new issues and challenges related to human migrations.”

    People in vulnerable communities worldwide are already experiencing the impacts of climate change, such as extreme events, changes in rainfall conditions, sea level rise, etc.
    Climate change threatens to decrease agricultural productivity, increase food insecurity, and challenge the livelihoods and survival of poor people, particularly smallholder farmers, livestock keepers and the landless in the least developed countries. This will cause some to seek livelihoods elsewhere and may trap others in poverty: households with more diverse assets and access to a variety of adaptation, livelihood diversification, or risk management options – through social networks, community or government support programs, and education – can use migration in ways that enhance resilience; those households which have the least access to such options use migration during the hunger season as a survival strategy in an overall setting of erosive coping measures which leave or trap such households at the margins of decent existence.

    To better understand the linkages among changes in the climate, household livelihood, food security profiles, and migration decisions, we had a conversation with Dr. Koko Warner, head of the Environmental Migration, Social Vulnerability and Adaptation section at the United Nations University – Institute for Environment and Human Security.

    Clisp: How does climate change contribute to the dynamics of migration?

    Koko Warner: Migration is not a recent phenomenon: human beings have always moved searching for food, water and other natural resources. Moreover, climate induced migrations have always taken place in the past. Today the overlapping effects of a constant increasing global population, different political and government assets, and the impacts and implications of climate change have caused new issues and challenges related to human migrations.

    Clisp – What are the major regions and countries affected today by environmentally-induced migration?

    K. W: All regions and countries are affected without exceptions: developed and developing countries are both experiencing environmentally-induced migrations. Indeed the percentage of people directly involved in weather and climatic stressors is more in developing countries where there are usually larger agricultural and farming communities. Moreover, research has shown that some people who are more exposed to environmental stressors – particularly farmers, herders, pastoralists, fishermen and others who rely on natural resources and the weather for their livelihoods – may be the least able to move. Migration in developing countries is usually within national borders; predominantly male, but with growing participation by women; largely by individual household members (it’s rare that entire nuclear families move together); largely driven by livelihood-related needs in most countries, but with a growing number of migrants seeking improved skill sets (e.g., through education).

    Clisp – How does the international community define a climate migrant?

    K. W: The UN community recognized human mobility as an issue for the first time in 2010 within the Cancun Adaptation Framework. Three different types of mobility were illustrated within the document: climate change induced displacement, migration, and planned relocation. So, in terms of definition, the international community recognized three different forms of mobility with their different associated needs; different people that are on the move may have different needs: just to make an example, people displaced from an extreme event like a big flood may have different needs than people who are migrating to look for food. The UN community doesn’t recognize human mobility as something good or bad, but indicate range of human mobility and range about what can be done (i.e. understanding, providing assistance, etc.) while inviting all Parties to undertake measures to enhance information, coordination and cooperation at national, regional and international levels.

    Clisp: The last IPCC assessment report on adaptation (WGII – AR5) suggested migration could provide ways for some people to escape the worst impacts of climate change, and expanding opportunities for mobility may reduce vulnerability for many populations: so, what’s the current thinking of climate migration?

    K. W: Research has shown that some communities use migration as a risk management strategy when faced with climatic stressors, such as rainfall variability, food, and livelihood insecurity. We studied, for example, changes in precipitation variability and other kinds of environmental stressors and we found out that some communities use migration to address these risks. Migration may have a positive outcome and help to build resilience; people with a better education, social contacts and economic availability may find a better job while moving towards urban areas or other countries. They can send money back home and families can invest that money in food, education, livelihood diversification etc. while being able to cope better with climatic stressors.
    There are some situations in which migration works and helps in building resilience, but there’s also a concerning number of cases illustrating that if families and communities don’t get the help they need, migration can worsen their conditions. Some families move during the hunger season trying to collect money, food, anything that can help. If they aren’t successful, everybody suffers. In most situations people experience weather and climatic stressors and would like to move, but they can’t because they have no money, no contacts, no availability. In some cases it becomes difficult to distinguish voluntary from forced migration.

    Clisp: Could migration be a way of addressing climate change?

    K. W: Preliminary analysis has shown that there are some households that use migration in ways that improve their resilience, such as investing in education, health, and climate-resilient livelihood opportunities and risk diversification. These households use migration as one of a variety of adaptation strategies, moving seasonally or temporally, often to nonagricultural jobs in cities or internationally. On the other hand, some communities, facing less food security and with fewer adaptation options, use migration to survive, but not to flourish, or use migration as a matter of human security. These groups move seasonally in their countries to find work – often as agricultural labor in other rural areas – or move during the hunger season to other rural areas in their regions in search of food, or work to buy food for their families. In the end, there are the “trapped populations” that struggle to survive in their areas of origin and cannot easily use migration to adapt to the negative impacts of climate change. Everyone uses migration but the outcomes really depend on the underlying characteristics of the households (i.e. household size and composition, land ownership, asset base; degree of livelihood diversity, education levels).