The following interview was originally compiled for the Mixed Migration Review 2019 and has been reproduced here for wider access through this website’s readership.
Environmental change has always played a part in human mobility, explains Alex Randall. What’s new is that the science has advanced to a point where specific weather events can be credibly attributed to global warming. This should erode any doubts that climate change is and will remain an important driver of migration, even if often hidden behind more visible economic factors.
Do potential “tipping points” and the non-linearity of causal relationships make it harder to predict how climate change will affect migration?
Yes, and I think there were two really interesting things there. The first one is the way that the climate system itself may have tipping points or tipping elements, where our emissions may be related to climate change impacts in a non-linear and in a complex way. But then of course, because we’re working on migration, displacement and the movement of people, we’re then also adding a second incredibly complicated non-linear system on to the other side of that equation as well. We’re first trying to understand an extraordinarily complex system which is the climate, and how our emissions and the warming of the planet will result in new and different patterns of climate change impacts, droughts, typhoon and hurricane strikes, desertification. And then on top of that, we’re saying “Well, the other thing we know is that human beings, societies and economies don’t always respond to those impacts in straightforward, linear ways either”.
Furthermore, the way that humans react to those issues is complex too. So you’re absolutely right. Prediction is very difficult. We can say, though, that the physical science predictive element, the understanding that we have of how the climate is going to respond to our emissions, is probably further along than our understanding of how human societies are going to respond to those impacts as they unfold. And that’s especially the case when it comes to human movement. So yes, we’re dealing with several enormous and complex sets of circumstances. So yes, making predictions is very, very hard. The UN 2007 Human Development Report pointed to a growing body of opinion that environmental stress,
The UN 2007 Human Development Report pointed to a growing body of opinion that environmental stress, especially climate change, was poised to become a major driver of displacement. Twelve years on, are we seeing their claims borne out?
Yes, I think we are and for a number of years now. Actually, we shouldn’t be surprised when it turns out the environmental changes are a driver for human mobility. Even before human activity – or, more specifically, carbon emissions – began to alter the environment around us, we saw human mobility resulting from other environmental changes. That’s exactly what we saw in the 1920s and ’30s in the United States: huge migration across the US, essentially as a result of changes in the environment brought about by changing farming practices resulting in desertification. That’s what the Dust Bowl was. And that was an enormous episode of human mobility with an environmental driver at its base.
Environmental change always has been a driver of human mobility and it always will be. And the new part of the equation is we’re now in a period of global history where we are bringing about unprecedented global change to our environment as a result of our activities and specifically as a result of the warming produced by the emission of greenhouse gases by human societies. And the question is not whether that is going to alter patterns of human movement, the question is when and how.
Since the publication of that initial piece of evidence back in 2007, we’ve reached a point where two things have happened. The first one is the science around extreme weather attribution has come on a long way and it’s now much more possible to look at particular extreme weather events, whether those are typhoon strikes or droughts or heatwaves, and see the fingerprints of climate change. That means that when we look at the displacement that results from one of those events, we can begin to say with a higher degree of certainty than we used to that those people have a climate change driver to their mobility.
That should not detract from all the other reasons that those people may be on the move. It doesn’t mean that suddenly their existing vulnerability, or their ability to find work, or existing patterns of migration and displacement suddenly don’t matter. It doesn’t mean that we’re throwing out all of that existing understanding of why and when people move, but what we can say is that into that mix, and with an ever-increasing degree of certainty, is that there is a
climate change dimension to them.
A 2017 study from New Zealand which looked at 16 destinations and 198 origin countries over a 34-year period found that climate change was a more important mobility driver than income and political freedom combined. This is very striking in terms of your science of attribution.
Yes, it is. And I think what we’re increasingly seeing is evidence for this dynamic existing, evidence for a relationship between climate change and human mobility. Importantly, people experience the economy via the labour market. So, for a lot of people, if you ask them, “Why did you move from a farming setting in the countryside into a city?” they’re not going say, “Oh, because of climate change,” they’re going to say, “Well, it became harder to find labouring jobs on the farms in the area.” And if you pushed them a bit further, they would say, “Well, they weren’t hiring as many people because of the droughts.” So you have these complex chains of globalisation. Yes, there are lots and lots of people who we would describe as economic migrants or people who’ve moved to find work, who are actually motivated by environmental factors.
The World Bank’s Groundswell report asserts that that most migration will initially be internal, and if that turns out to be unsatisfactory, international migration emerges as a viable option. Does one lead to the other?
I think we can predict that that is probably going to be the case, but I’m not sure that there is evidence at the moment that backs that up. So I think you can absolutely say that, yes, the first stage in someone’s migration might be that they move from a rural area into a city within their country to find work, and we can then predict that having arrived in that city and perhaps found work, perhaps kind of secured a bit more of a livelihood for themselves, they then may consider an international move afterwards.
The UK government’s Foresight report from 2011 predicted that the impact of environmental change on migration was a “threat multiplier” that was set to increase, particularly through its influence on a range of persistent economic social and political drivers. Do you agree?
Yes, but I don’t use the threat multiplier language, because, to me, it feels like something that very much came by adapting a military concept. Also, the question I always ask when people say that something is a threat multiplier, is, a threat to who? Who’s being threatened? Who’s the threat? I think bringing that language into the discussion about migration is probably unhelpful, because it becomes very easy then to cast the migrants themselves as the threat.
Some argue that people facing environmental stress can become trapped, unable to move, facing what Groundswell calls “double jeopardy”, which can result in humanitarian crises equal, or more important than, a political crisis that migration could cause.
I think that’s undoubtedly true. I think we’ve tended to look at environmental forces as a driver of mobility, but in that sense, when we look at the humanitarian crises that we see across the world, many of them are the result of people moving, but lots of them are the problem of people being trapped, not being able to move and suffering the consequences of various changes in their environment, whether that’s drought, or sudden onset events like typhoon and hurricane strikes. The prospect of people being stuck somewhere and not being able to get out of harm’s way should give us huge cause for concern, as much as people moving. Because of poverty, because of disability, because of a border that they are not allowed to cross, [people] are trapped somewhere where it is becoming increasingly dangerous as a result of climate change impacts. Yes, that’s very, very concerning.
To what extent does climate change have the potential to increase violence and conflict, causing migration and flight? Will climate change serve as a catalyst for future conflict?
So I think, again, we have to be careful about making absolute statements here. I think on one level, we can say that the causes of armed violence, the causes of conflict, will always have a political force behind them. People don’t just pick up a gun because of a drought. We should not be worried that climate change is going to just kick off a whole load of new global wars.
Norman Myers predicted in 2005 that 200 million people would be displaced for environmental reasons by 2050. More recently, he suggested that the figure might be as high as 250 million.5 Your thoughts?
Basically, I don’t use the numbers. I’ve found using those figures to be unhelpful in framing what climate-linked migration is as an issue. I’ve equally found them to be unhelpful in assisting organisations think about what they might do operationally.
In terms of management and operations, if you take the UN’s estimate of global population being around 9.7 or 10 billion by 2050, and take Myers’ higher estimate of 250 million climate-induced migrants, it still only represents 2.5% of the global population, and it’s not going to happen all at once.
On the one hand, Myers’ predictions sound incredibly dramatic. Because 250 million people is a figure greater than the population of many, many countries. But then you look at it as a percentage of total world population and they seem, as you suggest, to be quite low. The figures that I think are much more useful are, for example, localised figures to the extent that we can try and make predictions about a specific area.
Refugees as defined by the 1951 Convention, who now make up under a third of one percent of the current global population, already seem to present an intractable challenge at the political and societal level.
Yes, if we look at the international community’s response to the existing numbers of refugees we can ask the question, have we managed to provide them all with durable solutions? No, of course not. Have we even managed to provide them with adequate temporary solutions, basic healthcare and shelter in spite of our best efforts? No, not really either. So yes, in terms of a percentage of the global population who might be on the move as a result of climate change impacts, governments have a stark choice ahead of them. They can either facilitate safe, legal migration or they can attempt to stop people moving and create crises.
What kind of crises?
There are two iconic migration and refugee crises at the moment. One is at Europe’s border in the Mediterranean, and the other is at the US border with Mexico. And I think what we’re seeing is they are often framed in the media as migration crises, or refugee crises, whereas actually they’re not: they’re border crises. They only take on the nature of a humanitarian emergency because we are trying to stop people from moving. Like people cross the Mediterranean in rubber boats because they are not allowed to travel from north Africa into Europe by ordinary means: they’re prevented from doing that. Similarly, you have what looks like a humanitarian crisis at the US border because people are being prevented from crossing the border safely, and they’re being detained once they have crossed it. So it’s our attempts to stop migration, to stop people moving into the EU, and into the United States that are creating a humanitarian crisis.
Are sovereign nations not allowed to define their own border policies and immigration policies?
Yes, but we believe our role is to try and help them produce more sensible border policies. Every country can define its own border policy, but there is a responsibility from citizens and civil society to ask if there is a better way, especially by creating an option for people to move legally.
Do you think countries are very hesitant about accepting the concept of “environmental refugee” and creating a legal precedent by accepting some people in that category?
Yes, I think they are worried. I think lots of governments basically think that it’s politically unpalatable to create any option, and I think they’re worried that they could potentially create a new route that would increase migration into their country. I would say to governments in an era of climate change where we are going to have more people on the move, you’ve got two options. On one hand you can continue to prevent people from moving, trying to prevent people from crossing borders, and essentially then dealing with a humanitarian crisis of sorts at your border, and having that chaotic, dangerous situation. Or, you could create safe legal routes for people to enter your country and you can then manage that process.
Looking ahead, do you think mixed migration flows will be increasingly filled with people who are motivated by climate-related drivers?
Yes, I think so. And I think it’s exactly in those mixed flows that we are going to see the fingerprint of climate change. It’s in those kind of already-mixed, complex flows of people that we will first see, in my view, an increase in people who have that climate dimension to their mobility.
The Sustainable Development Goals and the global compacts on migration and refugees have many aspects relating to the role of migration, of course, and increasing mobility, but very little, if anything, on environmental-induced movement. Was this deliberate or a missed opportunity in your view?
I don’t know whether that aspect was deliberately left out or whether it was just an opportunity that wasn’t seized. However, what I would say is that both of those things, the development goals and the compacts, present us with some opportunities. I view them both as sort of potential political levers. With the right kind of advocacy, you can use those international agreements – to some extent – to hold a government’s feet close to the fire on this issue.
How do you see the future? Are you pessimistic or optimistic, dystopian or utopian?
I don’t have a straightforward answer to that, but I can tell you the things that bring me hope and the things that fill me with fear. I’ll start with the things that fill me with fear. I think if you look across Europe and the US there is a new wave of anti-migrant and anti-refugee populist politics. That’s undeniable and very worrying. And it’s very difficult to see how that’s going to change, and it feels to me like that wave of populist politics is rising and, to be honest, that fills me with despair. However, on the other hand, one of the things that fills me with some hope, is if you look across Europe at the moment, it feels to me like they’re seeing the consequences of climate change that they will bear the brunt of, and there’s a kind of raw anger especially amongst the youth. That gives me hope that there may be real change in the future.
 Aburn, A. & Wesselbaum, D. (2017) Gone with the Wind: International Migration University of Otago
 Rigaud, K. et al (2018) Groundswell: Preparing for Internal Climate Migration The World Bank
 Foresight (2011) Migration and Global Environmental Change Final Project Report The Government Office for Science, London
 Myers, N. (2005) Environmental Refugees: An emergent security issue Paper delivered at 13th OSCE Economic Forum, Prague
 Quoted in: Baird, R. et al. (2007) Human Tide: The Real Migration Crisis Christian Aid