Rather than accept these terms at face value, we might instead ask ourselves: who does the idea of the climate migrant, or climate refugee, really serve?
Militarised adaptation to climate breakdown is akin, as US journalist Christian Parenti argues, to the politics of the ‘armed lifeboat’ that seeks to secure the wealth of the few while training guns on everyone else.
Climate change is upending people’s lives around the world, but when droughts, floods or sea level rise force them to leave their countries, people often find closed borders and little assistance.
Our descendants may shudder to realize their own grandparents blithely accepted, perhaps even praised, a rigid caste system that offered rich opportunities to a minority while consigning the vast majority to a brutal struggle for mere existence.
People also flee from war, civil unrest and personal trauma, and they will increasingly run from natural and unnatural disasters, increasingly caused by climate change: unbearable heat, drought, flooding and crop failures. People also move for education and to join family members who have gone before them. The likelihood that they will be well received depends on how well they can fit in to the places where they land, and whether they are perceived to be adding to or taking from the existing community.
In the absence of coordinated action on the part of the global community to mitigate ecological instability and recognize the plight of displaced people, there’s a risk of what some have called “climate apartheid.” In this scenario – climate change combined with closed borders and few migration pathways – millions of people would be forced to choose between increasingly insecure livelihoods and the perils of unauthorized migration.
“Managed retreat” is a controversial response to climate change. It’s the idea that communities and governments should be strategic about moving people away from areas that have become too waterlogged to live in safely.
Climate change is expected to have a striking impact on vulnerable communities, especially in coastal regions where sea-level rise and increased climatic events will make it impossible for some people to remain on their land.