Climate Migrants Seminar Series

27 January 2022 - 10 March 2022

Media headlines predict that climate change impacts will prompt human migration on an unprecedented scale, for which political and legal systems are deeply unprepared. Are these accurate or are they a “fabrication of a migration threat”? This seminar series looks at the evidence and research behind the media headlines.

27 January - 10 March 2022

Thursdays, 16:00 - 17:15 GMT/ 17:00 - 18:15 CET

This seminar series will explore questions such as:

  • Can climate myths be debunked even if we have more nuanced, accurate knowledge of climate mobilities?
  • How does climate migration differ from previous historic strategies to adapt to economic distress? And what is the role of political instability? Where do cities play a role?
  • How do we recognise climate refugees or, more broadly, environmental refugees and their rights? In the absence of international protections, what legal solutions can be developed that are both feasible and address the needs and rights of migrants?

More information on the event series

27 January: Media, Myths and the reality of Climate Migration

Speaker: David Durand-Delacre

Scholars interested in the relationship between climate change and human migration have repeatedly noted the persistence of several problematic myths marked by simplistic assumptions about this relationship. The image conjured is of mass international migrations caused by climate change alone. In this presentation, David will begin by reviewing these myths and why they worry so many experts on climate mobilities. He draws on a collective piece led by Dr. Ingrid Boas, arguing that we can debunk these myths if we adopt a climate mobilities agenda that (1) challenges deterministic causal reasoning, (2) expands our understanding of how people move, (3) stops treating migration as an exceptional phenomenon, (4) diversifies methods for the study of climate mobilities, (5) better incorporates the views of vulnerable populations, and (6) turns our attention also to destination areas.

While more nuanced, accurate knowledge of climate mobilities is needed and a climate mobilities agenda holds much promise, a decade of research debunking climate migration myths has been insufficient to dislodge them from the media, policymaking discussions, and wider public consciousness. The remainder of the presentation asks why, and what can be done about it, drawing on work with a wide-ranging network of stakeholders engaged in discussions about climate migration.

David Durand-Delacre is a 4th year PhD Candidate at the University of Cambridge Geography Department. His work draws attention to the various ways knowledge about climate migration is produced and circulated, He triangulates in-depth interviews with document and media analysis, to retrace the emergence and evolution of climate migration debates in the discussions and interactions involving a wide-ranging but fragmented network of French civil servants, NGO representatives, policymakers, and journalists. Prior to his PhD, David was an analyst for the UN Sustainable Development Solutions Network, where he conducted data analysis for the 2015 and 2016 editions of the network’s flagship Sustainable Development Report. Between 2015 and 2018, he also volunteered with and then presided Réfugiés Bienvenue, a Paris-based NGO providing housing to homeless asylum seekers.

27 January: Climate migration from Central America Myths and Realities

Speaker: Bernardo Bolaños and Marcelo Olivera

This presentation will address Hein de Haas’ (“The fabrication of a migration threat”, 2020) relativistic challenge concerning climate migrants. The 6th IPCC assessment report, August 9, 2021, projects the increase of droughts in Mexico, Central America, and the Caribbean. This anticipates the continuity of migratory flows towards North America and the emergence of others towards the Andean areas (affected, however, by the melting of glaciers).

In November 2020, hurricanes Eta and Iota hit Honduras. Shortly after a new caravan of displaced people walked toward the US. In our talk, we consider the effects of weather and the propensity of individuals to leave a territory by measuring the importance of rain precipitation or the lack of it in one of the critical food corridors of Central America, formed by El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala. To study the mobility process, we have developed a stochastic frontier model; the main result shows a greater propensity to migrate when there is a significant drought event in the place of origin. These results permit us to derive observable implications of the different effects of flooding and drought.

It is not clear which is the correct legal path to address the situation of displacement induced by the environmental global change. Is it the recognition of climate refugees or, more broadly, environmental refugees? Or is it preferable to create a specific legal category different of refugee?

Bernardo Bolaños-Guerra is Professor of Environmental Law and Philosophy at the Metropolitan Autonomous University. He got a law degree from the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM) and a PhD in philosophy from the University of Paris 1 (Pantheon-Sorbonne). He is the author of the book (in Spanish) Slaves, immigrants and drug traffickers (2013) and editor of the collection of essays Biopolitics and migration (2015). He is currently investigating on environmentally induced migration.

Marcelo Olivera-Villarroel has a PhD in Economics with a specialty in natural resource economics from UNAM, Mexico (2004-2007). He has a Master in Economics with a major in Public Policy from Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile (2001-2003). He completed a Bachelor of Economics at the Faculty of Economics of the Universidad Mayor de San Simón Cochabamba, Bolivia. He has been a research-professor at the Universidad Mayor de San Simón, Cochabamba, Bolivia, in the area of Natural Resources and Environment (2000–2001). He is currently a research-professor at the Metropolitan Autonomous University, working on urban spaces and climate change.

10 February: Climate, Migration and Cities

Speaker: PEAK Urban panel

Due to expanding populations, including the influx of migrant from climate-affected regions, cities’ residents, infrastructure and services are highly vulnerable to the impacts of climate change. Indeed, many cities are already suffering from climate-related hazards including flooding, coastal erosion, heatwaves and landslides, and many more will have to face these risks in the future. Informal cities are at the forefront of these challenges.

10 February: Changes in mobility patterns of climate migrants in Ethiopia

Speaker: Jin-ho Chung

Climate mobilities are largely in-country, heading to large/capital cities from climate affected rural areas, and not necessarily permanent. Ethiopia is an important site to substantiate this movement as it is a) the second largest populated country in Africa, b) predominantly rural but with one of the fastest urbanisation rate of about 5% a year and double-digit annual GDP growth, c) a country with a wide range of climate change impacts due to its geographical diversity of altitudes, topography, habitat and livelihoods, and d) the third-top recipient of the EU Emergency Trust Fund for Africa that received a total amount of €270 million over the last five years to reduce the arrival of migrants in Europe. Dr Chung will present why growing numbers of climate migrants are moving to Addis Ababa instead of large-scale commercial farms in the Gambella and Afar regions, which were popular destinations for internal migrants prior to 2008. Younger and better-educated dwellers in climate-sensitive rural areas with high population densities and land shortages are more likely to migrate to cities, where they believe more diverse opportunities are available, such as a wide range of jobs and better education/health services. This movement is for both men and women and despite some expected challenges in cities such as illegal status, sexual harassment and tough competition for jobs between different ethnic groups. This presentation is built on the analysis of literature review, mobility and vulnerability data collected from IOM’s Displacement Tracking Matrix (DTM), and online interviews with academics and practitioners in Ethiopia due to the ongoing civil war and the COVID-19 pandemic.

Jin-ho Chung is Research Associate of the Transport Studies Unit at the University of Oxford. Trained in political ecology, his research focuses on climate mobilities, urban development and social equity with a geographical focus on the Horn of Africa. Jin-ho completed his PhD in Human Geography at University College London (UCL). He previously worked as a postdoctoral research consultant at the University of East Anglia and the International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED).

10 February: A trail of two cities: climate anxieties and slippery objects

Speakers: Bhawani BuswalaMichael KeithMayanka Mukherji

People move to and away from Delhi, many between home places characterised by poverty but also by diverse forms of environmental degradation, some more long term such as warming, drought and desertification; others more immediate and catastrophic such as major instances of flooding. Whether or not they are ‘climate migrants’ is not straightforward but the climate crisis is part of their backstory. Many struggle to find a dwelling space in the interstices of the city, building their own homes, renting, or buying self-build structures in informal markets in the pirate and occupancy urbanisms of the poor in India. Some of this occupation appropriates penumbral spaces alongside infrastructure such as drainage networks installed to control the circulation of water, occupied in precarious landscapes subject to flooding and eviction alike. Most of those who move in such circumstances make a living as well as a dwelling in the informal sector, some in the recycling and circulation of a host of goods including the vast and diverse forms of material that uses plastic as a significant part of its constitution.

In a parallel world, the city tries to mitigate the future carbon footprint of the city. It draws maps of precarity, geographies of vulnerability, and sites of carbon propensity. It seeks to regulate behaviours, the circulation of people and things in the city in a fashion that attempts to rationalise the metabolism of the city. In our research, we follow the people and the plastics through the city but also the fabrication of both the drains and the plastics in the municipal archive of the city’s responses to global environmental change. In this seminar, we explore in particular the ways in which data anxieties, data jugaad and policy vertigo structure this trail of two cities at a time of climate crisis.


24 February: Migration and Employment Opportunities During Adverse Climate Events

Speaker: Valerie Mueller

Migration has been used as a strategy to adapt to economic distress historically. In fact, popular literary novels in the U.S. provide vivid imagery of the economic and social circumstances of environmental migrants and concerns over their integration in receiving communities. While climate change brings similar issues to the forefront today, the conventional narrative excludes discussion of key constraints that trap populations, such as imperfections in labour and capital markets. Moreover, national policies and interventions alter the feasibility of migration as an adaptation strategy. Dr Mueller sheds light on how these constraints are likely to affect future migration responses to climate change in low- and middle-income countries drawing from her recent publications.

Valerie Mueller received her Ph.D. in Agricultural and Resource Economics at the University of Maryland. She is currently an Associate Professor in the School of Politics and Global Studies at Arizona State University (ASU). Prior to joining ASU, she was an economist at the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI), and an Earth Institute Postdoctoral Fellow at Columbia University. Dr. Mueller has devoted her career to measuring rural household vulnerability to climate variability in Africa and Asia. Her recent interest is to identify the impacts of sea level rise on factors that influence location choice in the U.S. and Bangladesh.

24 February: Climatic conditions are weak predictors of asylum migration

Speaker: Halvard Buhaug

Recent research suggests that climate variability and change significantly affect forced migration, within and across borders. Yet, migration is also informed by a range of non-climatic factors, and current assessments are impeded by a poor understanding of the relative importance of these determinants. Here, we evaluate the eligibility of climatic conditions relative to economic, political, and contextual factors for predicting bilateral asylum migration to the European Union—a form of forced migration that has been causally linked to climate variability. Results from a machine-learning prediction framework reveal that drought and temperature anomalies are weak predictors of asylum migration, challenging simplistic notions of climate-driven refugee flows. Instead, core contextual characteristics shape latent migration potential whereas political violence and repression are the most powerful predictors of time-varying migration flows. Future asylum migration flows are likely to respond much more to political changes in vulnerable societies than to climate change.

Halvard Buhaug is Research Professor at the Peace Research Institute Oslo (PRIO); Professor of Political Science at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology; and Associate Editor of Journal of Peace Research. He leads a number of research projects on the security dimensions of climate change, funded by the European Commission and other international and Norwegian funders. Recent publications include journal articles in, inter alia, Global Environmental ChangeJournal of PoliticsNaturePNAS, and World Development. He is lead author in the Working Group II contribution to the IPCC Sixth Assessment Report (2022).

10 March: International frameworks and institutional responses: Confronting the challenges of climate change and human mobility

Speaker: Lauren Nishimura

The link between climate change and human mobility is widely recognized: migration and displacement in the context of climate change is already occurring, and more people are expected to be affected as climate impacts increase in frequency, intensity, and duration. The nature of such mobility is complex and its scale uncertain, with much that can be done to help prevent and mitigate forced or precious migration. To do so will require efforts across multiple levels of governance. This presentation focuses on international legal frameworks and institutions. It seeks to answer questions about how international organizations can confront the challenges posed by climate change and its impacts on mobility. How are these organizations currently responding, where do they fall short, and what opportunities are there for action in the future? To help provide answers, the presentation will connect a discussion of their efforts to an analysis of the conceptual challenges raised by the nexus of climate change and human mobility and the international legal frameworks that could be brought to bear on this nexus. These frameworks must include both those aimed at providing international protection for migrants and refugees and those not typically thought to address mobility. The presentation will close with a discussion of ways forward that could help address the rights and needs of migrants in the context of climate change.

Lauren Nishimura is a lawyer and scholar with experience across academic, non-profit, and private sector settings in Southeast Asia, the United Kingdom, and the United States. She received her DPhil in law from the University of Oxford, where her research focused on climate change, international law, and migration. She is beginning a McKenzie Postdoctoral Fellowship at Melbourne Law School in 2022, where her research will explore the role of legal obligations on climate change adaptation and the human rights of vulnerable persons and communities. She is on the Advisory Committee for the Platform on Disaster Displacement and is a member of the Editorial Advisory Board of RefLaw at the University of Michigan Law School. Dr Nishimura also holds a JD from Georgetown University, a masters in international human rights law from Oxford, and a BA from Vassar College.

Zoom link to join the seminars


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