Global Development Institute Blog

By Professor Uma Kothari

The impacts of climate change are likely to be severe. Extreme weather events, heat stress, rising sea levels, infections and disease are just some potential results, which will hit poor and vulnerable populations in developing countries hardest. Yet the current ways in which international climate policy is incrementally formed through elite conversation is proving totally inadequate to deal with the growing threat.

Take the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). In many ways it’s positive that poverty eradication and environmental sustainability are being considered more holistically.  Yet, the goals make very little mention of migration, which some suggest is likely to play an increasingly crucial role in adaption to climate change. As we’ve seen from the current movement of refugees from Syria, when large numbers of people feel compelled to move, business as usual approaches are swiftly rendered useless and detrimental.

Beyond the prospects of getting a global deal on climate change in November, the success of the SDGs largely depends on how both elites and non-elites engage in the development of policies to meet the climate change targets.

Recent experiences in the Maldives provide valuable insights. In the 2000s the government of the Maldives proposed a plan to boost economic development and reduce public expenditure by consolidating the population dispersed on 200 islands, onto just 10-15 islands. This was deeply unpopular and actively contested by citizens. Indeed, research demonstrates that forced migration often results in people being worse off than they were before.

The policy was discarded, but the threat of climate change is now being used as a vehicle to revive the idea as a necessary adaptive response. The former president of the Maldives reintroduced the proposal to help pressure industrial countries into action on climate change and prove that he was taking it seriously. Yet this backfired when fears amongst Maldivians about becoming exiles were not addressed, while also frightening off tourists and investors. The polarised nature of the debate closed down opportunities for the development of more equitable and sustainable policy options.

Around the world, a technocratic and depoliticised discourse on climate change is being used to conceal unpopular political agendas. Resettlement is a highly political issue and has great potential for abuse by governments. As the SDGs play out, it is highly likely that political interests will play a role in how environmental narratives are produced, circulated and interpreted.

Currently there is a significant difference in the perception and timescale of climate change and related ideas of urgency and crisis between elites and non-elites. In discussions, elites tend to invoke a language of ‘crisis’ and focus on distant futures which do not always resonate with, or map on to, people’s everyday lives and aspirations. Use of catastrophic language, which frames those living on small islands purely as victims, negates recognising strategies which have always been adopted – such as migration.

Alarmist and ‘crisis’ language came to the fore when research suggested there could be as many as one billion “climate change refugees” by 2050. This narrative suggested uncontrolled mass migration, fuelling western anxieties – despite evidence that most migration takes place within national borders and the fact that most cross-border migration is expected to take the form of south-south migration. Additionally, this discourse assumes that it is possible to identify a single reason (i.e. climate change) for why people decide to migrate rather than recognising that in most cases people move for a whole variety of reasons.

In this context, development aid and immigration policies become aimed at controlling the volume, direction and types of movement, rather than supporting migrants. But historically, migration has not always been as a consequence of a crisis nor a process that needs preventing and controlling. Instead it has always been an ‘ordinary’ phenomenon and a part of most people’s lives. For example, many people in the Maldives move islands regularly for employment.

Studies on migration and climate change, as well as the policies that are based on them, have tended to focus on elite perspectives, with those immediately affected by the effects of climate change absent from, or marginalised in policymaking processes. Discourse is increasingly professionalised, technical and overly scientific, exacerbating unequal power relations and limiting the ability of ordinary people to question particular policies or influence agendas. The consequence is that government responses to climate change are often inappropriate and unsustainable, delegitimising the more immediate priorities of ordinary people.

Climate change policies that overlook the priorities of citizens can be unpopular, exacerbate inequalities and place additional stress on vulnerable communities. These issues are particularly relevant to small, low-lying island communities such as the Maldives which are most vulnerable to economic and environmental change and have become more prominent in international debates on climate change and migration.

We need to see a much greater dialogue between elites and non-elites on climate change and migration issues. Until these multiple, diverse, and in some cases conflictual, perspectives are brought to the fore and effectively integrated into policy interventions, efforts to support people to adapt to the impact of global environmental change are likely to  exacerbate conflicts, not resolve them.


Uma Kothari is Professor of Migration and Postcolonial Studies at the University of Manchester, and Managing Director at the Global Development Institute.