From a climate of fear to a climate of solidarity: talking climate and migration around the UN Climate Change Conference 2021

by Ankit Kumar, Lecturer in Development and Environment for the Department of Geography by Matthew J Thomas

The UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) informs us that changes in weather patterns like rainfall and temperature can impact migration patterns. In 2018, the Guardian newspaper ran a series on the next climate migrants in the United States, about people moving due to rising temperatures, disasters like floods and wildfires, and sea level rise. Places in the global South, especially small island states like Maldives, and highly vulnerable countries like Bangladesh and Afghanistan have also been in the eye of the storm of climate migration discussions.

Despite more recent views of migration as a security risk, migration has been a long standing survival strategy for human beings. Mobility is a common way of seeking and maintaining lives. We know that rural to urban migration to find livelihoods is common in many countries around the world, and often upper class families, whether in US or Europe, move to rural areas to avoid the ‘problems’ of a city life. However, most of this migration happens within the boundaries of nation-states. People also move to survive natural disasters like floods and cyclones, where damage to homes and communities are imminent. According to IPCC, extreme events and natural disasters provide the most direct link between climate change and migration. However, in most cases people prefer to either stay put or, if forced to leave, return as soon as possible. This is because it is not easy to forego the historical, social, and cultural networks that our lives are embedded in.

In the last decade, the idea of ‘climate migration’ and ‘climate migrants’ has gained momentum. It’s the idea that impacts of climate change on the most vulnerable parts of the world will lead to displacement of people who might seek shelter in other countries. This is normatively understood as migrants from poorer countries, often in the global South, seeking shelter in the global North.

The so-called migrant crisis in Europe in the last few years has further fueled this concern. Increasingly, climate change and migration are being framed as ‘security issues’ (issues of social, cultural, economic, and spatial boundaries for countries in Europe and North America.) But despite the majority of migration across the globe being either internal or regional, a fear of hordes of climate migrants landing on European shores is perpetuated to reinforce the securitisation of borders. This is comparable to the fear of hordes of political refugees coming to Europe, where in reality most people displaced by political unrest end up in neighbouring countries.

Climate and human insecurity

Andrew Baldwin has reminded us that an “encounter with climate change, an unpredictable, uncontrollable future, infuses insecurity about human mastery over nature”. This infuses a sense of insecurity. Post-enlightenment European thought defined ‘human’ in opposition to ‘nature’ and established an idea of a rational, civilised human superiority over a wild, unpredictable nature. This rational human, as many postcolonial and critical race scholars have argued, is inherently racialised. This claim of humanity that emerged from Europe saw everyone other than White Europeans as less than human, and closer to the wild, unpredictable nature. As climate change infuses an insecurity over human mastery of nature, we see in the ‘migration crisis’ discourse an attempt to control and securitise those ‘others’ that are seen as less than human, and ‘closer to nature’. This racialised apparatus helps thwart what Baldwin refers to as a ‘crisis of humanism’ while further entrenching racial divisions that we need to shed to build a wider solidarity to cope with, and adapt in, a climate changed world.

Racialised migration and climate justice

We know from Anthropocene literature that, while the Industrial Revolution accelerated the pace of carbon emissions, migrations of humans from Europe to ‘other’ parts of the world, and the processes of plantation, slavery, and colonisation set the platform up for the Industrial revolution to take place. Sylvia Winter argues that “capitalism as a system […] required the negation of the black as human” and that snatching of “New World land, the forced labor of the Indian, and the conversion of man — the black man — into a commodity” were the platforms that led to the Industrial explosion in Europe. Even more explicitly, Lewis and Maslin have shown how the death/murder of 50 million Indigenous people in the Americas that resulted from European colonisation led to a change in global CO2 and temperatures recorded in Antarctic ice cores. Forgetting or denying these unequal histories of migration and the racialised processes they put in place and have maintained to this day will tamper climate justice work and therefore the wider solidarity that a ‘global’ issue like climate change demands.

Building wider solidarity

Climate change exacerbated migration and displacement are not just issues for poorer parts of the world. Evidence from the European Environmental Agency shows that parts of Europe will be more affected by climate change impacts. For example, the case of sea level rise particularly impacts specific countries. IPCC argues that ‘populations in the north-western region of Europe are most affected and many countries, including the Netherlands, Germany, France, Belgium, Denmark, Spain, and Italy’ will need to reinforce coastal defences. IPCC advises that ‘managed retreat’ or displacement might be an essential strategy in some cases. This question of displacement and migration that threatens Europe is important as it brings nuance to the racialised normative public picture of displacement and migration and their framing as security issues. It is a reminder that the ‘global’ nature of climate change, although with varied spatial and temporal impacts, means that we need a wider solidarity, one that sheds normative, prejudiced, and inequitable notions and old affiliations.

An adequate response to the climate crisis from COP26 negotiations will depend on shedding old affiliations and opening to unexpected friendships and hospitality towards others. If climate mitigation is defined as a common issue, then climate adaptation also needs to be taken as a common issue. This needs radical politics that open spaces for new voices, as we see in the case of young people’s climate strikes. As normative, entrenched and traditional politics focus on ‘others’ who seek hospitality in Europe and ignore acknowledging the hospitality, love and friendship offered by those ‘others’ now and at various critical junctures in history. A mature politics seeks to be othering and dominating, rather than inclusive and collaborative. To develop a more inclusive ‘global’ politics, the first step is equity for those who have been degraded and discriminated against as lesser humans. Lives that colonial and contemporary evidence tells us, have mattered less. Lives that are racialised and ridiculed as being closer to nature, closer to undisciplined life. It is a reminder that Black Lives do matter, and that Black Lives must matter in any thinking around the climate crisis. In the Indian context this also translates into Dalit and Adivasi Lives Matter. The first step to climate justice for all life on earth is justice for Black Life on earth. This needs to be embedded in any agreements that result from COP26.

Find out more about Dr Ankit Kumar’s work.




The latest thinking in social science at The University of Sheffield

Recommended from Medium

Come out ‘frighting’ this Halloween, and help make it greener than ever

Illegal Logging: From Forest to Flooring

As the Frigid Polar Vortex Approaches we Stock up on …Bread and Milk?

Reconsidering Public Spaces During and After COVID-19

Permanence of Change

a boat  in a calm waters, beautiful sun.

Rebuilding Paradise: the complex systems nurturing vital communities.

Climate Of Courage

Is green earth too hard to achieve?

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store
Human: Putting the Social in Science

Human: Putting the Social in Science

The latest social science thinking at The University of Sheffield. World class research, making a difference.

More from Medium

Our Incredible, Unfathomable, Deteriorating Energy Grid

Supply Chain Disruptions — the Risks and Consequences

An eighteen-wheeler entering one of the main shipping container corridors at the Port of Houston in Houston, Texas, October 12th, 2021. Photo by Reginald Mathalone/NurPhoto/Reuters

Minding the Tragic Gap

Radioactive contamination is creeping into drinking water around the U.S.