It is entirely reasonable to assume that as climate change intensifies, it will result in more human migration and displacement. Images of Bangladeshis seeking refuge from the latest cyclone or Californians fleeing suburban wildfires affirm a sense that climate change is driving the next great migration. And yet the great paradox of climate migration is that there is no such as thing as a “climate migrant” or “climate refugee”.
These are socially constructed categories. They may appear to reflect the world as it is. But when we peel back their veneer, we find, instead, a world of power and vested interests. Diagnosing this power is a matter of pressing urgency for anyone concerned with the politics of climate change today.
The main issue is climate change itself. When the impacts of climate change, such as extreme weather or wildfires, are used to explain socio-political phenomena like migration, they obscure the underlying historical conditions of those they affect.
Take, for example, coastal Bangladesh. For decades, shrimp farming and, more recently, soft-shell crab farming have radically transformed the region. Promoted by institutions like the World Bank, these are forms of economic development that have earned Bangladesh much needed foreign currency. But they have also devastated the coastal environment, dispossessed local smallholders of land, and forced generations of rural people into precarious forms of wage labour.
People in wealthier countries might demand their governments do more to ensure “climate justice” in places like Bangladesh. But when we say rural-to-urban migration in Bangladesh is down to climate change, we diminish this important history.
This is why we should be extremely wary of categories like “climate migrant” and “climate refugee”, which are designed to draw our attention away from historical explanations. When, for example, the World Bank claims that 143 million people are expected to become “internal climate migrants” by 2050, it leaves little room for more nuanced historical accounts of migration.
The World Bank wants us to believe that climate change is the most pressing threat facing the world’s most precarious people and that it will force millions from their homes. However, by fostering this belief, the World Bank masks how its policies have rendered precarious the very people it now claims to be helping.
Factors beyond climate change
Or take a different example, that of suburban California. There is no denying that climate change can explain the increasing frequency of wildfires that routinely wreak havoc on the state’s suburbs. Nor can it be denied that many Californian homeowners are now selling up and moving to cooler places.
But when we explain wildfire and the resulting migration in terms of climate change alone – when we label this “climate migration” – we tell only half the story. Just as important is the history of home ownership in the state.
The uncomfortable fact is that the suburban landscape in California, however normalised it now appears, is the culmination of settler colonial history, white flight from city centres, lax planning laws and a dominant car culture.
It is also the result of an economic model in which homeowners are now expected to meet the costs of old age, education and health care by selling up the family home. No wonder people are liquidating their only asset and moving out of harm’s way.
To say this migration is because of climate change obscures the fact that it is white suburban families who tend to have accrued enough wealth over the generations to move away from hazards like floods and fires.
This becomes even more apparent when we consider how the same choices were unavailable to black people fleeing New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina in 2005. As this example illustrates, when social outcomes like migration are explained in terms of climate change we are invited to disremember the history of racism in America.
The ‘other’ of climate change
In his classic work Orientalism the late literary scholar Edward Said developed his concept of “the other”. Said’s reading of European literature and art is tremendously important because it explains how 19th-century European attitudes were made possible.
Central to Said’s thesis is that Europe denied this other its own history. He sought to show how generations of European writers, artists, statesmen and conquerors imagined Europe’s other living in a realm outside history.
Orientalism was, for Said, not a form of knowledge that simply documented the reality of life in the Orient. It was an extension of European imperial power in which non-Europeans were said to be part of nature rather than western European humanity. It allowed Europe to believe it had a moral duty to intervene in the lives of the other, to modernise the other by bringing it into the folds of history.
We might say the same today about the figure of the climate migrant or refugee – what I have termed “the other of climate change”. The circumstances we face today with climate change are, of course, dramatically different than those that prevailed during the 19th century.
Still, constructs like climate migrant and climate refugee are analogous to the power that was the focus of Said’s criticism. These categories are used to define vast numbers of people, including millions of the world’s poorest, in terms of climate, as opposed to history. They render the history of places secondary to climate change, and in doing so, undermine the right people have to represent themselves on their own terms.
The power I am describing is not universal in form, nor does it serve a singular set of interests. Bangladesh and California are not remotely equivalent. Yet in both cases, when climate change is used to explain socio-political phenomena like migration, social inequality is naturalised.
When we see categories like climate migrant and climate refugee in use today, we should treat them not as innocent descriptors of reality. Instead, they should alert us to the presence of an insidious power whose origins are European. 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?
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