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climate migration
The border wall between Mexico and the USA. In 2019, a mass shooter killed 22 people in the name of eco-fascism in El Paso, Texas. Photo: Pixabay

‘Climate migrants’: the dangers of shock-factor climate narratives

Environmental groups often insist on one of the biggest human impacts of the climate crisis: migration. But experts say these discourses could feed into anti-immigration, far-right ideology, and infiltrate policies worldwide.
Environmental groups often insist on one of the biggest human impacts of the climate crisis: migration. But experts say these discourses could feed into anti-immigration, far-right ideology, and infiltrate policies worldwide.

On March 15, 2019, young people around the world took to the streets in the regular weekly School Strike for Climate. But on that Friday, a different, tragic event would take the spotlight. In Christchurch, New Zealand, a far-right Australian man led a deadly rampage in two mosques. He killed 51 people. In his erratic, racist manifesto, the killer described himself as an “eco-fascist”: immigration, he claimed, was “environmental warfare.”

Mass migration has long been cited as one of the most significant consequences of climate change. In 1990, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) warned that “the greatest single impact of climate change could be on human migration.”

The estimates vary widely: from 25 million to 200 million, to even over one billion potential ‘climate migrants’.

Thrown around by international organizations and news outlets, these staggering figures often meant to raise awareness on the climate crisis. But experts worry about such figures without much scientific basis. They say it amounts to fear mongering, which could feed anti-immigration narratives and in turn influence restrictive and violent migration policies.

climate migration
People aboard a rubber boat in the Mediterranean Sea, October 2019. Over 1.4 thousand people drowned while trying to cross to Europe in 2020. Photo: Julie Bourdin

Climate migration predictions are often guesses”

“Working in this field, you get confronted with these estimates again and again,” sighs Sarah Nash, a postdoctoral researcher working on the intersection of climate change and human mobility. 

In September 2020, after international media uncritically shared that there would be 1.2 billion climate migrants by 2050, Nash co-wrote the op-ed Stop Peddling Fears of Climate Migrants. Often, “the predictions are little more than guesstimates motivated by the goal of shocking people into climate action,” she writes. “Scientific rigour takes a back seat.” 

In 2005, the United Nations Environmental Programme (UNEP) warned that 50 million people could already become environmental refugees by 2010 – later distancing itself from the forecasts when these numbers didn’t materialize

One of the most shared figures was published in 2005 by Norman Myers, a researcher at Oxford University. He estimated 200 million people displaced because of climate change by 2050. Today, a wide range of sources still regularly quote these estimates despite heavy criticism from the scientific community. 

“They took reports looking at what areas of the world are going to be under stress because of the effects of climate change, and at how big the populations are in these areas, and those were the rough estimates for how many people will be displaced,” explains Nash. “They don’t take into account adaptation efforts, or that some people might simply not be able to move.”

Complex causes of climate migration

So why is it so difficult to find reliable estimates for climate-related migration? One of the main reasons, experts say, is the complexity of human migration itself. “When people migrate, there are usually a plethora of reasons they do so,” explains Louise Van Schaik, senior research fellow at the Clingendael Institute of International Relations. 

The effects of climate change are only one among many causes that push people to leave their homes. Research shows that migration related to climate change is mostly internal, staying within national borders. Migration can take many forms, she explains: from long-term to temporary displacements, seasonal movements or people displaced multiple times.

“Just picturing a Pacific island state that will completely disappear and whose whole population will have to move internationally forever is a really small segment of what we are actually talking about,” emphasizes Sarah Nash.

Feeding right-wing narratives

Paradoxically, groups on the left of the political spectrum often summon the spectre of dramatic “climate migration” when advocating for stronger climate policies. Climate refugees discourse is a way to make the threat of climate change feel more tangible and human. But this “human face of climate change” can bring unwanted consequences.

“My biggest fear is that this will feed into xenophobic, anti-migrant narratives present in the global North against migrants from the global South,” explains Nash. 

Gregory White, a political scientist specialized on security, migration and environment studies, observes a similar dynamic. “When the left says that climate refugees are the ‘human face of climate change’, the images are most often people of colour. I think it can abet racialized white nativism,” he says, pointing at the United States’ “long tradition of white nationalism.”

climate migration
Lifejackets used by asylum-seekers to cross the sea from Turkey to the island of Lesvos, Greece. Photo: Julie Bourdin

Twisted environmental claims

Recent events prove him right: “there is no nationalism without environmentalism,” the Christchurch mass murderer wrote in his manifesto . A few months later, in August 2019, a shooter killed 22 people in El Paso, Texas. The shooter’s statement repeated similar twisted environmental claims.

The appropriation of environmental causes by right-wing terrorists is worrying enough. But researchers also warn about the influence of the “climate migrant” discourse on migration policies worldwide.

“You see it on the political right, the security-minded right: intelligence and defense agencies, think tanks in Europe and in the United States, saying that this [climate-driven migration] represents a security threat,” says Gregory White. 

“I’ve watched the political discourse evolve in real time, and you can see the ongoing creep of this,” he regrets. Fear of climate migration is likely to lead to even more anti-immigration policies in a world where borders are getting higher. And quite literally: when the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, there were 15 border walls in the world; today there are over 70.

Potentially deleterious effects of ‘climate migration’ narratives

Sarah Nash is anxious about the potential effects of this fear mongering in Western countries.  In many nations, border policies have become notoriously stricter in recent years with increased rejections, deportations and human rights violations

“My fear is that, in preparing for climate migration, it will be these kinds of measures. It will be processing centres in third countries outside of the European Union, because we don’t want people arriving here. Deportations of people will increase. It will be even harder for people to find legal ways into the European Union,” she enumerates.

In the meantime, extensive, reliable research on climate-related migration is still lacking. Experts call for precaution and nuance in using shock-factor figures.

Well-intentioned narratives can quickly be shared and interpreted, Nash warns. “Even if your intention is to push Europe to be wonderfully climate friendly – that might not be what your arguments lead to.”