standard Framing climate change migration

Dr Andrew Baldwin, a Co-Director of IHRR, is Chair of a major multidisciplinary project at Durham University on climate change migration called COST Action 11011 Climate change and migration: knowledge, law and policy and theory.  COST Action 11011 is studying the many facets of climate change migration from a legal, political and theoretical perspective. In this interview Andrew explains the racial context of climate change migration and how migration is part of a strategy for adaptation.

What is a climate change migrant?

The obvious answer is that there is no way of identifying a climate change migrant or at least that’s what the existing literature tells us. The most common explanation is that migration is a complex phenomenon.

People migrate for all sorts of different reasons and several reasons at once, so to isolate climate as a determining variable is impossible. You can’t disaggregate climate change from all the other variables that explain why an individual migrates.

Similarly you could say, ‘well, this particular climatic event displaced x number of people’, but then to attribute the event itself to climate change is obviously problematic. That further affects our ability to identify whether someone is a climate migrant.


‘Climate Migrant Camp’ in Hanover, Germany by artist Hermann Josef Hack.

What is racialisation and what do researchers in critical race theory mean by it?

Racialisation is a key term in helping us understand how bodies become differentiated. It names the process by which bodies come to take on racial connotations. It is the process by which skin comes to signify something more than simply the colour.

It’s the process by which, for example, brown skin comes to mean danger for some people, or the process by which people may view the veiled Muslim woman as symbolic of Muslim oppression towards women, or it’s the process that enables white bodies to pass through social space (or rather spaces that are normalised as white) entirely unencumbered by the colour of their skin.

What do you think is the relationship between race, migration and climate change? What brings them together?

I think that’s a really important question. I don’t have a clear answer, but the work that I do is really about trying to understand how we might come to understand the migrant as racialised. I’m interested in that because migration itself is an incredibly racialised phenomenon, in the sense that there are many public anxieties about increasing levels of migration. We have to understand those anxieties in racial terms.

How is climate migration part of an adaptation strategy?

The smart argument these days is that we have to think about migration as an adaptation strategy, a climate adaptation strategy rather than as a failure to adapt, and that sort of formulation is prevalent throughout the international debates.

For example, the International Organisation for Migration would advocate that kind of position and you see a similar kind of argument all over the progressive, liberal policy arguments: ‘We shouldn’t be afraid of migration; migration is a legitimate form of adaptation to climate change’.

And that argument I think is predicated on the notion that migrants are agents of their own lives and migrants make decisions about where they want to go and so forth, so is there agency? Very much. And it’s located at the level of the individual, household and community.

What progress do you think has been made in portraying climate migration in a much better light?

The framing of the issue around migration as a positive form of adaptation I think is quite productive. And I think the reason why that framing has emerged in the last four years is largely as a response to the militarised security variation on the discourse, which regularly positions the migrant as a threat to national security.

Immediately when you do that you conjure up a policy intervention that would be around fortifying borders, deploying some kind of containment strategy to keep people in place and prevent them from moving. You’d take a kind of defensive posture.

That can be very violent and unproductive and could generate a host of different risks and so on. The framing of migration as a positive adaptation response is a direct response to that kind of security framing, and indeed some of the architects of this line of reasoning make exactly this argument. What is required is a more productive framing of the issue.

For further information about COST Action 11011 Climate change and migration: knowledge, law and policy and theory visit its website or email This is part of a larger interview originally published in IHRR’s newsletter.

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