Misleading claims about mass migration induced by climate change continue to surface in both academia and policy. This requires a new research agenda on ‘climate mobilities’ that moves beyond simplistic assumptions and more accurately advances knowledge of the nexus between human mobility and climate change.
International migration and climate policy assumes that anthropogenic climate change already is, and will increasingly be, a major driver of mass migration from the Global South to the Global North. The UNFCCC explicitly specifies the need to avert, minimize and address climate displacement1, while the UN Security Council warns of mass climate migration and the subsequent risk of aggravating conflicts2. Although the potential for climate change to disrupt livelihoods and threaten lives is real, these policies reinforce a false narrative that predicts large numbers of ‘climate refugees’. This self-referencing narrative in scientific literature and policy reports has the consequence of entrenching climate migration as a looming security crisis without an empirical scientific basis3.
Instead of being challenged, this emphasis on securitization (presenting climate change and migration as a security risk) is actively being perpetuated by public funding schemes for scientific research intended to inform national, regional or international policy development. In doing so, these funding policies use the justification of avoiding harm to destination areas in order to keep climate migrants in their places of origin4. A recent EU Horizon 2020 funding call for research on climate change and migration was symptomatic of this securitization agenda, reflecting political demands rather than research gaps to alleviate “migration pressures at the source”5. Similarly, a Horizon 2020 research funding call from 2015 used the example of climate migration to illustrate the “real threat” of Third Country climate-driven crises to European security6.
The influence of this narrative is considerable, with ‘climate-induced migration’ now a common rationale for measures to strengthen and protect national and regional borders in the Global North. For example, the EU migration agenda aims to protect borders “with the intent to keep people in their places and minimize migration”7. The US Department of Defence names intra- and interstate migration associated with climate change as responsible for negative human security effects in destination countries8. Similarly, Australia is pursuing a policy of territorial control, by either keeping borders closed or extending Australian law to ‘off-shore’ processing on Pacific island countries9.
New international science funding schemes, such as the forthcoming call for research on Human Migration and Global Change by the internationally funded Belmont Forum and successor programmes to the EU Horizon 2020, can help in rethinking climate change and migration by offering scientists an opportunity to take a new look at what constitutes global mobility. If such opportunities are not taken, there is a danger that migration policy will continue to be based on weak scientific evidence that reinforces the self-perpetuating myth of climate change migration as a looming security crisis.
A fresh approach is therefore needed, one that enables science to actively help to shape public funding schemes for scientific research that properly captures the complex, mobile and interconnected nature and key challenges of climate change and migration. We offer the following research agenda to achieve that aim, consisting of six priorities to help science policy to move beyond its securitized outlook.