Climate change and migration

This time it is the turn of the EU to offer warnings of the migration effects of climate change. Two senior foreign policy advisors have suggested that Europe needs to brace itself for what the Guardian confusingly calls ‘a new kind of refugee – the environmental migrant’.

I have discussed at length the legal complexity and lack of conceptual clarity attached to this issue before as well as the fact that such stark warnings ignore mitigation and adaptation to the effects of climate change. Migrants, whatever the relative voluntariness, make choices to migrate based on a complex set of causes; isolating these causes is incredibly difficult. What marks out refugees from other migrants is that it is legally deemed that their home state is no longer willing to provide them with protection or is in fact the architect of their persecution. As Richard Black argues persuasively in this paper, the same cannot be said of individuals whose choice to move is affected primarily by environmental considerations. It is difficult to see how the effects of climate change could be conceptualised in any different way. It may be the case that economic pressures generated by environmental change may reduce the capacity of governments to protect their people but this is an issue of economics, development and financial aid not one of persecution that requires protection in the form of an international legal response.

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