Opinion: Understanding everyday perceptions: the ‘third wave’ of climate change and migration research?

Nigeria flood 2011 4Dr Alex Arnall, Walker Institute and Lecturer in Agriculture & Development, School of Agriculture, Policy and Development

The dramatic influx of people into Europe from North Africa and the Middle East this summer highlights the long recognised role that conflict, poverty and political unrest play as drivers of migration. These events have, once again, placed international migration at the top of the European political agenda. But what role does environmental change, and particularly global climate change, play in this complex picture of human movement? This question is being considered increasingly by both researchers and policymakers. However, as Dr Alex Arnall explains, this recent environmental turn in migration studies has been far from simple, and debate continues over how best to understand the phenomenon.

It has long been recognised that changes in the environment can alter patterns of human movement. More recently, the impacts of climate change on people’s migration behaviours and mobility has been a subject of considerable interest to national governments and international development organisations. In particular, concern has been raised that climate change will increase population movements as migration becomes a significant climate change adaptation strategy or an indication of a failure to adapt.

It is in this context that research scientists and policymakers have set out to better understand the links between climate change and migration. However, the nature of this work has changed considerably in recent years. The aim of this article is to describe two distinct ‘waves’ of climate change and migration research that have occurred to date, and suggest that we are on the cusp of a new ‘third wave’ which aims to engage with people’s everyday experiences, perceptions and understandings of environmental change and mobility.

Climate change ‘refugees’

The first wave of climate change and migration research emerged in the mid-2000s. It focussed on the problem of the ‘climate change refugee’, defined as someone who is forced to relocate due to climate change-related impacts, such as flood and drought. Ten years ago, this issue was of considerable interest to policymakers, not least because of a widely-quoted report produced by the international NGO, Christian Aid, which stated that there could be as many as one billion climate change refugees worldwide by the 2050s. This raised the possibility of mass immigration of people into the developed world from developing countries, a scenario that alarmed some western-based politicians.

This first phase of research placed the climate change and migration issue high on the international agenda. However, it was not long before migration scientists began to question the numbers of potential refugees that were being reported, pointing out that one billion people seemed unfeasibly high. Moreover, some policymakers working on forced migration issues objected to the use of the word ‘refugee’ in an environmental sense, arguing that it undermined the term’s association with more traditionally-recognised problems such as persecution and conflict.

Drivers of migration

It was against this backdrop that the second wave of climate change and migration research emerged, which addressed the ‘drivers of migration’. This research was built around a major Foresight Report on Migration and Global Environmental Change released by the UK Government’s Office for Science in 2011.

The science underpinning the Foresight Report was more interdisciplinary that that of the first wave, and received more direct involvement by migration experts. This resulted in a more sophisticated theoretical basis that took into account existing patterns of migration – especially rural-urban and national-based ‘circular’ migration – and how such processes might be accelerated or disrupted by present-day and future global environmental change. A major conclusion from the study was that climate change risked ‘trapping’ millions of people in areas increasingly susceptible to climate-related shocks and stresses.

Incorporating ‘ordinary’ voices

There is no doubt that the second wave was a major step forward in understanding the relationship between migration and climate change. However, in the past few years, new research has begun to emerge. Instead of focussing on the views of scientists and experts, this ‘third wave’ aims to bring the voices and experiences of ‘ordinary’ people into the frame, particularly those of vulnerable or marginalised groups that are directly affected by global environmental change.

The third wave is especially relevant to small-island developing countries, or SIDS, based in the Pacific and Indian Oceans. These countries are considered by the international community to be particularly vulnerable to climate change, mainly due to sea level rise. However, as a range of recent research articles1 have demonstrated, this ‘reality’ can look very different when viewed from the perspective of ordinary islanders, rather than those of national ‘elites’ engaged in international climate change negotiations. For example, instead of seeing themselves as vulnerable, or even ‘helpless’, in the face of global climate change, our research2 in the Maldives indicates that islanders very often have long histories of coping with, and adapting to, a wide range of shocks and stresses via migration to and from the national capital, Malé.

Although still in its early stages, research conducted to date suggests that this third wave is important for two main reasons. First, understanding everyday perspectives can improve climate change communication, and can even help to overcome the risks of climate change scepticism and denial.

Second, this work can provide new meanings of, and insights into, existing climate change and migration-related problems, and assist in the development of more effective responses that place the interests, goals and aspirations of vulnerable people at the centre of concern. In short, it can recognise the agency of marginalised people directly affected by global environmental change. It is in this respect that the third wave of climate change and migration research should continue to grow in the years to come.


1 For example:

  • Farbotko, C. and Lazrus, H. (2012) The first climate refugees? Contesting global narratives of climate change in Tuvalu. Global Environmental Change, 22:2, pp 382-390.
  • Marino, E. (2012) The long history of environmental relocation: Assessing vulnerability construction and obstacles to successful relocation in Shishmaref, Alaska. Theme Issue: Adding Insult to Injury: Climate Change, Social Stratification and the Inequities of Intervention. E. Marino & J. Ribot (Eds.) Global Environmental Change, 22:2, pp 374-381.
  • Mortreux, C and Barnett, J. (2008) Climate change, migration and adaptation in Funafuti, Tuvalu. Global Environmental Change, 19:1, pp 105-112.
  • Shen, S and Gemenne, F. (2011) Contrasted views on environmental change and migration: the case of Tuvaluan migration to New Zealand. International Migration, 49:s1, pp. e224-e242.


2 Funded by the Norwegian Research Council, project no. 217188/H30.