Get Red Pepper's email newsletter. Enter your email address to receive our latest articles, updates and news.
Over the summer, as the numbers of people fleeing Syria and North Africa reached a new high, a number of commentators pointed to the drought in Syria that preceded the conflict. A prolonged drought in the mid-2000s destroyed many rural livelihoods, leading people to move into cities hoping to find work. At the same time, unrest resulting from the Syrian regime’s numerous abuses and failings was on the rise. This, combined with the growing numbers of people living in urban poverty, created the conditions for the uprising that started in 2011.
This much comes from well-established and highly credible research. However, the media reports went further. Some commentators speculated that a hotter planet might create new and unprecedented waves of refugees: Europe would be inundated, they claimed, unless we did something to halt climate change.
These predictions were unhelpful for two reasons. First, they’re not accurate. The way climate change affects migration is actually far more complicated. Second, they painted migrants and refugees as a threat. The supposed threat posed by refugees was being used to make the case for reductions in carbon emissions, especially in the run up to the next round of climate negotiations in Paris.
Of course, the threat posed by unchecked climate change will be catastrophic. Climate impacts may force millions into poverty and create widespread displacement. But some commentators painted refugees and migrants themselves as part of this future apocalypse. Somehow a group of the most vulnerable people had become a threat to civilisation, rather than the wealthy nations and companies who are responsible for most of the carbon emissions.
The way climate change might affect migration is also rather different to this apocalyptic narrative. This doesn’t mean that the experience of people who are forcibly displaced is any less traumatic. And it doesn’t mean that the responsibility of developed countries to provide assistance is any less.
Climate change could reshape patterns of natural disasters, making some kinds of disasters more severe or more regular. This in turn will alter patterns of displacement. However, when this displacement takes place the vast majority of it is internal. People tend not to cross international borders. Usually people seek safety near to their homes. This was the case in the aftermath of the widespread flooding in Pakistan in 2010. Millions of people were displaced, but most remained within Pakistan. The sudden nature of some disasters means that people often flee with whatever possessions they can carry, and do not move far.
As one survivor of the 2010 floods told the World Food Programme: ‘The water came at night and we didn’t have time to save our belongings; we had to chose whether to save our children and ourselves or our property and assets, so we chose to save our kids. We left everything and ran to save our lives.’
In an interview with Al Jazeera, Shauquat Ali, displaced tenant farmer and father said: ‘I go to get registered [as an Internally Displaced Person] and they dismiss me. I don’t want to live here. I don’t want my children out on the streets. In my village I have little but I look after my family.’
When people do cross international borders, it is often because a climate-linked disaster has combined with other political forces, such as conflict or human rights abuses, or when climate change, conflict and economic factors such as food prices and unemployment have combined. This is what happened in Syria. But Syria was certainly not the first time these factors had met and created widespread displacement across borders. In 2011 severe drought across the Horn of Africa, combined with rising food prices and existing conflicts, affected millions of people.
Speaking to the United Nations University, an elderly Somali farmer explained: ‘And since there was the war, we did not receive any support from the government. Therefore, there are combined factors that made us suffer: droughts and war. If war did not exist, then we might have been able to stay, but now that the land is looted, there is no way for us to claim it.’
One of the counter-intuitive effects of climate change on migration might be that people move less. Not all disasters happen in an instant. Some, like desertification and water stress, are creeping disasters that unfold over years. These gradually erode people’s livelihoods, making them progressively poorer. People may reach a point where they no longer have the money to move. Climate impacts will have trapped them where they are, in worsening poverty, when migrating and finding work elsewhere may have been their best option.
For many, of course, migration will become the way they adapt to climate change. When this migration is not made in situations of distress and it is freely chosen there is no reason that migration should not become one of the climate adaptation strategies open to people. Indeed, for some areas that will be catastrophically affected by climate change, migration may be the only adaptation option.
Many people are already using migration to protect themselves from climate change impacts. Often people move and find temporary work in nearby cities, and then return during busier periods in the agricultural cycle. Some move when drought and water stress are at their worst and then return if conditions improve. What begin as patterns of temporary and seasonal migration may become more permanent ways of adapting to climate change.
‘My grandfather, father and I have worked these lands. But times have changed,’ a farmer in Hueyotlipan, Mexico told researchers of the European Commission’s EACH-FOR (Environmental Change and Forced Migration) programme. ‘The rain is coming later now, so that we produce less. The only solution is to go away, at least for a while. Each year I’m working for three to five months in Wyoming. That’s my main source of income. But leaving my village forever? No. I was raised here and here I will stay.’
There is a strong case for helping people to migrate as a way of adapting to climate change. The alternative is allowing them to remain trapped in ever-increasing poverty, or waiting for them to be forcibly displaced.
Alex Randall works on a number of migration and climate change campaigns. He writes in a personal capacity
The police spend little of their time making arrests, and most crimes are not solved, writes Alex Vitale – their real purpose is social control
Many important things happened on conference floor, reports Alex Nunns – but you wouldn’t know it from reading the newspapers
Radhika Desai says Capital by Karl Marx is still an essential read on the 150th anniversary of its publication
The Spanish state is seizing ballot papers and raiding meetings, write Ignasi Bernat and David Whyte – but it is being met with united resistance
The crunch executive meeting ahead of Labour conference agreed some welcome changes, writes Michael Calderbank, but there is still much further to go
Dipesh Pandya speaks to documentary film-maker Sanjay Kak, who for 30 years has been working outside the mainstream to tell a story rooted in the struggles of those excluded by India’s militarism and its narrative of neoliberal growth
Jeremy Gilbert on how radical Labour politics can be inspired by the utopianism of the counterculture
Disasters have unequal impacts – it's the poor and marginalised who suffer most. David Harvey writes on Hurricane Harvey
‘There is no turning back to a time when there wasn’t migration to Britain.’
David Renton reviews the Migration Museum's latest exhibition.
#MeToo is necessary – but I’m sick of having to prove my humanity
Women are expected to reveal personal trauma to be taken seriously, writes Eleanor Penny
Universal credit isn’t about saving money – it’s about disciplining unemployed people
The scheme has cost a fortune and done nothing but cause suffering. So why does it exist at all? Tom Walker digs into universal credit’s origins in Tory ideology
Meet the digital feminists
We're building new online tools to create a new feminist community and tackle sexism wherever we find it, writes Franziska Grobke
The Marikana women’s fight for justice, five years on
Marienna Pope-Weidemann meets Sikhala Sonke, a grassroots social justice group led by the women of Marikana
Forget ‘Columbus Day’ – this is the Day of Indigenous Resistance
By Leyli Horna, Marcela Terán and Sebastián Ordonez for Wretched of the Earth
Uber and the corporate capture of e-petitions
Steve Andrews looks at a profit-making petition platform's questionable relationship with the cab company
You might be a centrist if…
What does 'centrist' mean? Tom Walker identifies the key markers to help you spot centrism in the wild
Black Journalism Fund Open Editorial Meeting in Leeds
Friday 13th October, 5pm to 7pm, meeting inside the Laidlaw Library, Leeds University
This leadership contest can transform Scottish Labour
Martyn Cook argues that with a new left-wing leader the Scottish Labour Party can make a comeback
Review: No Is Not Enough
Samir Dathi reviews No Is Not Enough: Defeating the New Shock Politics, by Naomi Klein
Building Corbyn’s Labour from the ground up: How ‘the left’ won in Hackney South
Heather Mendick has gone from phone-banker at Corbyn for Leader to Hackney Momentum organiser to secretary of her local party. Here, she shares her top tips on transforming Labour from the bottom up
Five things to know about the independence movement in Catalonia
James O'Nions looks at the underlying dynamics of the Catalan independence movement
‘This building will be a library!’ From referendum to general strike in Catalonia
Ignasi Bernat and David Whyte report from the Catalan general strike, as the movements prepare to build a new republic
Chlorine chickens are just the start: Liam Fox’s Brexit trade free-for-all
A hard-right free marketer is now in charge of our trade policy. We urgently need to develop an alternative vision, writes Nick Dearden
There is no ‘cult of Corbyn’ – this is a movement preparing for power
The pundits still don’t understand that Labour’s new energy is about ‘we’ not ‘me’, writes Hilary Wainwright
Debt relief for the hurricane-hit islands is the least we should do
As the devastation from recent hurricanes in the Caribbean becomes clearer, the calls for debt relief for affected countries grow stronger, writes Tim Jones
‘Your credit score is not sufficient to enter this location’: the risks of the ‘smart city’
Jathan Sadowski explains techno-political trends of exclusion and enforcement in our cities, and how to overcome this new type of digital oppression
Why I’m standing with pregnant women and resisting NHS passport checks
Dr Joanna Dobbin says the government is making migrant women afraid to seek healthcare, increasing their chances of complications or even death
‘Committees in Defence of the Referendum’: update from Catalonia
Ignasi Bernat and David Whyte on developments as the Catalan people resist the Spanish state's crackdown on their independence referendum
The rights and safety of LGBTQ+ people are not guaranteed – we must continue to fight for them
Kennedy Walker looks at the growth in hate attacks at a time when the Tory government is being propped up by homophobes
Naomi Klein: the Corbyn movement is part of a global phenomenon
What radical writer Naomi Klein said in her guest speech to Labour Party conference
Waiting for the future to begin: refugees’ everyday lives in Greece
Solidarity volunteer Karolina Partyga on what she has learned from refugees in Thessaloniki
Don’t let Uber take you for a ride
Uber is no friend of passengers or workers, writes Lewis Norton – the firm has put riders at risk and exploited its drivers
Acid Corbynism’s next steps: building a socialist dance culture
Matt Phull and Will Stronge share more thoughts about the postcapitalist potential of the Acid Corbynist project
Flooding the cradle of civilisation: A 12,000 year old town in Kurdistan battles for survival
It’s one of the oldest continually inhabited places on earth, but a new dam has put Hasankeyf under threat, write Eliza Egret and Tom Anderson
New model activism: Putting Labour in office and the people in power
Hilary Wainwright examines how the ‘new politics’ needs to be about both winning electoral power and building transformative power
What is ‘free movement plus’?
A new report proposes an approach that can push back against the tide of anti-immigrant sentiment. Luke Cooper explains
The World Transformed: Red Pepper’s pick of the festival
Red Pepper is proud to be part of organising The World Transformed, in Brighton from 23-26 September. Here are our highlights from the programme
Working class theatre: Save Our Steel takes the stage
A new play inspired by Port Talbot’s ‘Save Our Steel’ campaign asks questions about the working class leaders of today. Adam Johannes talks to co-director Rhiannon White about the project, the people and the politics behind it