Anthropocene and Its Victims: Migration as Failure or Adaptive Strategy?

by |June 17, 2015

The Center for International Earth Science Information Network (CIESIN) hosted François Gemenne for a talk, “Anthropocene and Its Victims: What We Know and How We Name Those Displaced by Environmental Changes,”  held on June 16 at Monell Auditorium, Lamont Campus, Palisades, New York. Here are highlights of his talk:

Gemenne framed his talk around the importance of focusing on what we don’t know about migrants, migration, and the communities they migrate to and from. He noted a fundamental debate between practitioners of social science vs. climate science, between qualitative and quantitative science approaches in researching migration and related issues, articulating the critical issues, and defining the problems.

He began by defining Anthropocene as the “Age of Humans,” wherein humans are the agents of change—but also the victims, suffering damages or displaced by change. Natural disasters are the major drivers of displacement, accounting for some 25 million displacees per year, which is more than conflict or other events. But he noted that disaster displacement does not include people who are leaving regions owing to slow moving (slow onset) changes such as sea level rise and desertification. Migrants are typically pictured in the media as moving en masse in boats and across international borders, he says, but, what we actually know is that migrants typically move short distances, internally, and gradually over time. This is because migration is expensive and takes a lot of resources, so the most vulnerable actually migrate last. Thus, rather than looking at migration as a human disaster to be avoided, it would be more important from a policy perspective to ensure that migration can happen safely.

How to count the number of people migrating is very difficult; Gemenne says NGOs inflate figures to generate interest, and for robust statistics we must rely on statistics from the International Displacement Monitoring Centre, drawn from natural disasters. The truth is no one knows the exact number of people who have migrated owing to climate impacts precisely because apart from the headline-making displacements, no one knows how many people have given up on agriculture, fishing, or other subsistence activities partly owing to changes in the climate.
The implications of sea-level rise are critical to policy issues related to migration, leading to questions such as, “Which territories to protect, which to sacrifice”—but we are not ready to have those conversations yet, he says. What is vital now is downscaling of sea-level rise models to understand what will happen locally (and not a global average) to inform policymaking.

Is migration a failure to adapt, or can it be seen as an adaption strategy, he asks—as something to promote rather than discourage and treat as a disaster? We must consider the possibilities for maladaption, asking, can migration increase the vulnerability of a community of origin and a community of destination? There is a key research gap around this question, he notes, and the United Nations Framework on Climate Change is the best framework to address this issue. Also, research has focused on the reasons people move—whereas it should, Gemenne says, focus on the impacts of migration. Relocating people from vulnerable areas over the long term may seem like a good idea but can be problematic, he notes.

Gemenne argues that climate change is a form of persecution, insofar as emissions that have permitted developed countries to industrialize and get wealthy have contributed to climate changes that are impacting disproportionately the poorest populations. Thus, the victims of the Anthropocene are also victims of political persecution, and therefore the term “climate refugee” is appropriate.

For examples of positive progress he points to the Nansen Initative, launched in 2012 by Switzerland and Norway, which eventually discarded the UN process that was its framework and adopted a process working with volunteer countries, with recommendations to be presented in October 2015 in Geneva.
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François Gemenne is the executive director of the interdisciplinary research program Politics of the Earth at Sciences Po in Paris. A specialist of environmental geopolitics, he lectures on environmental and migration policies in various universities in France and Belgium. He is currently a Fulbright research scholar at the STEP program at Princeton University. Following his talk at Lamont June 16, Gemenne gave a CIESIN Special Seminar at the Jerome Greene Hall on the Morningside Campus: “What the Governance of Climate and Environmental Migration Can Learn from the Governance of Internal Displacement,” hosted by CIESIN, The Alliance Program, and the Sabin Center for Climate Change Law.


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