The Myth of Climate Migrants: On Discourse and Its Effects

The rhetoric of global climate migration is being mobilized in ways that promote the unequal distribution of power and resources at multiple scales. Understanding how these discourses affect the securitization of climate response is essential to more equitable climate futures.

Mainstream narratives about climate migration increasingly fuel the politics of development and relationships between the Global North and Global South. The threat of these migrations animates domestic and international political action around how to plan for the threat climate change poses now and in the future. What do these stories mean? How do they emerge? What are their implications? Most importantly, how do they impact the people who are described as “climate migrants” and the communities they come from?

Others have written about the securitizing work performed by these discourses of climate migration. These discourses warn of the threats of these hordes of migrants flooding over borders in regions vulnerable to violent conflict, exacerbating refugee crises by turning up on the shores of Europe and North American states. There they are greeted by xenophobia stoked by rightwing populism, increasingly shaping domestic politics in the Global North. As Betsy Hartmann explains, regardless of their veracity, these narratives are useful to certain policy actors, in particular to those involved in defence and the militarization of humanitarianism.

Some have pointed out that these climate migration narratives are simply false – climate change is only one among many largely social, political, and economic drivers of contemporary mass migrations. Others have demonstrated that climate migration discourses play an important role in shaping contemporary neoliberal subjects. These analyses offer insight into the effects of climate migration discourses on the management of populations on the move in the time of climate change.

In my recently published book, Threatening Dystopias  I have examined these discourses in a context thought to be uniquely vulnerable to these threats: coastal Bangladesh. Many popular, policy, and scientific narratives about the region suggest that the Bay of Bengal, ascending above land as the sea level rises, will cause mass migrations out of this low-lying coastal region at an unprecedented rate. The predicted movement of these people across the Indian border stokes fears of inflaming tensions in an already highly securitized subcontinent. These security discourses are exemplified by statements from one of Bill Clinton’s chiefs of staff, who in 2007 wrote that “India will struggle to cope with a surge of displaced people from Bangladesh, in addition to those who will arrive from the small islands in the Bay of Bengal that are being slowly swallowed by the rising sea” and that “these desperate individuals go where they can, not necessarily where they should.”   

These discourses reflect what long-time Bangladesh scholar David Lewis has termed “policy amnesia,” describing how crisis narratives of environmental catastrophe have been frequently mobilized throughout Bangladesh’s history to justify plans for disruptive, large-scale development interventions and associated displacement of populations. As Lewis points out, the discourse of climate refugees in Bangladesh is particularly misleading, as it obscures long-standing migration patterns in the region. These patterns are shaped by livelihood strategies dependent on seasonal agrarian labor migration, as well as the periodic movements to adapt to a dynamic deltaic ecology. 

Extending this analysis beyond an examination of these geopolitical threats and their securitizing implications, my book focuses on what these climate migration discourses miss and why it matters. Specifically, significant populations of coastal inhabitants are already migrating out of the region, driven by an agrarian political economy characterized by extreme and intensifying inequality. Transformations in agrarian production promoted by development agencies – for example, a shift from traditional rice farming to commercial shrimp production – are displacing countless landless and land-poor peasants. These transformations are part of a larger process that sociologist Farshad Araghi has termed “global depeasantization” – a pattern of intensified agrarian displacement that dates to the middle of the twentieth century, shaped by post-war capitalist development around the world. 

While global depeasantization is not caused by global climate change, it matters very much that the two are conflated. In coastal Bangladesh today, development agencies are recycling the very development strategies that have been driving depeasantization as “climate change adaptation” strategies. Commercial shrimp cultivation is a perfect example of this. Development agencies like the World Bank and USAID started promoting large-scale commercial shrimp aquaculture in the 1980s under structural adjustment programs. This was a part of a broad package of neoliberal reforms intended to diversify the country’s export economy. The sector grew rapidly, often through illegal and frequently violent land grabbing, through which elite urban outsiders flooded vast tracts of rice fields to install shrimp ponds. Shrimp cultivation, however, requires a very small amount of labor – some estimate approximately 10% of the labor required for rice farming. As a result, significant populations of agrarian laborers – in particular the region’s majority population of landless laborers and sharecroppers – were forced to migrate away from their homes to find work. In the ensuing decades, this pattern has intensified. In addition to causing depeasantization, shrimp cultivation has also resulted in negative ecological impacts, such as water logging and severe salinization of soil and water across the coastal region. 

Today, in a (perhaps predictable?) twist, development agencies have begun promoting shrimp aquaculture as a climate change adaptation strategy. Responding to the threats of sea level rise, along with associated water logging and salinity, development agencies are proposing these long-standing interventions as solutions to the very problems they have been causing for decades. The migrants who continue to be forced out of agrarian livelihoods in the region are today categorized (by journalists, policy makers, and even some scientists) as “climate migrants.” 

This discursive shift is important not only because environmental degradation and its demographic implications are being attributed to the wrong things. This misattribution also has serious implications for policy in the region. Specifically, if these changes are inevitable, then those planning policy responses have few options but to address the conditions of those who have already been displaced. However, if this depeasantization is not inevitable, then there may be alternative interventions to address the inequality in agrarian political economy that is driving it. Activists in the region have suggested options such as land redistribution, seed banks, and the maintenance of water management infrastructures to facilitate water storage and crop irrigation. 

This story about shrimp and rice in coastal Bangladesh is not an isolated case. It is part of a much broader pattern of dispossession promoted through climate change adaptation in communities around the world: a pattern of governance taking place through what I have called the “adaptation regime.” The adaptation regime reproduces existing unequal power relations in the name of climate response, masking inequalities in political economy that have shaped those power relations historically. In the case of coastal Bangladesh, these power relations have a long history dating to the colonial period. These patterns not only predate climate change, but they are defined by the same global economic conditions that have produced it.

In addition to these implications for development policy, Threatening Dystopias outlines how modes of understanding and discussing climate migration influence the production of new knowledge about climate migration as well. Drawing on interviews with researchers studying contemporary migration patterns in Bangladesh, I demonstrate how the science of climate migration is shaped by this same political economy of adaptation. Normative ideas about developed futures in Bangladesh suggest that rural-urban outmigration may present an ideal vision for a developed future in Bangladesh, where policy makers and urban elites increasingly see agrarian livelihoods as ‘backward,’ while also seeing urban development, along with production of garments, shrimp, and other exports as necessary to the country’s economic growth. These normative ideas about ideal migration shape the science of what is happening in line with ideas about what should happen. Such knowledge politics prevent us from seeing alternative political economic pathways.

While stories about climate migration are increasingly deployed in domestic and international politics, the agency of those labelled “climate migrants” is conspicuously absent. Greater attention to the motivations for contemporary migrations, situated in relation to longer histories and political economies of development, would offer more nuanced insight into these dynamics of change.

The rhetoric of global climate migration is not only often misleading, it is also mobilized in ways that promote the unequal distribution of power and resources at multiple scales. We must understand how these discourses affect the securitization of climate response to better understand contemporary demographic shifts and imagine more equitable climate futures.

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Posted 
Jun 28, 2022
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