Transformative adaptation: Promoting migration as adaptation strategy

Transformative adaptation: Promoting migration as adaptation strategy

By Jihyun Selena Lee

There is growing consensus* that conventional adaptation strategies that take an incremental approach are insufficient to embrace the full intensity and scope of climate change challenges. Amongst such challenges is climate change-induced migration. “Climate change could produce a refugee crisis that is unprecedented in human history”, said the former US President Barack Obama at this year’s Global Food Innovation Summit. He emphasized the need to ‘act boldly’ to prevent climate change from further exacerbating the already destabilizing migration crisis. In line with Obama’s urgent message, the idea of promoting mobility as an adaptation strategy, a measure that goes beyond business-as-usual, is gaining positive light in the global policymaking arena. The combination of climate anomalies, variability and uncertainty demands an integrated system which allows the development and employment of various adaptation measures that can effectively respond to the full spectrum of climate trajectories. In that regard, promoting migration as adaptation is a viable, if not recommendable option.

From ‘sedentary bias’ to embracing migration

The idea of correlating migration and climate change is not new; it is just that it has been developed in a biased, one-sided way. Based on the established assumption that being sedentary is the norm to good livelihood and that movement is an uninvited disruption – the so-called ‘sedentary bias’–, migration has been perceived as a last resort to adaptation. The fact that migration involves sensitive political, economic and human rights components made it more difficult to be openly discussed and examined as a means to adapt to climate change, which in itself is an overwhelmingly complicated issue. However, many studies, including the UK’s Foresight Report, have articulated the potential benefits of taking more proactive approach to promoting migration as an adaptation strategy. They argue that well-managed resettlement could not only prevent climate change victims from falling vulnerable to being ‘trapped’ but also provide an opportunity to strengthen local communities’ climate-resilient development.

While the key message is clear, this insight is interpreted in different policymaking contexts by different actors. For instance, the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) fully embraces the idea of migration as adaptation and has established a working division on Environment and Climate Change (MECC) solely dedicated to conducting the relevant studies such as MECLEP (Migration, Environment and Climate Change: Evidence for Policy) project. The UN Refugee Agency UNHCR’s statement “… migration as an adaptation strategy and planned relocation as an adaptation measure of last resort” illustrates that the organization is taking a more cautious, conventional approach, which is similar to the UNFCCC’s categorizing migration as adaptation under ‘loss and damage’ instead of standard adaptation mandates. Even for multilateral development banks, the level of commitment and contributions vary. The World Bank and the Asian Development Bank, the latter possibly due to high occurrence of climate-induced migration in the region, have shown more initiatives than others.

Humanitarian aspects and outlook

What is found commonly lacking is the humanitarian aspect of migration as adaptation. The majority of past and on-going research as well as the policy dialogues that address migration as adaptation concentrate on the economic and political dimensions of the subject. They are mainly concerned with the costs and benefits of relocations and the political disputes that follow. But migration as adaptation, as with all developmental issues, is, or at least should be, about safeguarding human rights against vulnerability, and thus cannot be excluded from the discussion. Giving more weight to the humanitarian components, along with other associated threads such as security, gender, and governance, is also strategically effective. It cannot only conciliate the gaps in understanding to allow for a more refined analysis of the topic but also balance out interest-driven hard politics to promote migration as adaptation in the global development agenda.

The challenge of climate change is vast, and while adaptation efforts have increased over the years, the current small-scale adaptation interventions fail to protect the most vulnerable people. The IPCC’s Fifth Assessment Report highlighted the term ‘transformation’ as “adaptation that changes the fundamental attributes of a system in response to climate and its effects”, and migration as adaptation could, undoubtedly, be counted as such. While the risks of maladaptation from transformative measures should be considered, forced migration for instance, they should not deter the development of idea itself. With climate change expected to become one of the primary drivers of migration, more open, thorough, and constructive discussions are required to unlock the potentials of transformative adaptation.


About the author: Jihyun Selena Lee is a consultant at Korea Institute for Development Strategy and global IP (Information Provider) at Korea Environmental Industry and Technology Institute. She has a long research experience in the field climate-resilient development and has a strong interest in promoting transformative adaptation strategies. Selena received her MSc in Environment and Development at London School of Economics and Political Science.

* UK Climate Impacts Programme (UKCIP), Transformational adaptation, (2015); IDS(Institute of Development Studies), Adapting to Climate Change: Transforming Development? (2016);  World Resource Institute (WRI) articles on adaptation transformation (including migration): Link 1, Link 2, Link 3
Cover photo by Oxfam (CC BY-3.0): Conditions in the Ali Hussein camp, one of several large camps hosting refugees from the 2011 Horn of Africa famine.

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