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Research priorities for climate mobility

Expert Comment

Written by Nick Simpson

Image credit:United Nations Image license:CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 DEED

In Research Priorities for Climate Mobility, published today in One Earth (Cell Press), Dr Nick Simpson and co-authors outline key areas to improve our understanding and planning for the movement of human populations in response to the current realities and future risks from climate change.

They highlight that the escalating impacts of climate change on the movement and immobility of people is coupled with false but influential narratives of mobility, migration, refugees, and displacement. This requires urgent, nuanced and synthetic research on climate mobility. We need to clarify what conditions make human mobility an effective adaptation option under current and future climate change. We need research and policy to reflect nuanced outcomes including simultaneous losses, damages and benefits of climate mobility. Current policies and practices do not adequately reflect the diverse needs, priorities, and experiences of climate mobility. In contrast, more supportive and progressive approaches could make substantial gains through emphasizing capability, choice and freedom of movement. This means they need to better support those on the move, those unable to move and to help receiving communities to accommodate and support newcomers well.

Five of the research priorities in the article resonate closely with ongoing and planned research at ODI including:

  1. Integration of adaptation and development planning.
  2. Involuntary immobility and vulnerability.
  3. Public understanding of climate risk (climate literacy) and its effect on responses.
  4. Transboundary, compound and cascading risks and adaptation.
  5. Planned retreat, relocation and heritage.

Priority 1: Integrating adaptation and development planning

It is increasingly understood that climate change adaptation must be more fully integrated with socioeconomic development efforts to identify investment synergies between them, particularly for key dimensions of vulnerability and in resource- constrained contexts. While we have a growing understanding of how to integrate climate action with development planning, development actors currently lack understanding of the substantial synergies that can be achieved for wellbeing when integrating development planning together with both adaptation and greenhouse gas mitigation.

We urgently need bottom-up assessments of climate mobility-related adaptation costs, including the costs of inaction, the integration of costs in national adaptation planning processes, and access to finance by local implementing institutions and actors. There is a further need to ensure that climate finance is allocated to the local level and involves community participatory processes, by mapping the baseline of climate finance that reaches the local level, such as cities, and using it to set goals for local climate finance, targeting the most climate vulnerable areas and communities. This would ensure climate finance addresses needs and gaps and broadens equitable access to domestic finance. Importantly, these participatory processes will also better connect and mainstream adaptation with local-level development imperatives and contextual drivers of vulnerability affecting climate mobility and wellbeing in general.

Priority 2: Involuntary immobility and vulnerability

Figure 1. Adaptation and adaptation limits, climate mobility and implications for future risk.(elaborated from Figure MIGRATE.1 from Cross-Chapter Box MIGRATE Climate-Related Migration in Chapter 7 Health, Wellbeing, and the Changing Structure of Communities of AR6 Working Group II to provide greater focus on characteristics of climate mobility described in the assessment and the literature).

Figure 1 highlights the importance of understanding the lived experiences of moving or remaining in place and of receiving contexts; the complexity of climate change as one driver of mobility; and mobility and immobility outcomes that affect lives, livelihoods, and wellbeing. Migration or displacement can increase or decrease overall risk, while groups and individuals that are involuntarily immobile may find that their exposure, vulnerability and overall risk increase over time. When households have high agency, mobility responses are more likely to have positive outcomes. However, interactions between the factors that promote agency of mobility—including household level determinants such as education, assets, and health as well as community resources and social networks—and immobility are less understood. But in areas with low adaptive capacity and high vulnerability, climate impacts also reduce agency to choose mobility or immobility by entrenching vulnerability.

The capabilities of individuals, households, and groups to make free, legal and informed choices about whether, when or where to move or not move are central to ensuring that mobility functions as an adaptation to climate change. It is also important to consider the often-different outcomes of mobility on places of origin and destination—on a household level, they are frequently entangled through trans-local connections between migrants and their family or household members at places of origin. As climate mobility can replace one form of precarity with another, greater nuance is needed to recognize mobility and in situ adaptation that can both create simultaneous harms and benefits.

Mobility is inherently gendered and can exacerbate existing inequalities and inequities between women and men, expose them to new vulnerabilities, and intensify gendered experiences of poverty, discrimination and socioeconomic inequality. Nevertheless, women play a critical role in sustaining households and communities whether on the move or staying behind. More evidence is particularly needed on the intersectional factors that make mobility an option for some but not for others, that shape the unequal distribution of mobility costs and benefits, and that influence adaptation outcomes in source and destination communities alike. Research needs to identify the enabling conditions that shape opportunities for substantive empowerment of women that boosts their adaptation capacity, whether on the move, residing in a new location, or staying.

Priority 3: Public understanding of climate risk and responses to climate change

We need to also better understand how people weigh harms and benefits when they make decisions about mobility and immobility, and how this can support agency and choice. Effective adaptation requires knowledge of current and future climate-related risks. Boosting general awareness of climate change and climate risks, together with access to localized climate information, holds the potential to help people make better decisions on how to cope and adapt, including by moving, either temporarily or permanently (Figure 2).

Figure 3. Public understanding of climate risk and its effect on adaptation through decisions to move or stay. (elaborated by the authors from Figure 9.11a in Chapter 9: Africa of AR6 Working Group II with detail on the relationship between climate mobility and public understanding of climate risk and response described in the assessment and the literature).

The IPCC AR6 assesses that adaptation outcomes improve with the degree of choice and agency under which migration decisions are made. Boosting climate literacy and increasing early warning systems and climate information can support adaptation through enhancing public understanding of risk. But we know very little about the behavioral and psychological factors and capabilities necessary for this knowledge-to-action relationship in the context of climate mobility and adaptation more generally. Research needs to elaborate and clarify how climate literacy and climate information services can best work together across different groups and contexts, including integration of diverse knowledge systems, for hard-to-reach and vulnerable groups.

Priority 4: Transboundary, compound and cascading risks

Adapting to transboundary, compound and cascading risks requires capabilities that go beyond a single place or group of actors to include transboundary solutions to climate risk as well as capability to manage cascading effects across multiple sectors. We need to explore the limits that are posed to the potential of mobility for adaptation by overexposure at one or both sites of migrants’ origin and destination, and by disrupted mobilities of people, finances and goods. Collaborative and transboundary strategies can mitigate the risks and harness the benefits of increased mobility and connectivity. To be protective however, investments must be risk-informed and anticipatory, considering how actions and impacts in one place might affect another place. The next generation of research on transboundary, compound and cascading risks needs to better conceptualize and govern flows of people, water, income, technology, energy, food, vaccines, data, livestock and other in relation to climate mobility.

Priority 5: Planned retreat, relocation and heritage

Managed retreat and planned relocation simultaneously create both opportunities and losses. These differentially experienced by those who are moving, those who remain, and in receiving areas. People may be forced to move in response to or anticipation of climate impacts through involuntary, mandatory resettlement or under more stressful conditions or degrading livelihoods following climate impacts. Displacement and relocation may, in turn, result in exposure to climate hazards in a new location, insecure and unsafe livelihoods or housing conditions, or social exclusion, and collectively increase vulnerability. When relocations reproduce structures that support current and historical marginalization relocation may increase vulnerability.

Research efforts should pay attention to questions of justice, considering improved inclusion in legal and governance processes for mobility support and resettlement, ethical evaluations, and understanding of the losses and damages that resettlement may entail and how to compensate and assist populations in managing these transitions. This is particularly important in the context of small island nations and low-lying countries which face unprecedented adaptation challenges associated with the existential threat of sea level rise.

Displacement and relocation highlight the need to assess how climate mobility affects heritage and what aspects of heritage associated with mobility can inform adaptation to climate change. Future research needs to show how mobility can contribute to maintaining living heritage values. Current actions can undermine heritage value such as existing conservation ethics and management that exclude local inhabitants from their social space, heritage and policy-making through eviction, displacement and gentrification, increasing the loss of their livelihoods and intangible values and decreasing their adaptive capacity to climate change. But progress in understanding the heritage dimension of mobility and heritage adaptation will help address the need to deepen our understanding of the multifaceted, subjective, and affective aspects of movements.

Next Steps

Climate mobility will be a topic of increasing research interest and relevance to policy makers at multiple levels of society across the world. As we explore these research priorities, there is opportunity to calibrate policies and practices to better cater for the diverse needs, priorities, and experiences of climate mobility. Integrating adaptation and development planning holds substantial promise for more supportive and progressive approaches that emphasize capability, choice, safety and freedom of movement while also addressing key dimensions of vulnerability to better support those on the move, those unable to move and for receiving communities.