Climate change and migration: the need for a new media narrative

| 29th August 2018
A road damaged by Hurricane Nate (2017)

A road damaged by Hurricane Nate (2017)

People forced by climate change to relocate are described by the media as victims or as security threats. There is little information about vulnerable communities’ fight to secure a viable future. We need to challenge these representations to provoke policies that protect the inherent rights of people affected by climate change, argues MARIA SAKELLARI

Considering the rich variety of media-policy connections, it’s not surprising that the nature of climate migration discourse in the media does not differ sharply from its treatment in policy circuits.

Migration is one the most profound effects of climate change on human population.

Climate change impacts such as accelerating sea-level rise and weather extremes, like hurricanes and droughts, are happening with increased regularity and intensity. They cause damage to property, infrastructure and livelihoods and, ultimately, force people to leave their homes.

Yet, the news media connects climate induced migration with security, risk and victimisation, rather than with the plight of displaced people. This comes with consequences for policy options.

Vulnerable communities 

The destructive paths of the 2017 hurricanes in the Caribbean show that the most dramatic climate change impacts fall disproportionately on the most vulnerable in terms socioeconomic status, no matter which country they live in. 

Developing countries, the least responsible for climate change, will be most dramatically and immediately affected.

Considering the rich variety of media-policy connections, it’s not surprising that the nature of climate migration discourse in the media does not differ sharply from its treatment in policy circuits.

International migration to wealthier and less vulnerable regions is one way in which vulnerable communities cope with the impacts of a changing climate.

Victim or threat

Despite the severity of the issue, little of the real situation of climate change effects on vulnerable populations is reported in western mass media. While climate change has gained news coverage, media discourse on the social nature of climate change is limited, compared to energy or policy issues. 

When climate migration gains traction in the media in countries like the USUK and Australia, those forced to relocate are described mainly as victims of a changing climate, required to abandon their homes or as potential threat to social order. 

With regards to the security threat frame, the rationale is that climate change is projected to threaten natural resources, and bring already fragile societies to the brink of collapse.

This new wave of refugees will supposedly fuel crime rise, even though there is no empirical connection between migration and crime.

Similarly, evidence that links resource scarcity and conflict is weak: the war in Syria has been labelled as a climate conflict in the media, despite the fact that there is little evidence that climate change helped create and sustain this conflict.

On the other hand, victimization points to a personalized or emotionalized perspective of climate-driven human mobility. People forced to relocate in the context of climate change are represented as desperate sufferers who can only be helped by the rich, developed countries of the West. 

Overall, either victim or threat, media representations of climate migration highlight migrating people’s otherness, as they are perceived as outsiders and external to ‘western’ experiences.

How and why certain people and certain nations are more vulnerable to climate change impacts are neglected topics. Little is known about vulnerable communities’ political agency, their inherent rights and their actions to protect livelihoods, defend homeland and culture.

Reduced mandate

Considering the rich variety of media-policy connections, it’s not surprising that the nature of climate migration discourse in the media does not differ sharply from its treatment in policy circuits.

Migration seems to be receiving short shrift in the climate policy discussion, coincided with periods of anti-immigrant narratives that migrants and refugees are increasingly being perceived as a problem.

For instance, there is a profound difference in how our responsibility to protect the rights of climate migrants and refugees has been addressed at the UN over time.

Almost a decade ago, in 2010, climate change induced migration was explicitly and formally recognized in the text of the Cancun Adaptation Framework, established under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change.

However, the subsequent Paris Agreement has a reduced mandate, as it only refers generally to ‘displacement’ - without specifying what the term means - as part of the Warsaw International Mechanism for Loss and Damage, which still lacks a coordinated framework for addressing the multiple challenges of climate migration.

The 1951 Geneva Refugee Convention, the principal international legal instrument for the protection of people forcibly displaced across international borders, does not cover climate change induced mobility.

The UN Summit for Refugees and Migrants in 2016 was assumed to be an important turn for climate migration policies. However, the resultant New York Declaration for Refugees and Migrants failed to meet its aspirations.

The recent non-binding Global Compact of Migration makes reference to climate change induced migration but does not provide a specific protection to climate displaced people. 

New narrative

Meanwhile, former US President Barack Obama, high-profile environmentalist Al Gore, and Prince Charles have referred to climate change induced migration as a cause of disruption, social unrest and violence, warning of what is going to happen to host countries if climate change is left unaddressed. 

At the same time, in the post-Paris era, the notion of migration as an adaptation strategy has gained ground in climate migration advocacy.

Voluntary migration is suggested as an effective way to allow people to generate extra income and build resilience where climate change threatens livelihoods.

But even if climate migration is framed as adaptive, it places additional stress on already vulnerable communities, as it relies on the individual migrant’s ability to compete in and benefit from labour markets in wealthier and less vulnerable regions.

The failure to make room for the issue, along with the increasingly restrictive refugee and migration policies, signal urgency for a new narrative for climate migration.

Given the media’s role in framing issues surrounding climate change, a challenge emerges for theorists and practitioners of climate change communication. 

As media coverage of climate migration issues is only slowly emerging, there is a window of opportunity to proactively influence the media agenda.

We need to empower journalists and media professionals to enable the emergence of climate change debates beyond the energy, policy and security frame, and push for policies that address historical injustices, protect human rights and contribute to the transformation of how climate change induced migration is perceived.

Vulnerable communities are determined of protecting their rights, cultures and livelihoods: we must embrace their narrative. 

This Author

Maria Sakellari is a Marie Sklodowska-Curie Fellow at the University of Brighton. Her project IKETIS has received funding under the EU’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme (Grant agreement No 74829).

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