Connecting the spots

Notes on migration and environment from a geographical perspective

Kayly Ober

Kayly Ober

Kayly Ober is a research associate/PhD candidate at the University of Bonn, where she works for the TransRe Project. She has over five years of professional experience on issues relating to climate change, adaptation, migration, gender, and human security. She has previously worked at the World Bank, Overseas Development Institute, Woodrow Wilson Center, and World Resources Institute, among others. CONTACT

Aug 5th 2015 by Kayly Ober

Let’s Get Graphic: Three Maps that Show the Tensions of Climate & Migration Research

The CliMig project, housed at the University of Neuchatel, Switzerland, aims to be the first comprehensive collection of resources which specifically concentrates on migration, the environment, and climate change. By thoroughly monitoring literature, selecting relevant topics and materials, as well as tagging key words, the project hopes to allow researchers free and unfettered access to easily searchable and accessible publications. This in itself is a remarkable, and sorely needed, feat.

You can access its full database here.

Best of all, though, is through this process, the team has been able to make some illuminating infographics.

INFOGRAPHIC #1: Case studies on migration, environment, and climate change


The biggest hotspots are in North America and South Asia. This isn’t surprising: Bangladesh has often been touted as a case in point when it comes to climate and migration; and the United States is very interested in the implications of migration on security. There are also clusters of case studies in West Africa. But, again, this region is the site of historical migration as well as projected biophysical climate impacts, such as desertification and sea level rise.

INFOGRAPHIC #2: Origin of the authors of case studies on migration, environment, and climate change


The United States is a major contributor, with the European Union (EU) close behind. This is not so different from climate change studies in general. The IPCC illustrates the point well: 17.5 percent of scientists are from developing countries, while 82.5 percent from developed countries. Of course, there are some reasonable explanations for this: the lingua franca of scientific publications and research grants is English, and major research universities are located in these regions. But this has implications on how research is framed and subsequently embedded into policy. An infamous paper by Agarwal and Narain (1991) made clear that carbon mitigation scenarios can be hugely steeped in politics, and ultimately, unfair.

INFOGRAPHIC #3: Funding for case studies on migration, environment, and climate change


This makes the case clearer. Those with the resources to study the climate-migration nexus are often the ones who may very well be responsible for so-called “climate refugees.” What does this mean for the type of research being conducted? Or even policy recommendations based around it? If the EU is responsible for most climate migration research, will “Fortress Europe” be buttressed or torn apart?

First, it’s important to note that case studies are not intentionally designed with political undertones in mind. They often seek to disentangle complex variables surrounding environment and migration through scientifically sound on the ground research. For example, the EACH-FOR project aimed to explore and describe the causes of forced migration in relation to environmental change. It found that climate change is not the only potential environmental trigger for migration. While it’s been difficult to determine to what extent the environment plays a role in causing migration decisions, case studies often have unveiled nuanced understandings of migration on rural livelihoods. For instance, the Where the Rain Falls project found that migration could be a viable risk management strategy. More and more, studies are finding it difficult to gauge the environment’s direct effects on migration, but discover that migration is a part of everyday life.

These finding in themselves are innocuous—of course, migration is a complex phenomenon. But what has happened is that the number of case studies explicitly looking at migration as an adaptation strategy has increased. See: IOM’s “Migration, Environment and Climate Change: Evidence for Policy (MECLEP)”; the Collaborative Adaptation Research Initiative in Africa and Asia (CARIAA)’s “Deltas, Vulnerability and Climate Change: Migration and Adaptation (DECCMA)”; or our very own TransRe Project.

So the real question is: have these findings allowed us to shift the focus from the North to migrants themselves? If, in fact, migrants have agency and are given the choice to move in face of climate impacts, does that mean the focus should shift from one of mitigation to adaptation? Francois Gemenne argues that we’ve depoliticized migration for the worse; while Romain Felli believes that this is all part and parcel of the neoliberal agenda.

It’s amazing the extent to which the debate can be seen and crystallized through some simple infographics. But this is why this sort of work is essential. Thus, we’ll be eagerly following CliMig’s progress in this field in future.

Image Credits: University of Neuchatel/CliMig