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Human immobility in areas exposed to climate risks is increasing

Key messages

  • Climate change can increase barriers to mobility, leading to a rise in immobility particularly among the poorest populations.
  • Policies addressing climate change and human mobility predominantly focus on managing mobility, but overlook immobility.
  • Recent research highlights the multi-faceted nature of decision-making related to (im)mobility. Despite climate risks, some individuals and communities opt to stay.
  • People who are immobile require institutional support to effectively cope with the challenges posed by climate hazards.
  • Effective and human-centred policies for migrants and non-migrants require participatory, inclusive and community-led approaches.
  • Top-down approaches to adaptation and relocation policies may be ineffective and maladaptive, and be met with community resistance.

Insight explained

People who are unable or unwilling to relocate from high-risk areas may face even greater challenges than those who do move away. Some climate-impacted communities face economic, political, socio-cultural and physical constraints to mobility. Differences in ability to move can create gendered and other inequities at the household level. Demographic factors and access to information about safe accommodation, safe migration opportunities and labour markets influence (im)mobility outcomes.

Recent studies show an increase in involuntary immobility particularly among the poorest populations. Climate change may decrease emigration rates by over 10% among the lowest-income groups by 2100, under medium development and climate scenarios, compared with no climate change, and up to 35% in more pessimistic scenarios. Studies also show that mobility is facilitated in wealthier regions and inhibited in the poorest.

Mobility and immobility outcomes in climate hazard contexts can result from a rational decision-making process shaped by intersecting community- and individual-level factors (Figure 8). Community-level factors, place attachment, individual/household characteristics and risk perception and tolerance shape perceived capacity to withstand or respond to climate impacts and risks, which, in turn, affects an individual’s capability and aspiration to migrate.

However, not all immobility is involuntary. Some populations express a strong desire to stay, sometimes in opposition to planned relocation. These communities possess valuable local knowledge of habitability and profound place attachment, and they prioritise safeguarding cultural identity and political agency. The risks they associate with relocation, including threats to livelihood, social connection, personal safety and access to services, outweigh the risks perceived from climate change. While relocation programmes can contribute to adaptation, the desire of some communities to stay might rise in reaction to solutions they perceive as maladaptive or as threatening established rights. Resistance to relocation can signal mistrust in government, especially where previous relocations have led to reduced employment opportunities, limited access to services and broken social capital.

Immobility can thus be a political act of resistance and defiance of future displacement. These findings contest the dominant policy and media discourse on mass migration caused by climate change by demonstrating that despite environmental degradation and climate risks, some people may decide to stay.

IN FOCUS

Tuvalu’s stance on climate-induced relocation


In the face of climate risk and its significant implications for the island nation of Tuvalu, the government asserts its commitment to self-determination and emphasises the right of the population to thrive in its own land:

“Tuvalu stands against relocation as a solution to the climate crisis because Tuvalu is a sovereign country, and its population has the right to live, develop, and prosper on its own land. Relocating populations affected by climate change provides a ‘quick fix’ while failing to address the root causes of the climate crisis. At the same time, Tuvalu seeks to realistically address land-loss and land-degradation issues and how they affect the security of the nation. Tuvalu further supports all people who have been displaced by or have migrated because of climate change. Human mobility has been practised in various forms in the Pacific region, and Tuvalu respects the decisions of Pacific nations that may choose relocation as an option.” (Te Sikulagi: Te Ataeao Nei – Tuvalu Foreign Policy 2020: Future Now Project.)

Implications & Recommendations

Proposals for policy action by climate negotiators and decision-makers at different scales follow.

Regionally or internationally:

  • Include immobility (risks and costs) in deliberations on loss and damage, including related to the Global Goal on Adaptation and the Loss and Damage Fund, to address situations where immobility may not sufficiently be addressed through adaptation strategies. Further research into the costs of immobility is needed to develop adaptation measures with a particular focus on marginalised groups to mitigate overall risk.
  • Develop comprehensive policies and prioritise anticipatory approaches that reduce the need to move, improve mobility options, and safeguard the rights of those considering relocation, those opting to stay and those resisting relocation. For instance, measures to improve agricultural resilience, establish insurance schemes for crops, livestock and shelter, and promote temporary and circular internal and international livelihood migration, as outlined in Bangladesh’s Action Plan to implement its National Strategy on Internal Displacement 2022-2042.
  • Eliminate institutional barriers to safe, orderly and regular migration at the national, regional and international levels to enable individuals to opt for migrating from high-risk climatic areas as an adaptation strategy.

Nationally:

  • Revisit and revise existing policies on adaptation, mitigation, disaster risk reduction, and resilience building to explicitly address climate immobility. Policymakers often overlook immobility compared with climate-induced migration, disaster displacement and international security; only a minority of national adaptation plans (NAPs) and NDCs integrate considerations for populations unable or unwilling to move.
  • Recognise immobility (including temporary immobility and symbolic resistance) as a component of local climate risk responses to inform nuanced, human-centred policies for both migrants’ and non-migrants’ needs within specific temporal and political contexts. For example:
    • Bangladesh’s National Strategy on Internal Displacement Management (2021) upholds that “The Displaced Persons should in principle be able to choose where to live while being displaced and to voluntarily reassess such decisions once the reasons for their displacement or barriers to their voluntary return have ceased to exist.”
    • The Solomon Islands Planned Relocation Guidelines outline a specific category of “People Who Choose Not to Participate in Planned Relocation” to capture those “who are eligible to take part in a Planned Relocation (for example, they are part of the Relocating Community) but who choose not to do so.”
  • Prioritise participatory, inclusive and community-led approaches in migratory policymaking, and avoid top-down approaches that may be ineffective, maladaptive and may even incite resistance. The Solomon Islands Planned Relocation Guidelines are illustrative in this regard, providing that “successful relocation may require consultations over generations”, and that “all communities have a central role in outlining their future needs and aspirations with respect to relocation, climate adaptation and sustainable development, and are able to direct the relocation process before, during and after the relocation itself”.
Figure 8. Intersecting community- and individual-level factors influencing individual decision-making processes regarding immobility in climate-risk contexts.

Where do we stand?

Earth system

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Why care?

Impacts

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What to do?

Solutions and Barriers

 

Year

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Human immobility in areas exposed to climate risks is increasing

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9

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