RGS-IBG Annual International Conference 2015

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270 Perceptions and understandings of climate change and migration: Evidence from small islands
Convenor(s) Ilan Kelman (University College London, UK)
Chair(s) K Shadananan Nair (Centre for Earth Research and Environment Management (CEREM), India)
Timetable Friday 04 September 2015, Session 3 (14:40 - 16:20)
Room Peter Chalk - Room 2.1
Session abstract It has long been accepted that changes in the environment can influence human movement patterns and behaviour. If the Anthropocene indeed becomes a new geological epoch, would the human-caused environmental changes, from local to global, lead to a new mobility regime?

Climate change impacts in particular have been shown to influence human mobility in different ways depending on context, with migration labelled as both a potential adaptation strategy and a failure to adapt. Yet the term 'climate change migration' has been critiqued as assuming that a direct causal line can be drawn between climate change and migration. The literature debates the relevance and applicability of that assumption and of related terms such as ‘climate refugees’. This discussion is particularly poignant for small island communities which are said to be amongst the locations at the forefront of experiencing the Anthropocene and hence are most impacted by climate change.

This session presents empirical evidence on perceptions of the climate-migration nexus for small island communities. New data are provided from field work asking islanders in their communities alongside élites from those communities about their perceptions and understandings of their and their communities’ interests in migrating and abilities to move. Additionally, perceptions and understandings of environmental changes in their communities were queried. Finally, their views were obtained regarding any links between environmental changes and choices to move or not to move.

The results contribute to conceptualizing and contextualizing the perceived relationship, and often lack thereof, between climate change and migration. Even in locations where physical science projections suggest that significant rates of migration might be necessary due to climate change, the view from the communities tends to be that migration will be prioritised for other reasons such as education, adventure, and livelihoods. In contrast, many élites promote climate change as having a significant effect on migration-related decisions. The implications for public engagement and planetary governance are the need to bridge the gap between what is assumed to be known by ‘experts’ about the Anthropocene and how ordinary people make their day-to-day and lifetime decisions.
Contact the conference organisers to request a change to session or paper details: AC2015@rgs.org
Perceptions and understandings of climate change and migration from Lakshadweep, India
Himani Upadhyay (The Energy and Resources Institute, India)
Divya Mohan (The Energy and Resources Institute, India)
This paper explores the perceptions of climate change and migration in Lakshadweep, India. It discusses how personal experiences and observations shape local responses to climate change, such as the risk from sea-level rise and other Anthropocene challenges, not translating into the everyday lives of people, due to its invisibility and distant nature. This talk builds on the dynamism that exists between the physical impacts of climate change and social impacts such as migration. In Lakshadweep, responses to climate change and migration are rooted in a deep sense of place belongingness – that of being an islander. Place attachment, island lifestyle, local religious beliefs, and culture play a critical role in determining the decision to move or stay. Rather than simply fostering migration as adaptation or failure to adapt, there is a need to understand local priorities and choices. Instead of focusing on the questions of ‘when, where, and how many migrants’, it is important to recognise the dichotomy of the situation where: (i) If people are unwilling to move from risky regions then what should adaptation do to enable them to live in places they call home and (ii) understanding how communities are pushed towards migration and what are the challenges for successful relocation.
Challenging climate change and migration discourse: Different understandings of time-scale and temporality in Maldives
Alex Arnall (University of Reading, UK)
Uma Kothari (The University of Manchester, UK)
This paper discusses research in Maldives exploring differences between élite and non-élite perceptions of climate change and migration. It argues that, in addition to variations in perceptions based on diverse knowledge, priorities, and agendas, there exists a more fundamental divergence based upon different understandings of the time-scale of climate change and related ideas of urgency and crisis. Specifically, élites tend to focus on a distant future, which is generally abstracted from people’s everyday lived realities, and to utilise the language of a climate change-induced migration ‘crisis’ in their discussions about impacts in a manner not envisaged by non-élites. The conclusions are that, rather than unproblematically mapping global, external facing narratives (e.g. about the Anthropocene) wholesale onto ordinary people’s lives and experiences, there needs to be more dialogue between élites and non-élites on climate change and migration issues. These perspectives should be integrated more effectively in the development of policy interventions designed to support people in adapting to climate change impacts.
Comparing two Maldivian communities regarding climate change and migration: The experiences of K. Guraidhoo and Dhuvafaaru
Andrea C Simonelli (Adaptation Strategies International (ASI))
Much of the greater public discourse about Maldives and climate change refers to the imminent need to out-migrate to higher and safer ground. Becoming a popular narrative in recent years, this island chain is often referred to as the “sinking islands”, linking it to other Pacific island communities which have similar geographic vulnerabilities which are said to relate to the Anthropocene. For Maldives, however, this message has mostly come from the former President and outside advocacy groups. Research has yet to reflect views of regular islanders. This paper investigates the perceptions of climate change and migration from communities on two different Maldivian islands. Interviews from people on K. Guraidhoo and Dhuvafaaru provide evidence of both short- and long-term considerations, and ideas of individual and communal concerns which tend to vary from the prevailing popular discourse. Additionally, this paper highlights a consistent understanding of how Maldivians see themselves through their layered identities at the island, atoll, national, and international levels and pushes the boundaries of long-term island development policy as it applies to demands at both the individual and national levels.
‘On the outer’: Outer islands and climate change in atoll-island states
Roger McLean (University of New South Wales, Australia)
Small island states are at the front-line of the impacts of climatic change and sea level rise. Most vulnerable are the atoll nations - Maldives, Marshall Islands, Kiribati and Tuvalu - whose islands are small, low-lying, geologically young and made up of soft sediments with limited soil and freshwater resources. These factors together with exposure to natural hazards, limited economic capacity and high population densities especially on the ‘capital’ islands has raised global concern about the future viability - indeed the very existence - of these mid-ocean states. But most of the vulnerability and adaptation studies undertaken in the last two-to-three decades have focussed on the capitals –Male, Majuro, Tarawa and Funafuti - to the exclusion of the ‘outer islands’. Lacking in the discourse on atoll futures has been any objective examination of the hundreds of islands that make up the whole country and their role in the climate change debate. This paper reviews the relative position of the outer islands vis-à-vis the ‘capitals’ and argues that the outer islands, which have been losing population to the capital islands, can serve as a national safety-valve for internal resettlement within the atoll nations themselves – rather than external migration. In fact, in the long-run it may be the outer islands, and not the ‘capitals’, that may well provide the most secure homes for future generations of atoll residents.
Discussant
Christian Webersik (University of Agder, Kristiansand, Norway)
The discussant will critically analyse the papers, drawing together common threads and pointing out differences. As well, gaps will be indicated along with further work required in order to pose questions to the audience and draw them into the discussion, especially regarding the relevance and challenges of the Anthropocene discourse in the context of the climate-migration nexus.