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Impossible politics: The power of climate migration models


The underlying assumption that climate change will produce distinct climate migrants has acquired an urgency within climate change and international development discourses. It haunts everything from well-intentioned bids by progressive media outlets to give climate change a human face, to more sinister, racialised climate change security discourses. 


A robust critique has challenged both the assumed causal link between climate change and migration, and the climate migrant figure itself. The label of ‘climate migrant’ assumes direct causality between climate change and a decision to migrate, whereas these decisions are situated, highly contextual and ‘as much to do with unequal access to land and capital, gender inequality, colonial history, structural political economy and war as they are with environmental considerations’. The climate migrant figure, meanwhile, has been rendered simultaneously a victim and a security threat through seemingly harmless framings. 


Despite evidence that troubles the category of the climate migrant, the term continues to be used by policymakers, practitioners, journalists and academics with transformative political effect. In many cases, such claims are given legitimacy and prominence by estimations of the volume of climate migrants the world can expect to see over a given timeframe. Robert Nicholls et al. have suggested that by the end of the century 187 million people could move as a result of sea-level rise alone, Norman Myers has influentially suggested that the total number could be as high as 200 million by 2050, and Christian Aid have predicted as many as 300 million. There is little consensus among them as to the scale or character of this migration – nor the methodology that should be used to ascertain it. 


This article engages with the numbers, complexities and underlying assumptions of such methodologies not as neutral propositions, but as profoundly political. Such models create a distinct form of power that works through the identification of patterns and correlations to make visible a figure that is otherwise invisible. 


In response to this, I have examined three major statistical projects: the World Bank’s Groundswell Project, Groundswell 2, and modelling commissioned by the New York Times and ProPublica. These apply possibilistic, econometric approaches to the apparent problem of possible future climate migration, assessing the relative desirability of locations given a certain set of future climate and development scenarios. 


For this article, I focus on the initial Groundswell report. It warns that by 2050 - if no action is taken – internal climate migrants will number more than 143 million across Sub-Saharan Africa, South Asia and Latin America. This is the most dramatic of four scenarios for possible internal climate migration by 2050, each derived from data linking an emission pathway (Representative Concentration Pathway), a development pathway (Shared Socioeconomic Pathway) and data on water availability, crop productivity, sea levels and storm surges from the Inter-Sectoral Impact Modelling Project. This attempts to account for the relative attractiveness of different locations at a given time using these determinants. Importantly, the model cannot directly identify a category or individual whose migration is specifically caused by climate change. The substitute becomes inference. 


A significant amount of political attention is derived from the vast headline assertions alone. I argue, however, that its power is more than merely in the representations of catastrophic imaginaries, but in the very way that knowledge about the climate migrant figure is produced through correlations. Insight can be taken from academic considerations of the role of data in the war on terror and the production of the terrorist figure. Both for the climate migrant figure and the terrorist figure, instances of calculation ‘make visible an unknown person who would not otherwise be seen’ through imaginative or visionary techniques. This figure is a threat not merely to the borders of nation-states, but to a broader normative order. Subsequently, the constructed terrorist figure is rendered the subject of pre-emptive action. Similarly, in the case of the climate migrant, a figure is recovered that legitimises actions in response to climate migration.


Specifically, these correlations bring into being a threat that fundamentally legitimises the actions of the World Bank. I suggest that the calculative logics underpinning the two reports act to recover a target – the climate migrant – for development and security, and so lend power to these organisations’ claims to legitimacy in the face of apparent existential threats.


Climate migrants can be understood as symptomatic of a wider existential threat that challenges the stated goals and purpose of the World Bank itself: effective poverty reduction through market action. Faced with such apparent existential threats to its purpose, the act of calculation and inference involved in Groundswell offers the World Bank an opportunity to reconfigure itself against a wider question of relevancy. Paradoxically, the climate migrant becomes both a part of the threat to the purpose of the Bank, and a part of the solution. In short, the pre-emptive action justified by the extrapolation of the climate migrant figure is for the World Bank to keep doing what it does, applied to a newly located object of development and security for climate change.


The figure of the climate change migrant may bring with it harmful tropes and is – in many cases – impossible to academically justify, but it is one that has significant political power. Calculation is rarely a neutral endeavour; nowhere is this clearer than in the calculation of future patterns of climate migration. As calculative technologies are deployed to bring new threats into being, attention must be given to the ways in which existing technologies of power are reconfigured to authorise new categories that legitimise the actions of powerful actors. This understanding offers a significant change in emphasis for future analysis. No longer should the core question within the study of climate migration models be how one might better predict the character and movement of climate migration futures, but instead the more fundamental question of for whom is the future being predicted.

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Richard Waters

The original research informing this paper was conducted whilst affiliated with the Geography Department and IHRR at Durham University as part of a master’s degree, supervised by Dr Andrew Baldwin. Richard now works at St John’s College (University of Oxford) on access and widening participation projects but continues to independently research the political dimensions of the climate migrant figure.

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