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What's in a Name?

  • Published at 05:38 pm June 28th, 2018
  • Last updated at 12:29 am June 29th, 2018
Photo: Pixabay

An interview with Dr Andrew Baldwin on ‘climate migrants’

Dr Andrew Baldwin is an associate professor at the geography department at Durham University.  His work focuses on the intersection of race, nature and geography with current emphasis on questions of climate change and migration. While he accepts climate change will invariably impact migration patterns, in this interview, he questions the notion of the “climate migrant”.

Why do you find the concept of the “climate migrant” problematic?

It assumes that climate change is the cause of migration, and we know that is never the case. We know that migration is always multi-causal, which is a pretty standard claim one finds in the field of migration studies.

The IPCC, the authoritative body on climate change science, in its most recent assessment report is very clear that the concept of the climate refugee is a really problematic concept, both legally and scientifically. And it comes down to this argument that we don’t know what a climate refugee is; we have no working definition of one; and it will be impossible to define.

Yet the term climate migrant prioritizes the climate over all these other variables and to me that is really quite of insidious, because it negates the significance of those other variables.

But why is that a bad thing?

Well, it’s a matter of politics, and who has the power to label somebody a climate migrant. I think it safe to say that elites are able to apply this label, elite institutions both internationally and domestically, both research institutions and universities.  And this runs up against how people often characterize themselves and their political priorities. They won’t necessarily characterize themselves as climate migrants; it depends on the context, but people will probably more readily acknowledge economic reasons as the principle reasons that why they migrate than climate change.

If the concept of a “climate migrant” is so problematic, why do you think the idea persists? 

Because it’s easy and convenient. It is an easy way to construct the problem of climate change in a way that makes it less intangible. Climate change is a really — to use the terminology of Amitav Ghosh — an unthinkable phenomena because it is so complicated.

The concept of the climate migrant I think helps break through that unthinkableness, the complicatedness of climate change and it makes it a much more manageable, much more comprehensible phenomena. We can think about the climate change in terms of those who have to be relocated, to be managed.

That is the straightforward response to the question. The more complicated answer is that the idea of the climate migrant reinforces very specific structures of power at a specific historical moment when climate change represents the possibility that those structures of power will be undermined. If, suddenly, conditions change so radically that people are moving, making things unmanageable if you like, — that is a very threatening proposition to people in positions of authority.

In a lot of your work, you talk about the invisible presence of race in the climate change and migration discourse. What do you mean by this?

This is a really tricky argument to make and the reason is that there is nothing simple or straightforward about race. Everyone will have a different understanding of what race is. We just have to think about the way race functions in the US versus how it functions in a place like Australia or Japan.

But basically the argument I would make is this: climate change represents the possibility of human extinction. It represents the end of humanism as a worldview, and by humanism I mean the imagination that humans are understood as the historic agents of modernity — that humans have primary dominance over the face of the Earth. Humanism is the worldview that allows us to imagine we control nature. And climate change comes along and spoils that. Climate change comes along and says that, no actually, nature is a force of its own and has an enormous capacity to overwhelm our structures, institutions, and arrangements.

Climate change is a really — to use the terminology of Amitav Ghosh — an unthinkable phenomena because it is so complicated.

How does this connect to the question of race? 

Again, I appreciate that that is a really complicated argument, and I am going to make it even more complicated by saying this notion of humanism I am talking about is also Eurocentric. It is very Eurocentric claim to say that humans control nature.  And Eurocentrism emerges out of a particular set of historic conditions in the 18th and 19th century, and is tied to Europe’s relation to the colonial subject,  to the non-white subject.  In this way, climate migrants or climate refugees become the “racial other” that in many way threatens a Eurocentric worldview. So race is present, yet invisible in the vocabulary used to describe climate migrants.

What does critical theory offer us in understanding the relationship between climate change and migration?

Theory offers us a means by which we can take account of power.  Too often pragmatism can erase the question of power, and while I can’t agree more there are many urgent problems at hand, we can’t assume that power is somehow irrelevant to these conversations.

Theory can allow us to ask a number of different questions. Who has the power to frame the discussion? Whose voice matters and whose voice is silenced? What are the conditions in which claims about climate change and migration are made? Theory can help us unpack many of the unsaid assumptions that exist within particular discourses such as in climate change migration.

Meraz Mostafa coordinates and works under the Migration programme at ICCCAD