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Imaginary Numbers of Climate Change Migrants?


  • Ilan Kelman

    () (Institute for Global Health and Institute for Risk and Disaster Reduction, University College London, London WC1E 6BT, UK
    University of Agder, 4630 Kristiansand, Norway)


Within the extensive scientific and policy discussions about climate change migrants, detailed analyses continue to highlight the lack of evidence thus far for climate change directly causing migration. To understand better how climate change might or might not lead to migration, this paper explores possibilities for developing a robust, repeatable, and verifiable method to count or calculate the number of people migrating or not migrating due to climate change. The discussion starts by examining definitions of “climate change” and “migration”, then looking at how to determine numbers of climate change migrants based on those definitions. These points lead to descriptions of the subjectivity and arbitrariness of the decisions needed for counting or calculating climate change migrants and non-migrants. While the scientific study of working out numbers of climate change migrants and non-migrants is challenging and interesting, especially due to its complexity, changing baselines alongside legitimate concerns about necessary assumptions lead to questions regarding the usefulness of the calculations for policy and action. Ultimately, labelling, counting, and calculating climate change migrants and non-migrants depend on political choices, so any numbers reached might not be scientifically robust. Improved understanding of people’s motivations for migrating and not migrating under different circumstances, including under climate change and perceptions thereof, would be preferable to a starting point assuming that climate change inevitably causes migration.

Suggested Citation

  • Ilan Kelman, 2019. "Imaginary Numbers of Climate Change Migrants?," Social Sciences, MDPI, Open Access Journal, vol. 8(5), pages 1-16, April.
  • Handle: RePEc:gam:jscscx:v:8:y:2019:i:5:p:131-:d:226389

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    References listed on IDEAS

    1. Alexandra Titz & Terry Cannon & Fred Krüger, 2018. "Uncovering ‘Community’: Challenging an Elusive Concept in Development and Disaster Related Work," Societies, MDPI, Open Access Journal, vol. 8(3), pages 1-28, August.
    2. Romain Felli & Noel Castree, 2012. "Neoliberalising adaptation to environmental change: foresight or foreclosure?," Environment and Planning A, Pion Ltd, London, vol. 44(1), pages 1-4, January.
    3. Ashok Swain, 1996. "Displacing the Conflict: Environmental Destruction in Bangladesh and Ethnic Conflict in India," Journal of Peace Research, Peace Research Institute Oslo, vol. 33(2), pages 189-204, May.
    4. Betsy Hartmann, 2010. "Rethinking climate refugees and climate conflict: Rhetoric, reality and the politics of policy discourse," Journal of International Development, John Wiley & Sons, Ltd., vol. 22(2), pages 233-246.
    5. Hicham Achebak & Daniel Devolder & Joan Ballester, 2018. "Heat-related mortality trends under recent climate warming in Spain: A 36-year observational study," PLOS Medicine, Public Library of Science, vol. 15(7), pages 1-17, July.
    6. Raymond Currie & Shiva Halli, 1989. "Mixed motivations for migration in the urban prairies: A comparative approach," Social Indicators Research: An International and Interdisciplinary Journal for Quality-of-Life Measurement, Springer, vol. 21(5), pages 481-499, October.
    7. Carlos Vargas-Silva (ed.), 2012. "Handbook of Research Methods in Migration," Books, Edward Elgar Publishing, number 14062.
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    More about this item


    climate change; climigration; environmental change; migration; mobility; refugees;

    JEL classification:

    • A - General Economics and Teaching
    • B - Schools of Economic Thought and Methodology
    • N - Economic History
    • P - Economic Systems
    • Y80 - Miscellaneous Categories - - Related Disciplines - - - Related Disciplines
    • Z00 - Other Special Topics - - General - - - General


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