First, research and research funding must enable the assumption that climate change causes mass human migration to be interrogated, rather than simply reinforcing it. There is already considerable evidence that migration is not solely driven by climate change. It is instead influenced by a mix of climatic, socio-economic, cultural and political factors10. Even when climate change does play a role, it remains difficult to determine the extent of its influence. For instance, when people have to move in the event of a cyclone, it is not always clear to what extent the cyclone can be attributed to climate change11. Moreover, a lack of measures, such as early warning systems, building codes and cyclone shelters, also contributes to shaping mobility. This means that categorizing climate migrants as distinguishable from ‘non-climate migrants’ is not empirically possible in most, if not all, circumstances. As a consequence, predictions of mass climate-induced migration are inherently flawed12.
Second, the term migration does not capture the diverse ways in which people do or do not become mobile in response to a changing climate; the term should therefore be avoided. Some people may temporarily (or even seasonally) move, while others may permanently relocate to nearby urban centres11,13. Regardless, mobility commonly involves relatively short distances, meaning that people typically move within their country or region11. Many may also face the problem of not being able to move to safety, while others do not want to move even when facing significant risk to their own well-being11. To capture this diversity, research should shift its attention from climate migration to climate mobilities. Such a programme would encompass the multiple forms, directions and multiplicities of human movement in the context of climate change, as well as the transformative character of mobility and its impact on places of origin, transit and destination13,14. It would also focus on the movement of people in more neutral (and therefore analytical) terms — avoiding assumptions that mobility is unidirectional or monocausal, or inherently positive or negative.
Third, new research supported by scientific funding programmes should examine and address climate mobilities as the new normal, rather than the exception. Movement and migration are inherent to the highly interconnected world we live in and a standard element of social life15. As such, mobility will necessarily be part of the range of responses available to those affected by climate change11. Instead of asking whether climate change causes human mobility, research should focus on whether (and if so, how) climate change will alter existing interconnections and human mobility patterns under different scenarios of global warming and mitigation and adaptation policies, and how these are in turn shaped by existing mobilities.
Fourth, it is crucial to fund and engage in research that goes beyond attempts to quantify and model new mobility resulting from climate change. Current climate migration models typically reinforce linear ‘crisis’ or ‘mass’ migration assumptions16. The news media and policy alike tend to interpret the results of these models incorrectly. For example, they often refer to the maximum figures of a range as ‘predictions’, which in turn may be used to support the politics of border securitization. Policy should instead rely on research that better accounts for the nonlinear complexity of mobility in the context of climate and social change in its evidence base13.
Fifth, research needs to better include affected populations in climate mobilities research. Multiple knowledge systems, such as local and indigenous knowledges, exist both among mobile populations and in destination areas, and should be included to build a stronger evidence base. The solutions to the challenges posed by climate change — whether they imply increased mobility or not17 — should be developed and formulated with the close involvement of affected populations. With better funding opportunities, indigenous organizations representing populations involved in mobility associated with climate change can lead indigenous research, or participate in co-developed research. This is important if the complexity of climate mobilities is to be captured, particularly its interconnectedness with related policy areas such as indigenous rights and human development.
Finally, research on climate mobilities needs to shift part of its focus from climate-sensitive sending areas to destination areas. Whether or not such mobility becomes a political or humanitarian problem depends on the policy choices by home, host and transit states and involved organizations, not on the mobility itself. As discussed above, global migration policy is defined by the strict border policies of popular migration receiving areas. These border policies are in turn shaped by an increasing fear of migrants among many citizens, such as in several European countries, the United States, Brazil, Australia and elsewhere18. To expand beyond the securitization of climate-related mobility, research with the support of funding agencies also needs to focus on how to overcome the profound fear of the other. This requires new and further collaborations across social science research into belonging, the acceptance of difference and identity, and the important political, cultural and historical attributes of destination areas.