After months of no rain, your crops have withered and died, and you are thirsty. Or maybe you have the opposite problem and incessant rain has flooded your house – not for the first time.
There are many reasons people move, and climate change is increasingly one of them. News headlines warn of a coming”refugee climate crisis“, the rise in sea level stimulating a mass migration on a”biblical scale.” Causing anxiety is kind of the default mode for talking about climate change, but is it the best way to discuss people trying to get away from danger?
A new study – among the first to test Americans’ reaction to learning about climate migration – suggests that these kinds of articles could trigger backlash. Republicans and Democrats reported colder and more negative sentiments toward migrants after reading a fake news article about climate migration, according to research published this spring in the journal Climatic Change.
“There’s real potential for stories to invoke a nativist response, making people see migrants more negatively and perhaps as less human,” said study author and former psychology researcher Ash Gillis at the Institute. Vanderbilt University. Depending on how they are told, stories about climate migration could not only provoke xenophobia, but also fail to rally support for climate action, according to research.
Gillis was looking for ways to try to reduce the polarization around climate change and wondered if associating the topic with migration might make people more concerned about how the planet is changing. Instead, Gillis, along with researchers from Indiana and Michigan, found that reading a Mother Jones-style article with the headline “In the United States, climate change drives increased immigration “led to more negative reactions towards migrants than reading an article about the foreigner of the country. -born population rising with no explanation of what was driving it. “Something is happening with this additional component of climate change,” Gillis said.
With around 20 million people moving each year in response to floods, droughts and wildfires since 2008, climate migration is already a reality. Most of the time, this movement occurs within national borders, with only about a quarter of migrants settling in new countries. Let governments respond to these hopeful newcomers by arm their borders or creating pathways for refugees depends to a large extent on compassion. Estimates of the number of people who will decide to move in the coming decades due to environmental threats vary widely, but the stakes could be as high as 1.2 billion lives.
“It is extremely important to determine what is the right way to get these messages across,” said Sonia Shah, the author of The Next Great Migration. Shah said the so-called “migration crisis” is best described as a “hospitality crisissuggesting that the real problem lies in how countries respond to the inevitability of migration.
Moving is an unsettling experience, even under the right circumstances, and climate migration is often the result of a traumatic event, like when your house burns down in a fire. But migration isn’t inherently bad: for those on the move, it can be an economic opportunity or a way to find safety on a hotter, more unpredictable planet.
“The takeaway shouldn’t be, ‘Let’s completely avoid (talking about) migration,'” Stephanie Teatro, director of climate and migration at the National Partnership for New Americans, said in response to Gillis’s study.
Teatro attributes the subjects’ defensive responses to how politicians and the media groomed them to react. “The study did not take place in a vacuum,” she said. republican politicians peddle myths that migrants steal American jobs or are more prone to commit crimes. But Democrats could also undermine support for immigrants by positioning migration as one of many painful outcomes of climate change.
Consider how John Kerry, President Joe Biden’s climate envoy, broached the subject. “We are already seeing climate refugees all over the world,” he told an energy conference in Houston Last year. “If you think migration was a problem in Europe, during the war in Syria, or even from what we see now (in Ukraine), wait until you see 100 million people for whom all the food production capacity collapsed.” Kerry too once warned that the drought in North Africa and the Mediterranean will lead to “hordes of people… knocking on the door”.
It’s much harder to relate to masses of people than to one person, said Kate Manzo, who studies imagery and international development at Newcastle University in the UK. As an example, she cited a anti-migrant poster of the Brexit era in this country showing a winding line of thousands of refugees who critics said were inciting ‘racial hatred’. Describing a group of asylum seekers as a “flood” or an “invasion” causes a similar distancing effect, Manzo said.
Even well-meaning climate advocates like Kerry — hoping to build support for cutting carbon emissions — may end up inadvertently tapping people’s fears about increased migration, Teatro said. “It was the default framework: ‘If you want to stop migration, you better take climate change seriously.'”
Research suggests that this type of messaging may not be effective in motivating political support for tackling carbon emissions. The climate migration study has not increased people’s support for policies such as requiring utilities to get 50% of electricity from renewables by 2030 or for forcing fossil fuel companies to pay a fee for the pollution they emit, according to the Gillis study. This finding is consistent with previous studies showing that defining global warming as a national security issue failed to increase support for climate action, and sometimes even backfired.
Scientists and environmentalists are beginning to recognize that there is another way to talk about people on the move. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the United Nations’ main climate expert group, has recognized that migration can be a viable way for people to adapt to a hotter and more chaotic world. – provided that the resettlement takes place in a “voluntary, safe and orderly manner. A guide to climate activist group 350.org and other environmental groups are calling for a reframing (Do: say migration is “part of the solution”. Don’t: say “mass migration”). Common Defence, a grassroots organization of progressive veterans, not recommended calling climate migration a “crisis” or a threat to national security.
“Migration is a resilient and adaptive response to crisis. It’s not the crisis,” Shah said. “And if we present this as a crisis, I mean, we’re shooting ourselves in the foot.”
Shah speculated that the wording of the fictional news article in Gillis’s study may have provoked a nativist reaction among study participants. He explained that climate change was linked to worsening heat waves, droughts, floods and hurricanes, fueling immigration to the United States. In developing countries, according to the article, farmers were going bankrupt, rates of civil unrest were rising, and people were considering moving abroad — and “Americans should plan for these changes well in advance.” Readers may have taken these ideas and made the journey from “something really scary is going on” to the chilling notion that “brown people are going to come and take your stuff,” Shah said.
Shah thinks the framing that climate migration is mostly about poor people moving to rich countries is a “skewed way of looking at it”. After all, Americans are also moving to escape hurricanes along the East Coast and wildfires in California. Gillis said the wording of the fake news was inspired by colleagues’ research on migration and farmers in Southeast Asia.
There are other theories that could explain the backfire effect. For example, climate change might be seen as a less legitimate reason to immigrate to a new country than war or famine, Gillis speculated, potentially casting climate migrants in a poorer light. A Pew Research Center poll shows that nearly three-quarters of Americans Generally argue that the United States accepts refugees from countries where people are trying to escape violence and war, but migration caused by climate disasters has not yet appeared in polling center questions.
“Migration, of course, is a very risky thing to do,” Shah said. “The fact that we did everything despite the high cost to us in the short term” – to leave behind our families and friends to get lost in a new landscape – “what that tells me is that it’s something that exceeds evolutionary time, the benefits far outweighed the cost.