Climate Change, Migration and ‘Disappearing States’: The Case of Pacific Island Countries

Climate change is a material reality as much as it is a discursive one – and an extremely powerful one at that. Following the major scare story of global terrorism at the turn of this century, climate change seems to have become the new “Big Story”.1 The Pacific island countries (PICs), which face the threat of becoming entirely uninhabitable, have been positioned at the frontline of this discourse, as evidence of a changing climate and omen of a dystopian future of mass displacement. Indeed, the big story of climate change and mobility in the Pacific has been articulated through a narrative of climate refugees in need of legal recognition by the international community as they flee their sinking islands slowly swallowed up by unforgivable rising seas. To be sure, this imagery has proved successful in mobilising environmental and humanitarian sensitivities; calls for the protection of climate refugees have widely circulated. And yet, this story is as rhetorically appealing as it is misleading. The concern, as with many discursive framings, is not that it is false, but that it is incomplete – with the power dynamics this feeds into.

A first dimension on which such a story is incomplete regards the challenges faced by PICs in the context of climate change. On the one hand, the threat of becoming uninhabitable as a result of sea level rise is posited as the most (or only) important issue. But this is not quite so. In the shorter term, a number of other hazards play just as important a role in impacting islanders’ well-being through their effects on livelihoods, habitats and health conditions. In the longer term, sea level scenarios are still uncertain and, besides, the geomorphological response of island systems to certain rates of sea level rise remains unclear. Moreover, it is the combined effect of multiple processes, of which sea level rise is but one, that could eventually reach a threshold of socioecological collapse, making life on the islands unsustainable long before these were even submerged.

On the other hand, the extent to which PICs are affected by climate change is portrayed as the direct result of the hazards they face. This partial representation echoes a popular naturalised narrative of climate change which overemphasises the role of natural forces in shaping its impacts on different communities, at the expense of minimising that of background structural contexts. Climate hazards surely account for the challenges islanders face, but so do equally a set of structural conditions which leave them more exposed to such hazards in the first place and with fewer resources to adapt. And whereas some such conditions are local in origin, many others are global. The ways in which colonisation and neoliberal globalisation have given rise to, and continuously shape, structural changes and pressures in PICs have been widely documented. This calls for a stronger politicisation of the climate change discourse, bringing to the fore crucial issues of inequality, poverty and power.

A second dimension on which the current story is incomplete concerns the relation between climate change and migration. A single, unidirectional relationship between both is depicted, reducing climate mobility to the production of refugees. However, such an equation is misleading on more than one ground.

First, the influence of climate change on migration can operate in different directions, simultaneously increasing movement for some sectors of the population while decreasing it for others, leaving them ‘trapped’ at home. Despite the fact that this latter group may find itself even worse off than those who do have the resources – however limited – to leave, the issue receives scarce, if any, attention.

Second, when climate change does influence outward mobility, the focus on climate refugees does not capture the complexity at stake in two respects, namely in relation to (i) the types of movement involved and (ii) the significance of such movements.

(i) The category of climate refugees, with the dynamics of movement it presupposes, may be a fitting conceptual tool in some instances – especially so in later stages in which, unless the international community complies with its responsibilities, islands become ever more uninhabitable. However, the multiple dimensions characterising climate-related mobility in the Pacific draw out a more compound scenario over time. Relevant aspects include multicausality, entanglement with internal dynamics, inequality and diversity of temporalities.

(ii) The controversy here concerns situating climate mobility within the failure/adaptation axis. Some approaches – such as those tied to refugee discourses – qualify migration as an always undesirable outcome, evidencing a failure to adapt to climate-related impacts. In contrast, the recently emerged migration-as-adaptation paradigm, very popular in policy circles, posits migration as part of a dignifying solution, highlighting the resilience of individuals against the victimising effects of refugee discourses. On the one hand, such an approach may better reflect certain local views. Indeed, the mobile histories and self-understandings of the Pacific show that mobility has long been – and is still – viewed as a positive adaptation strategy for many communities. Resilience is here a matter of empowerment and autonomy. On the other hand, however, this new paradigm benefits neoliberalised manoeuvres to channel climate-related movement through labour migration schemes that construct islanders as cheap, exploitable workforce. In this context, the language of resilience, insofar as it comes to promote the capacity of persons to adapt to and persist in the face of ongoing external impacts, works to camouflage and legitimise the damages of climate change and to individualise responsibility to adapt. The challenge is thus to incorporate local understandings of mobility without thereby playing into the hands of a neoliberal script which capitalises on the vulnerability of islanders and corrodes the fundamentally political condition of climate change adaptation.

Finally, in line with the above, the current narrative posits asylum as the only relevant mechanism to consider in addressing the legal dimensions of climate-related movement. Nevertheless, once we outline a more diverse picture of such movement over time, a number of other categories come into play. These include so-called ‘regular’ migration pathways (such as labour, study or family migration schemes and agreements of free association) as well as other tools of international protection (such as complementary protection standards and statelessness). Three questions are relevant in analysing these instruments in relation to present and expected movements: Are all movements recognised by existing laws? Are recognised movements offered sufficient protection by the norms applicable to them? Would all unrecognised movements be sufficiently protected were they to be subsumed and recognised under existing categories? The answer, in all cases, seems to be negative.

If the aim is to advocate responses to climate-related mobility in the Pacific which centre-stage the rights and well-being of islanders, then a more complete diagnosis of the situation is needed. As this article hopes to have shown, two things are required: first, a clearer conceptualisation of the challenges and movements involved and, second, a more precise understanding of the corresponding legal scenario. Only then can we begin to articulate creative legal frameworks which truly respect islanders’ entitlements and needs.


1. Daniels, S & Endfield, GH (2009) ‘Narratives of Climate Change: Introduction’, Journal of Historical Geography 35, 215–222.

Laura Sánchez de la Sierra’s UN Policy report “Climate Change, Migration and ‘Disappearing States’: The Case of Pacific Island Countries” is available here.

Written by

Laura Sánchez de la Sierra is a Ph.D. candidate at the Universitat Pompeu Fabra, Barcelona. Her research focuses on migration, climate change and global justice. From June to August 2018, Laura was a doctoral research fellow at the UN University, Institute on Globalisation, Culture and Mobility (UNU-GCM) in Barcelona before joining the WZB Center for Global Constitutionalism as a guest researcher.
Website at Universitat Pompeu Fabra

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