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Book Review: Unraveling Climate Change and Human Mobility

  • Reviewed book: Calum Nicholson, Benoit Mayer. (2023). "Climate Migration - Critical Perspectives for Law, Policy and Research”- Bloomsbury Publishing. ISBN 9781509961757.

  • By Nadia Bamoshmoosh, former intern at IAI.


In the contemporary landscape where climate change and migration are two highly debated topics by researchers, media and policy makers, it is not surprising to witness a burgeoning interest in exploring the interconnection between these two phenomena. As stated in the introductory remarks of the book “Climate Migration: Critical Perspectives for Law, Policy and Research”, ‘at the heart of the contemporary preoccupation with climate change is a concern for its societal impacts. Among these, its presumed effect on human migration is perhaps the most politically resonant ”.

Edited by Calum TM Nicholson and Benoit Mayer, this book compiles ten chapters, which meticulously delve into concatenating arguments on climate change and human migration. It aims at providing a comprehensive resource for students and scholars seeking orientation within this complex field. Both editors are familiar with academia, being Mayer Associate Professor at the faculty of law at the Chinese University of Hong Kong and Nicholson being Visting Fellow at the Mathias Corvinus Collegium in Budapest. The authors’ academic background is evident in the clearness of the book, which appears enjoyable for students and readers even with little to no knowledge on the topic. Concurrently, the other contributing authors do not necessarily hold an academic background, which enriches the diversity of perspectives by providing those of practitioners and policymakers too, rather than sticking to the scholarly one only.

While the relation between climate change and migration has been extensively studied, many epistemological, policy and legal challenges are still present. One of the main challenges addressed in the volume concerns the nexus between climate change and migration, which has not been proven yet. The climate migration nexus approach recognizes the close relationship between human mobility and climate change, advocating for coordinated policies and actions across sectors and scales through shared solutions.

The most noteworthy aspect of this book is the effort to de- and re-construct the relationship between climate change and human migration, not to provide definite answers to unsolved questions, but rather to ‘provoke (critical) thought ’. For example, while many scholars and experts of the field are currently arguing in favor of the migration nexus as a consolidated theory, contributors to this volume take a step back and challenge such assertion, underscoring the uncertainty inherent in the discourse on climate migration.

The book is organized into three parts: (i) content, (ii) context, and (iii) implications for law, research and policy. In part I – content – the three contributors (Calum TM Nicholson, Ilan Kelman, Gunvor Jònsson) outline what “climate migration” is and the causal assumptions that underlie it. Throughout part II – context – Gregory White, David Durand-Delacre, Sarah Louise and Andrew Baldwin consider the relationship of the book’s topics with their broader political, economic and cultural context. Finally, in part III – implications for law, research and policy – Carol Farbotko, Giovanna Lauria, and Benoit Mayer offer some insights on relevant national and international stakeholders with the aim of implementing innovative policies which avoid the former errors, pitfalls, and paradoxes outlined in previous chapters.

Interestingly enough, the first chapters of the book state the need to provide specific definitions of the terminology used in the general discourse. In the general debate, there is an excessive proliferation of terms: to name a few, environmental refugees, climate migrants, environmental migrants, climate-induced refugees etc. However, different terms imply different legal and policy frameworks; moreover, two terms can be perceived differently. For instance, States are legally obliged under international law to provide protection to refugees, while they have more discretion when it comes to granting rights to migrants. Moreover, the overall perception of migrants is increasingly negative, especially in Europe, while the one of refugees still has the sympathy of the general public. Finding a clear definition of the phenomenon is crucial to avoid confusion. To give another example, climate and environmental events are two different things that cannot be interchanged, as – however – is the case in many debates. The proliferation of terms referring to human mobility in relation to climate change is an obstacle to the adoption of relevant laws and policies targeting the phenomenon. Therefore, it is of imperative importance for scientists, experts, policy makers, and researchers to start from the core definitions on climate migration setting the intention to reach unanimous understandings of key terms.

A notable aspect of the volume concerns its sensitive attention, especially in the sections by Sarah Louise Nash and Andrew Baldwin, to the issue of the racist and almost haughty way in which the Global North positions itself in relation to “climate migrants”. In effect, Nash critically analyzes the position of modes of governance of climate change and migration in four countries – Austria, Germany, Denmark and Sweden – in Fortress Europe. On the other hand, Baldwin brings to the table of discussion the complicated politics of race and racism in relation to human migration and climate change.

Given this sensitiveness to the disparity between different areas of the world, however, it would have been beneficial to introduce and incorporate to a greater extent the views of the “Global South”, be it through experts’ opinion, specifically coming from the most affected areas in terms of climate change, or through the views of (self-identified) “climate migrants”. Two important attempts to cohesiveness are worthy of mention: The first is the Sahel case study, by Gunvor Jònsson, through the presentation of French stakeholders’ view. The second one concerns the explanation of the famous UN Human Rights Committee’s Teitiota v. New Zealand case. This case, concerning a Kiribatian man who was seeking refuge in New Zealand after the occurring of climate-related events in his country, marked an important moment in legal history on this topic. In fact, for the first time the Human Rights Committee expanded the right to non-refoulement to migrants whose dignified life cannot be guaranteed owing to the negative impacts of climate change. More generally, however, it would have been helpful taking a step further integrating more migrants’ views and perspectives from the Global South, which would have been a great added value for the already excellent volume. In addition, for readers with limited scientific knowledge on climate/environmental change, a purely scientific chapter on the topic would have been of great usefulness to provide some context.

To conclude, one of the most appreciated aspects of the volume is its intention not to provide a range of policy implications for law, policy and research. Given this assumption, there is the need to “slow down our reasoning ” and not rush to conclusions. Therefore, the book offers a series of cautions and caveats for anyone interested in the topic. In this sense, the volume contributes to raising awareness on climate change and human migration.


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