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Mar 08, 2023

Strengthening the Science-Policy Interface in the Climate Migration Field

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The question of how climatic changes and hazards affect human mobility has increasingly gained prominence in public debates over the past decade. Despite improvements in the scientific understanding of the subject and advancements in policy, major gaps remain in addressing the humanitarian and socioeconomic challenges related to climate migration. In this article, the authors argue for a holistic approach and a closer integration of science and policy involving diverse stakeholders in the process of knowledge generation and implementation. 


Below you will find the introduction of the perspectives article “Strengthening the Science-Policy Interface in the Climate Migration Field.” To read the entire text, please click here.


Climate change is increasingly affecting populations worldwide with significant implications for human mobility. Rising temperatures, heat and drought episodes, more severe storms and rising sea levels are expected to raise displacement risks and migration in many regions (Clement et al., 2021). At the same time, mobility constraints—further exacerbated by climatic pressures—may prevent people from leaving, potentially trapping them in places with high levels of climatic stress (Benveniste et al., 2022; Nawrotzki & DeWaard, 2018; Zickgraf, 2018). With in situ adaptation becoming increasingly difficult in many regions, this may entail existential risks for the livelihoods and health of populations (Tebboth et al., 2019; Warner et al., 2012; Xu et al., 2020). Also, migration destinations, especially cities in the Global South, are affected by adverse climate impacts. Migrant populations are particularly exposed and vulnerable, creating a novel set of challenges related to climate resilience and human security (Hoffmann & Muttarak, 2021).

Over the past three decades, the research field of climate migration has witnessed a substantial increase in the production of scientific knowledge, with a steadily rising number of studies (Beine & Jeusette, 2019; Hoffmann et al., 2020; Šedová et al., 2021; Zander et al., 2022) and two special issues published in Science (Wible, 2021) and Nature Climate Change (2019). The topic has also received more attention in national and international policy spheres with several new initiatives aimed at facilitating orderly, safe and responsible migration (UNDESA, 2015; United Nations General Assembly, 2018). The term climate migration refers to different types of movements that are directly or indirectly influenced by climatic factors, including voluntary migration, forced displacements, and planned relocations (IOM, 2007). This diversity is also reflected in the more recent climate mobility concept, which broadly considers movements of people against the background of changing climatic conditions, highlighting the variety in mobility responses (including immobility), motivations, geographies and timelines (Baldwin et al., 2019; Boas et al., 2019; Wiegel et al., 2019).

The increased public interest in the climate migration nexus has not translated into effective policy responses that comprehensively address the subject. People are increasingly at risk of negative consequences and displacement from adverse climate impacts, lacking adequate support and sufficient protection (IDMC, 2021; IPCC, 2022). Debates around the issue often follow a simplistic and deterministic narrative, neglecting the diverse nature of human movements and immobility in the context of climate change, the lived experiences of affected communities and the role of intersecting dimensions of inequality and vulnerability that shape why people do or do not move, where and when and on what time scale (Tschakert & Neef, 2022). Often, the focus is placed on migration as opposed to both voluntary and forced immobility, which have so far received less attention in research and policymaking (for noteworthy exceptions, see Adams, 2016; Farbotko, 2018; Farbotko et al., 2020; Farbotko & McMichael, 2019; Nawrotzki & DeWaard, 2018; Schewel, 2020; Stockdale & Haartsen, 2018; Zickgraf, 2018).

In this perspectives article, we argue that more transdisciplinary and transnational research as well as a stronger integration of science and policy are needed to enhance the understanding of climate migration and to address its manifold implications that consider the entire continuum between people with long-term domiciles and mobile populations (Hinrichs-Krapels et al., 2020). Migration is by its nature a dynamic and multifaceted process, which is shaped by economic, socio-political, demographic and factors at different levels (Black, Adger, et al., 2011; Black, Kniveton, & Schmidt-Verkerk, 2011; Cattaneo et al., 2019; Šedová, 2021). Typically, policy issues related to human mobility in the context of climate change are highly uncertain, value-laden and disputed, simultaneously affecting multiple temporal and spatial scales, governance levels, policy fields and socio-economic contexts (Haas, 2004; Kowarsch et al., 2016). Suitable science–policy frameworks for such complex and uncertain issues should always assess policy objectives and related means in the context of their practical implications in an iterative process and ongoing exchange with all relevant stakeholders (Edenhofer & Kowarsch, 2015). Equal representation and empowerment of underrepresented groups should lie at the core of these processes (Kowarsch et al., 2016; Nash, 2018).

Based on a review of the relevant policy landscape and scientific literature using the CliMig bibliographic database (Piguet et al., 2019), we have identified five key challenges that hinder science–policy exchanges in the climate migration field: First, the contexts in which knowledge and policies are produced are shaped by societal views on both climate change and migration that challenge the comprehensive and unbiased engagement with the topic. Second, simplistic narratives about climate migration are still largely present in the academic and policy debates influencing how we think about and engage with the topic. Third, the production, dissemination and implementation of knowledge in the field are unevenly represented, resulting in a lack of engagement with important stakeholders. Fourth, even though there has been some improvement, data and analytical capacities are still limited, resulting in restrictions to our understanding of the climate migration nexus. And finally, the knowledge production is characterized by selective topical and methodological foci concerned with the simple assessment of relationships without gaining a deeper understanding of the underlying processes.

Building on the theory of the science–policy interface for complex and uncertain environmental issues (Edenhofer & Kowarsch, 2015), we illustrate how the science–policy interface can be enhanced to address the five challenges and to improve public decision-making and planning processes on climate migration and immobility. While a stronger integration of science and policy can lead to improvements, this should not come at the cost of scientific independence or a situation in which policy too strongly influences research (Hinrichs-Krapels et al., 2020). Independent scientific inquiry and basic research are fundamental for our understanding of human systems and their intertwined links with the environment. A too strong focus on political priorities, on the other hand, may lead researchers to overlook certain population groups, relationships and relevant research questions (Bakewell, 2008b).

Science–policy exchanges should facilitate mutual learning and open deliberation among all relevant stakeholders in a non-linear, iterative manner. These exchanges should include populations that are often underrepresented in the discourse (including communities directly affected by climate change), breaking disciplinary, methodological and sectoral silos (Piguet et al., 2018). All of this would help researchers and policymakers to better understand climate impacts on human movements in their complexity, avoiding simplistic narratives that might lead to misperceptions and ineffective policy solutions.

This paper is organized as follows. In the next section, we examine existing theoretical approaches to how science can advise policymaking. In Section The climate migration governance and policy landscape, an assessment of the current climate migration policy landscape is provided. Pertinent gaps are discussed in Section Gaps in the climate migration science–policy interface. Section Challenges for strengthening the science–policy interface identifies existing challenges and highlights their implications for the field. Finally, the last section presents ways forward and recommendations to achieve a closer integration of the different spheres to advance knowledge and policy on climate migration.

Bibliographic data

This article was originally published in International Migration on March 8 and can be found online here.

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