Climate Action: Who Is Included/Excluded? 

The year 2020 began as an important year for climate action, with the global climate strike and the UN Climate Action Summit in September 2019 creating and building momentum. The current climate action discourse, however, tends to take a technical tone, with a focus on measurements and targets, and the discussions on climate action have largely been dominated by those with technical expertise and academic credentials. The subsequent imbalance can be seen in the tendency towards quantification in climate change research — we see much more work being done on rising temperatures and greenhouse gas emissions as opposed to the lived experiences of  those having to survive through a changing climate. While the scientific discussions are absolutely critical in understanding the current climate crisis and developing ways to address and mitigate it, such focus has also led to the lack of discussions on social sustainability and the quality of life in the context of climate action. It has been suggested that while a scientific consensus on climate change exists, endorsed by national and international agencies and academic associations, which has formed individual beliefs, however, a social consensus that touches on social, political, economic and cultural systems and norms is yet to emerge (Hoffman, 2012). 

The missing voice of migrants in climate policies adopted by all levels of government illustrates this point well. Migrants' perspectives and experiences have not been actively sought in the development and implementation of climate policies (Chu and Michael, 2018). An absence of an intersectional policy guidance framework that covers mobility and climate change may be symptomatic of this as well as the lack of research that examines how to ensure the well-being of migrants in climate change (IOM, 2020). 

Lessons from COVID-19 

The COVID-19 crisis, as disruptive as it has been to human lives everywhere on the planet, arrived when governments around the globe were beginning to address, with reluctance and hesitation, another crisis, that of climate change. Notwithstanding the speed in changes and responses, both crises are global and threaten individuals and systems (Rosenbloom & Markard, 2020). 

The response to the COVID-19 crisis has taught an important lesson; when there is a lack of voices from the margins incorporated in the planning process, any crisis will result in the loss of the lives of the most vulnerable. Those who have been classified as "essential workers" who mainly work in front line sectors in grocery stores, utilities management, and health care are more vulnerable to the disease because of the high levels of human to human contact required for the job. In several countries, many of these positions are filled by migrant workers and new immigrants or “newcomers” as often termed in Canada. (Christi & Bolter, 2020Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, 2020; Brock, 2020). In addition, migrant workers have been found to be particularly exposed to the impact of the COVID-19 crisis, because of the living conditions these workers are in, such as crowded boarding houses and dormitories and their inability to access their places of work in destination countries and return to their families (Basok & George, 2020; Ratcliffe 2020). It is not difficult to imagine that many of these workers may have resorted to taking different jobs in higher-risk roles that are not favoured by locals to make ends meet. The COVID-19 crisis has exacerbated the precarious economic conditions these workers are already in and highlighted how crises and their effects are felt stronger by those whose voices and experiences are not reflected in the planning and response (ILO 2020). 

Applying an Equity, Diversity and Inclusion Framework and Next Steps  

Expanding from this, and having noted the focus of climate policies, it is clear that climate change will disproportionately affect the lives of migrants whose perspectives are yet to be incorporated. Particularly, climate change frameworks need to incorporate the equity, diversity and inclusion (EDI) perspective in order to truly serve those who will be affected by climate change the most, noting that many migrants often find themselves on  the "margins" of national policies, both of their home countries and destination countries. The incorporation of migration considerations in policies indicates that  certain mobility issues have made their way through to the policy discussions, but this will not necessarily mean that migrants’ own perspectives and experiences have been consulted in drafting of these climate change policies. 

The Fourth National Climate Assessment (NCA4) (2017/2018) from the United States Global Change Research Program (USGCRP) has found that the climate change will impact the poor first, and this finding adds a sobering thought that those migrant workers who find themselves in a cycle of poverty will feel strongly the impacts of climate change. In addition, when climate-induced forced migration results in a large-scale displacement (Wilkinson et al, 2016), migrants will need to move for reasons of survival, not out of choice, while others might be trapped. Climate policies, at least at the national level, should consider how climate migrants might have no choice but to move, instead of framing migration as a negative outcome, given that regional and international discussions most often become halted due to geopolitical interests. 

An examination of the COVID-19 crisis through inquiries that reveal power relations and systematic discriminations, including against migrants, has indicated that the response framework must build on EDI considerations. Learning from this for the “other global problem”, climate action strategies must embody the EDI principles by including the voices of migrants — migrant workers, newcomers, refugees, asylum-seekers, climate migrants — whose transient status may not hold much of political clout. Caught in the limbo between legal frameworks and conventions, migrants’ economic, political, cultural and social lives can end up being discounted in policy-making processes and their presence does not come through in most of the climate action frameworks that have been drafted to date. 

Finally, drawing on the policy planning and implementation processes observed from the COVID-19 crisis that have largely neglected the migrant experience, climate action strategies developed by all levels of government must reflect newcomers' perspectives and include measures to protect climate-induced migrants. Using a place-based approach is key to developing effective climate policies which reflects not only the geographical and environmental conditions of the area but also the individuals and communities in terms of how accessible, malleable, and adaptable the spaces are to the influx of population. The COVID-19 crisis has taught us the importance of grassroots perspectives in policy-making, and that climate action strategies should incorporate the migrants' perspectives and their livelihoods, quality of life, and safety and security. 


Recommended Readings 

Case, Robert A and Laura Zeglen. 2018. Exploring the Ebbs and Flows of Community Engagement: The Pyramid of Engagement and Water Activism in Two Canadian Communities. Journal of Community Practice 26.2: 184-203. 

MacGregora, Sherilyn; Walker, Catherine and Katz-Gerrob, Tally. 2019. ‘It’s what I’ve always done’: Continuity and change in the household sustainability practices of Somali immigrants in the UK. Geoforum 107: 143-153. 

Sheller, Mimi. 2018. Mobility Justice: The Politics of Movement in an Age of Extremes. Verso: London, UK. 


About the author

Kilim Park is research manager in the Sustainability Office at Simon Fraser University in Burnaby, Canada. She is a qualitative, ethnographic researcher and practitioner in migration with over 10 years of international experience, and holds a PhD in interdisciplinary studies from the University of British Columbia (UBC). Kilim has completed research projects with domestic workers, asylum-seekers and migrant workers in Canada, Indonesia, Hong Kong and Korea, and worked for UNHCR and the Canadian government.  


This article is part of the IOM Series on The COVID-19 Pandemic, Migration and the Environment.

SDG 3 - Good Health and Well Being
SDG 10 - Reduced Inequalities
SDG 15 - Life on land