Over the last five decades, the Lower Mekong Basin has been the scene of major human and environmental upheavals, especially in Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam where sustained political instability degenerated into major armed conflicts and significant migrations. The Vietnam War, whether official in Vietnam, or secret in Laos, arguably played a decisive role in the extensive deforestation observed from c. 1960 to c. 1980 in the Lower Mekong Basin. Deliberate massive removal of vegetation by bombing and chemical spraying was a military tactic to deny cover and land to opposition forces. In Laos only, from 1953 onward, approximately 1 million people were displaced, successively escaping the war, the communist takeover or following resettlement policies.
The environmental migration discourse has been overtly focused on the impacts of environmental variability on migration patterns. However, the role of migration in the context of adaptation such as financial and social remittances, and the influence of social networks, has received little empirical research attention.
Conceptual and practical difficulties have hampered the ability to create clear normative approaches to climate-induced movement. Scholars and policy-makers have pointed to the multi-causality of migration and the impossibility of pinpointing ‘climate’ as a primary or definitive driver of movement. Debate over whether to classify such movement as economic opportunity or a form of forced displacement requiring the development of protection categories has stalled decision-making.
In low-lying countries of the Pacific, discussions concerning climate change as a trigger for migration have been contentious and fuelled by emotion and varying levels of sensitivity. In a recent discussion of the factors influencing the decision for migration in outer island communities in Tuvalu and Kiribati, Smith (2013: 23) posited: ‘Should they stay or should they go?’
There has been no shortage of meetings debating the potential impacts of accelerated environmental degradation that is linked with global warming. In the Pacific region alone there have been major meetings addressing climate-change related issues over the past three months in New Zealand (Pacific Parliamentarian Forum), Australia (The Refugee Council of Australia), Cook Islands (Nansen Initiative), Solomon Islands (Pacific Council of Churches), and Kiribati (the President’s public consultation).
It is becoming increasingly clear that reducing greenhouse gas emissions through mitigation is not going to take place at the pace that is required to keep average global temperatures below 2oC. The World Bank, the International Energy Agency and other organisations in their recent studies are beginning an effort to understand the kind of world we can expect to live in which perhaps may be 3, 4 or even 6oC warmer than the pre-industrial world.
There is a scientific consensus that few places in the world will experience the range of effects and the severity of the impacts of Climate Change in Asia and the Pacific.
At the “First, Do No Harm: Avoiding Maladaptation to Climate Change” conference at the Rockfeller Foundation Center in Bellagio, Italy, I, along with other delegates from different countries, were forced to reflect how environmental induced migration is linked to the broader debates of adaptation and development.