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How do islanders think about becoming climate migrants?

by Ilan Kelman | @IlanKelman | University College London (UCL)
Friday, 18 August 2017 14:19 GMT

An aerial view shows the Maldives capital Male in this 2009 file photo. REUTERS/Reinhard Krause

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* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Many islanders are thinking of moving - but for better opportunities, not because of climate change

The story of future climate change refugees is repeated endlessly. We are told that it begins with climate change raising sea levels. Low-lying islands will be hit first and worst. The tale ends with millions being forced to move, fleeing the waves, storms, and floods.

Whether or not this storyline must undoubtedly come true is debated by scientists. Nevertheless, it often manifests in the policy arena.

Island representatives plea for their future. Island politicians hold media stunts. In 2009, the then-President of Maldives held an underwater meeting of his cabinet to highlight their drowning future. Ordinary islanders are often absent within all these scientific and policy discussions.

We were curious to know the thoughts of the people directly affected. Are islanders worried about becoming forced climate migrants? Do they believe that their only choice is to run from the rising ocean?

We picked the underwater Cabinet meeting's country: Maldives. Best known for its exclusive resorts on islands where locals are not permitted to live, Maldives has also hit the news in recent years for political violence.

For a counterpoint, we selected a lesser-known Indian Ocean archipelago: Lakshadweep. Lakshadweep belongs to India, sitting just north of, and with many cultural and landform similarities to, Maldives. Few tourists reach these islands' shores and Indians require special permission to travel there.

Dozens of islanders generously gave their time to us for interviews about their perceptions of climate change influencing their migration. We balanced men and women ranging from teenagers to elderly.

Some were unemployed or took care of their home. Others were students, politicians, civil servants, fishers, teachers, religious leaders, or working in the tourism industry.

As always, no community provides a unified viewpoint. Yet their responses converged on a key lesson: The islanders perceive and consider changes to their lives and environments based on their own experiences, their own locations, and the immediate timeframe. External information and direction have less influence.

This conclusion is hardly unusual. No immediate crisis is apparent. The daily routine of getting the kids to school and putting enough food on the table is tough enough. Why worry about a distant threat which might or might not appear?

Environmental change and migration are understood and expressed largely via the contexts of personal change and personal experience. What is important is what affects people in their homes at the present time.

This ties directly to the future. Sending kids to school creates a better future for them. Having a job means income for putting food on the table long into the future.

Migration is part of the people's present and future. While each island community is seen as being home, many islanders accept that migration could be needed or helpful. It would be for education, jobs, health, and better services.

Being forced to pack up and retreat was not on the agenda. The dominant perception is that any migration will be by choice, not forced by environmental change.

Is this view naïve? Does it ignore the inevitable destruction of islands by human-influenced climate change? No, because local climate change impacts for specific locations continue to be investigated by scientists.

We have learned that directly affected Indian Ocean islanders show little inclination to migrate because of climate change. They see the questions differently from external perspectives. Their answers are not dictated by their leaders, outside interests, or labels such as 'climate refugees'.

To develop coherent, respectful, and successful responses to climate change's potential impacts on island communities, we must continue speaking with and listening to the peoples in these communities.