International Law and the (De)Politicisation of Climate Change and Migration: Lessons from the Pacific

Author:Giulia Jacovella
International Law and the (De)Politicisation of Climate
Change and Migration: Lessons from the Pacific
Giulia Jacovella*
This Article analyses how alarmist narratives have framed human mobility
in relation to climate change as a new and potentially dangerous
phenomenon. Instead of recognising migration as a form of adaptation to
environmental changes, politicians in the Global North have further
securitised state borders. Consequ ently, the international community has
been pushed towards finding a technical, legal solution to this ‘threat’. The
analysis of legal cases from the Pacific Islands shows that the anthropogenic
causes of climate change and migration have been depoliticised and
relegated to the realms of science and law, where the voices of communities
from the Global South are often marginalised. Environmental mig rants are
thus brutalised, silenced and victimised, while their lands become territories
for the experimentation of climate change laws and policies. Nevertheless,
the populations of the Pacific reclaim their agency and empowerment as
active makers of their own destiny, despite the power dynamics and
inequalities still shaping North-South relations and underpinning
environment al law and science.
The disappearing islands embody not a located tragedy of
importance in itself but a mere sign of the destiny of the planet as a
whole. Tuvalu becomes a space where the fate of the planet is brought
forward in time and miniaturised in space, reduced to a performance
of rising seas and climate refugees played out for those with most control
over the current and future uses of fossil fuels.
Carol Farbotko1
*Giulia Jacovella works as a Teaching Fellow at SOAS, University of London where she tutors
law students enrolled onto Global Commodities Law. She received an MA in Environmental
Law and Sustainable Development with Distinction from SOAS and she graduated with a BA in
Politics and International Relations from LUISS University, Rome.
1 Carol Farbotko, ‘Wishful Sinking: Disappearing Islands, Climate Refugees and Cosmopolitan
Experimentation’ (2010) 51(1) Asia Pacific Viewpoint 47, 54 (emphasis added).
(2015) Vol. 2, Issue 1 Giulia Jacovella 77
As Farbotko emphasises in this quote, several political issues are involved in
climate change as a discourse2 and phenomenon. Media coverage of natural
hazards has increased dramatically in recent times and environmentally-
induced migration (in short, environmental migration) has suddenly become a
potential security threat for the wealthier countries in the Global North.3 In this
Article, the expression ‘environmental migration’ is used to simplify the
complex phenomenon of human mobility, the root causes of which lie, at least
in part, in environmental factors, especially in climate change related events.4
This Article argues that environmental migration and climate change have
gradually been depoliticised and framed in an apparently neutral legal debate
and security concern. This marginalises the voices of the communities and
countries in the Global South that are more deeply and directly affected by
climate change. De-politicisation, in Hay’s words, ‘serves to insulate politicians
and their choices, immunising them from responsibility, accountability and
critique’.5 In fact, de-politicisatio n in this context mainly consists of presenting
technical solutions to complex problems6 and, as analysed in this Article, of
delegating environmental and social issues, which are political in nature, to the
realms of science and law.7
By building on existing literature, case law and data, this Article aims to
deconstruct environmental migration in order to understand its legal, political
and eco nomic underpinnings and t heir consequences in terms of human rig hts,
identity and climate justice. In particular, the analysis of legal cases from the
2 A Foucauldian m eaning of discourse is adopted here as ‘ways of constituting knowledge,
together with the social practices, forms of subjectivity and power relations which inhere in
such knowledges and relations between them’ as in Chris Weedon, Feminist Practice and Post-
Structuralist Theory (Basil Blackwell 1987) 108.
3 In this Article, Global North and Global South are considered as two discursive categories. The
first envisages countries and regions like Europe, the United States of America, Australia and
New Zealand that are economically ‘wealthy, technologically advanced [and] politically stable’.
The second category refers to countries and regions like Africa, India, China, Brazil and South
East Asia that are economically vulnerable, dependent on raw materials and politically and
economically influenced by the Global North as in Lemuel E Odeh, ‘A Comparative Analysis of
Global North and Global South Economies’ (2010) 12(3) Journal of Sustainable Development in
Africa 338. See also Lorraine Elliot, ‘Climate Migration and Climate Migrants: What Threat,
Whose Security?’ in Jane McAdam (ed), Climate Change and Displacement: Multidisciplinary
Perspectives (Hart Publishing 2010).
4 Allan M Findlay, ‘Migrant Destinations in an Era of Environmental Change’ (2011) 21(1)
Global Environmental Change 51.
5 Colin Hay, Why We Hate Politics (Polity Press 2013) 92.
6 ibid.
7 Anneelen Kenis and Matthias Lievens, ‘Searching for the Political in Environmental Politics’
(2014) 23(4) Environmental Politics 531.
78 Interna tional Law and the (De)Politic isation of Clim ate
Change and Migration: Lessons from the Pacific
Pacific Islands highlights how the Global North has framed and depoliticised
climate change and environmental migration by using the old colonial
repertoire of vulnerability, helplessness, danger and ‘blackness’.8 It has thus
failed to recognise that environmental migration is an important form of
adaptation,9 which should be accompanied by other measures, such as non-
discriminatory immigration policies and stronger commitments by highly
industrialised countries and emerging economies to change their patterns of
consumption and end fossil fuels dependency.10
According to the International Panel on Climate Change,11 adaptation means
‘an adjustment in natural and human systems’12 in response to climate change.
Migration is part of this process. It must not be considered as a failure of
mitigation, which refers to ‘an anthropogenic intervention to reduce the sources
or enhance the sinks of greenhouse gases’.13 Conversely, both adaptation and
mitigation strategies should work in synergy to include and empower local
Section 2 of this Article introduces the discourse of environmental migration by
tracing the ambiguous relationship between man and nature. In particular, it
looks at how this relationship is influencing and depoliticising the current legal
debate on the kind of protection that the international community should
ascribe to environmental migrants. Section 3 analyses two legal cases regarding
an I-Kiribati and a Tuvaluan family who have sought to be recognised as
‘climate refugees’ in New Zealand. It explores the contrasting claims of Pacific
governments and people with regard to the ‘refugee’ label. It also highlights
how the Pacific populations and migrants have become commodities in the eyes
of the Global North. Section 4 investigates climate justice claims against an
ongoing (eco)colonial experimentation. It also briefly analyses the Pacific
8 Andrew Baldwin, ‘Orientalising Environm ental C itizen ship: C limate Change, Migrat ion and
the Potentiality of Race’ (2012) 16(5-6) Citizenship Studies 625; Kate Manzo, ‘Imagining
Vulnerability: The Iconography of Climate Change’ (2010) 42(1) Area 96.
9 Cecilia Tacoli, ‘Crisis or Adaptation? Migrat ion and C limate Change in a Contex t of High
Mobility’ (2009) 21(2) Environment & Urbanisation 513.
10 Ulrich Beck, ‘Remapping Social Inequalities in an Age of Climate Change: For a Cosmopolitan
Renewal of Sociology’ (2010) 10(2) Global Networks 165; Ingolfur Blühdorn, ‘The Politics of
Unsustainability: COP15, Post-Ecologism, and the Ecological Paradox’ (2011) 24(1) Organisation
& Environment 34.
11 Hereinafter IPCC.
12 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, Climate Change 2007: Impacts, Adaptation and
Vulnerability: Contribution of Working Group II to the Fourth Assessment Report of the Interna tional
Panel on Climate Change (CUP 2008) 869.
13 ibid.

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