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This brief has been produced by National Partnership for New Americans and and the Climate and Migration Coalition and Refugees International.

Photo of Hasina Begum by GMB Akash for an essay on climate migration in Bangladesh, 2018.


The role of climate change in both forced displacement and wider migration is increasingly apparent. There has been growing awareness of climate-linked mobility in both wealthy and less wealthy parts of the world, and both within and between countries. Even in the most optimistic scenarios of effective climate action combined with less adverse impacts, people will be directly forced to move by disasters or loss of livelihoods, while others will move as an adaptation strategy. 

With COP27 focused on Loss and Damage and adaptation finance, it is important that climate-linked mobility is addressed in the broader conversation about climate finance and adaptation. It is imperative that powerful countries take action to secure people’s right to stay put where they wish to and to move when it is the best option for them. Countries need the resources to facilitate safe internal migration and safe passage at international borders.  

Unfortunately, serious issues remain with the ways that communicators talk about climate-linked mobility. Given the impact climate change will have on migratory patterns in the region where COP27 will be held, it is likely that migration will be discussed by various stakeholders. This briefing note aims to guide communicators on how to talk about climate-linked mobility in a way that is justice aligned and does not stoke fears and insecurities.

Raising fears about the prospects of climate-linked mobility does not facilitate useful climate action. Instead, the security establishment and anti-migrant groups have co-opted and extended this “crisis” framing to divert resources, attention, and funding into restricting people’s movement by force. Climate advocates, reporters, and all those engaged with climate policy should be aware of these strategies and avoid inadvertently playing into them.  

Dangerous Climate Narratives Need to Be Reframed

In a bid to accelerate action, the climate “crisis” narrative was constructed and amplified largely by the Global North environment movement, which has a weak history of prioritizing justice or race. 

  • The security establishment: Over the past decade, climate change has been cast as a national and international security issue. Military voices have used the future “threat” of mass climate displacement to give weight to this framing. This analysis prioritizes national interest and risk management ahead of addressing the root causes of community upheaval, instability and migration in the context of climate change.  
  • Anti-migrant groups: These groups are using the climate “crisis” narrative to stoke fears of uncontrolled immigration and anti-refugee narratives. 
  • Conservationists: Some conservationists are known to support population control and closed borders and will find ideological alignment with anti-migrant groups and the security establishment. We can expect this alliance to grow in the future as more evidence of the catastrophic impacts of climate change emerge.

We are seeing a steady stream of reports with projections of how many people will be forced to move this century and how much of the earth’s surface will be uninhabitable. These reports can contribute to the “crisis” narrative.

In Europe, the US and Australia, “crisis” narratives have already been harnessed by right wing politicians to turn populations against migrants, refugees, and others fleeing danger and risks by positioning them as the “other” and a security threat. As a result of this, it has been extremely difficult to have a discussion based on human rights and justice, and over the years immigration and refugee policies have become more draconian and inhumane. 

This is not to say that the severity of climate impacts should be downplayed but when talking about climate-linked mobility, the framing should also include:

  • Demanding that decision makers create compassionate policies that ensure all humans can live with dignity and that people have the right to move to secure their livelihoods.   

Positioning powerful governments and the fossil fuel industry as key contributors to creating a situation in which people need to migrate to find safety.


1.Hayes, B., 2015. The Secure and the Dispossessed: How the military and corporations are shaping a climate-changed world, pp.40

  • As climate impacts increase, some people will need to move to find safety and dignity.
  • There is no conclusive figure of how many people will need to cross borders. There is no consensus around future projections, let alone a commonly agreed methodology. As a result, predictions and estimates have become one of the most contentious issues in the debates on climate-linked mobility – internal and external. 
  • While much of the initial climate-linked mobility is occurring within countries, there will be movement across international borders.
  • Climate change is unlikely the only reason why someone will be forced to move to seek safety. People displaced by climate impacts are also often displaced by other environmental, economic, political, and social reasons: the political situation and economic conditions in many places of the world are deeply embedded in the environment. Any environmental disruption has immediate economic or political consequences.
  • Climate-linked mobility is emerging in both wealthy and poor nations, but it is the wealthy nations that have contributed most to the problem of climate change through dramatically higher per capita emissions.
  • Climate-linked mobility is a reality today, which demands attention and policy responses now.

How To About Migration As A Climate Impact 

Numerous communicators have put out well researched briefs on how to talk about asylum seekers, refugees and migrants using values-based language. This can be adapted when talking about climate-linked mobility or climate displaced people.

Climate and migration expert Dr François Gemenne advises that “Climate migration encompasses different patterns of migration; thus one shouldn’t think of climate migration as ‘one new category of migration’, but rather accept this is all part of global migration dynamics”. He also says the term “climate migration sets those displaced by climate impacts apart from those displaced by other political or economic factors, as if ‘climate migration’ was a new, discrete migration category”.

For this reason we do not encourage the use of the term ‘climate migrants’. We also do not encourage the use of the term ‘climate refugees’, for reasons we explain below. 

 Words That Work

Frame migration as part of the solution and a form of adaptation to climate change.

Example: “Human populations have always been in flux. The challenge (as with other climate impacts) is to manage this through forward planning and building resilience. This means proactively creating safe pathways for those whose homes are affected to ensure a world in which all humans can live with dignity. Many impacts of climate change are now unavoidable – but the harm they cause is not inevitable if urgent and effective adaptation is put into place, supported by solidarity between citizens of different nations, who all face a shared challenge”. 
Don’t use crisis language when talking about climate-linked mobility. Phrases like ‘mass migration,’ ‘unprecedented migration,’ ‘climate crisis,’ ‘waves of migration,’ ‘flood,’ ‘surge’ and ‘risks of mass migration’ feed into the threat narrative.
Assert human rights.

People have the right to seek asylum: it is an issue of basic rights, the foundation of human dignity.Supporting people in a new place, striving to support themselves and their families, is the right thing to do.Migration is an opportunity for people to build a better future for themselves, and it is an opportunity for the receiving country. 
Never repeat harmful frames, even in negating them.

Don’t say: “It is not illegal to seek asylum,” “not a security issue,” “not a threat,” “no need to fear,” etc.

Using negations or trying to mythbust only strengthens the opposition’s argument, especially the term ‘illegal.’ This only feeds false, nativist ideas about seeking asylum.

Focus on people and our shared rights. Center compassion.

Favor values-based framing over numbers.

People leave their homes in search of shelter, food and safety as a last option. Research shows us that increasing climate impacts make displacement and migration more likely. 

While much of the initial displacement of people from climate impacts is occurring within countries, movement across international borders is also a valid climate solution.

Example: “The important thing for us to understand is that people leave their homes in search of shelter, food and safety as a last option. This research shows us that climate impacts make it more likely they are going to need to do so. While much of the initial displacement of people from climate impacts is occurring within countries, there will be movement across international borders.”

If you have to include a figure for whatever reason, ensure a values-based framing with no crisis language constructed around it. There is no conclusive methodology on future numerical projections about cross border movement. Projection numbers feed into the crisis narrative.

For 2021 displacement figures, experts point to the Global Report on Internal Displacement 2021 as the most authoritative figure.

Frame climate induced migration as part of global migration dynamics.

For example, about half of the population in sub-Saharan Africa depend directly on subsistence agriculture as a primary source of income, which means that any change in temperature or rainfall has severe and immediate economic consequences for these households. Gemenne & Zickgraf, 2019
Example: “Climate impacts along with economic and political unrest are some of the reasons why people are already moving within countries and across borders to find a safe place to live.”
Don’t talk about climate-linked mobility as something that will happen in the future.  It is already a reality today. It demands attention and policy responses now.
Refer to people first, for example:

People seeking asylum or safety.

People who have moved. Fathers, mothers, brothers, sisters, sons, daughters, etc. 
Don’t label people without context as:

Asylum seekers 



Move away from simplistic labels to a depiction of people with agency.
A number of international processes already exist which can potentially protect the rights and welfare of people who need to move as a result of climate impacts.

Like all complex international political processes, these processes are subject to delay and the competing interests of the national governments involved. 
Don’t frame the issue as if nothing is being done about it.

Here are some of the existing initiatives:

Contrasting Expanding Border Violence To Climate Action 

COP27 is taking place in Egypt; a region which is among the most vulnerable to climate impacts and forced displacement. It also borders the Mediterranean Sea, where tens of thousands are killed, injured, or abused every year as a result of European border policies. European surveillance, detention, and migration control is rapidly pushing further south – driven in part by a desire to shield powerful countries against the disruptive impacts of climate change. At COP26, the Transnational Institute revealed how a ‘Global Climate Wall’ was being constructed at a significantly higher cost than resources being allocated to climate finance for those who need it most. 

Most climate-linked migration in the region is currently within, not between, countries. But the expanding for-profit Border and Surveillance Industry is helping to create a dangerous environment for all migrants by pushing the hardware, software and services to enable the containment, exclusion, surveillance, and detention of migrant and displaced populations.

Where possible, climate communicators at COP27 dealing with climate-linked mobility should not only argue for better policy, but point out the actors who profit from direct involvement in a worsening situation, and who act as obstacles to climate justice. Pointing to the destructive role played by border violence in climate action both exposes a sector that has largely hidden its work from public view, and encourages the climate movement to adopt a broader understanding of the challenges involved in securing climate justice.


Suggested Framing

As climate impacts escalate, more people will be forced to leave their homes in search of safety and dignity. All indicators suggest that, without urgent action, the current policy responses to forced migration (containment, exclusion, surveillance, and detention), will be extended to all increases in migration. Every day, around the world, these policies give rise to human rights violations and rob people of their dignity. Corporate actors are profiting, or preparing to profit, from increasing public expenditure on these policies. The companies, their financiers and the investors that are already profiting from the misery of others, and those that are preparing to do so in the near future, need to be stopped. We need an approach to a future that is rooted in equity and dignity and that will work to advance human rights for all.

The Use of The Term “Climate Refugees”

‘Climate refugee’ is not a legal category. Formal pathways for climate migration are severely underdeveloped. Unlike for refugees, there is no specialized body of law regulating the treatment of migrants who are forced to flee due to climate-related impacts, nor are there dedicated international institutions. 

Climate communicators may want to use the term ‘climate refugee’ as a way to push for legal  recognition within the 1951 Refugee Convention or, more commonly, as a simple shorthand term that captures people’s attention or understanding.

Refugee advocates are, among other things, nervous that renegotiating that treaty will almost definitely result in weaker protections for everyone. 

The other issue with communicators using ‘climate refugee’ is that, to a layperson, it could sound like a  category that is comparable to the definition of a ‘refugee’. However, it is not a formal legal category that requires states to provide particular rights. One is a conceptual definition, the other is a legal one.