The Ethics of Climate Induced Displacement and Relocation

by | May 4, 2018

How can we avoid ethical blind spots in our efforts to help displaced communities rebuild their lives?

Communities living on the front lines of climate change face distinctive challenges in preparing for a secure and viable future. Although many of those most vulnerable to the impacts of climate change are the least responsible for it, it will be these communities that bear the costs of adapting to a hostile climate. Many communities will need to be relocated. Indeed, some community relocation projects are already underway – most prominently in the Carteret Islands, Alaska, and the Mekong Delta.

Image Credit: Department for International Development (UK). Reused with permission under the Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-SA 2.0) license.

Draper and McKinnon provide an outline map of the ethical and political issues arising in this context. Their review in WIREs Climate Change, they start a conversation about how we can and ought to engage with an emerging and distinctly challenging issue.

There has been a surge in interest in recent years in both the ethics of climate change and the ethics of migration more broadly, but there has been surprisingly little attention devoted to the particular ethical and political issues arising in the context of climate-induced community relocation. Most migration and displacement related to climate change is messy and complex: the impacts of climate change are mediated through existing vulnerabilities in communities relating to the viability of livelihoods, and the extent to which adaptation programmes can be pursued. It’s important that we recognize these complexities, rather than imposing a one-size-fits-all model of a ‘climate migrant’ onto those communities affected.

Draper and McKinnon identify three kinds of questions about climate-induced community relocation, concerning framings, procedures, and outcomes.

One way to frame climate-induced community relocation is in terms of justice, which serves to diagnose the ethical and political questions at the heart of such relocation. But what kind of justice is at stake here? Different understandings will lead us to different conclusions about who should bear which costs in the relocation process. Is this a matter of compensation for those affected? Is it a matter of the fair distribution of resources? What exactly is the loss faced by those affected?

Fair procedures are at the heart of any response to climate-induced community relocation. They make it more likely that such efforts will ‘stick’. But it is also of fundamental importance that people have a say over their future. What exactly count as ‘fair procedures’? What level of participation in decision-making is required? Are some proposals ‘off the table’ for participatory decision-making, if conditions are urgent? Who can speak on behalf of the community, and whose voices go unheard? What is the relative status of practical, local knowledge, and technical expertise in decision-making?

Finally, it is important to think about the just outcomes of community relocation projects. What ethical standards must be met for a relocation project to be just, and what rights are fundamental in the process of implementation? The relations between communities facing relocation, and those communities that will become their ‘hosts’. What burdens can host communities be asked to bear? And how can lasting links and mutually beneficial relationships be established between relocated communities and host communities?

These questions begin the ethical conversation about climate-induced community relocation. Each case will have its own particular features. It is important that we deliberate now about the ethical and political issues raised in these contexts, and that we learn from the practical experiences of those on the front line, so that we can avoid ethical blind spots in our efforts to help displaced communities rebuild their lives.


Kindly contributed by Jamie Draper and Catriona McKinnon.

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