The Future of Climate Migration: Evolving Cultural Norms Through Relationship-Building

This past weekend, neither widespread ICE raids nor one-time hurricane (now tropical storm) Barry wreaked the level of havoc newscasters predicted they would. However, these specific threats still exist, as do the conditions that have enabled them, displaying the complex, interconnected experiences of human migration and environmental change.

Last week, I commented on this white paper outlining research priorities on human migration and environmental change as part of a scoping process for collaborative research through the Belmont Forum. While the draft recommendations do a good job of building on recognized assumptions and facts about this topic, they do not explicitly address one of the root causes of poor migration outcomes: cultural norms. There are two glaring places we see this: culture norms dictating migrants’ resettlement location choices and cultural norms dictating communities’ willingness to receive and assimilate migrants.

A couple of years ago, I asked Siri to call “mom”. He (yes, my Siri is an Australian man — is this not the archetype for the ideal personal assistant?), replied: “‘Home’ or ‘Mom’?” “I guess home is where your mom is” I quipped on social media. Kinship, along with cultural affinity and geographic proximity, have a heavy hand in shaping in-country migration patterns, which also means that people may migrate to places with similar climate risks. Case in point: an estimated 40,000 Hurricane Katrina survivors were living in Houston at the time of Hurricane Harvey. With four and a half months of hurricane season left, the threat of displacement is real for those in storm-prone areas. How can we satisfy the need for cultural familiarity in a relocation destination while incentivizing people to resettle in places with less climate risk?

The cultural norms of xenophobia, racism, and classism that are institutionalized in the U.S. immigration system are a root cause of poor outcomes for migrants seeking to make the U.S. their new, more climate-secure home. While international migration is less prevalent than in-country migration, many communities in the U.S. are better positioned climatically, demographically, or economically to receive people than communities in those migrants’ home countries. And yet the barriers to entry to the U.S. remain far too high. How can we create a society, and an immigration system, that is more welcoming to migrants seeking a more climate-safe future?

One answer to both of these questions: get to know our neighbors (or our potential neighbors). Creating shared culture among people from different places within the U.S. could contribute to encouraging better destination choices for in-country migrants, and it’s ever-easier thanks to virtual social networks. In one Facebook group I’m in, members frequently post asking for recommendations of new places to live based on specific characteristics. Transplants share their stories of being pleasantly surprised by the culture and amenities of an adopted hometown and posters gain new perspectives on places they would never have imagined moving to prior to that virtual conversation.

Changing the toxic cultural norms underpinning our immigration system begins with building relationships too. While it’s easy to be outraged by kids in cages, for those of us who have been privileged to have limited-to-no contact with the immigration system it’s just as easy to be emotionally removed from many of its other travesties. Combine that with internalized racism and classism and even the best intentioned among us are not motivated to take transformative action. But it’s a lot harder to be emotionally removed from our friend or our neighbor or our friend’s friend, regardless of their skin color or economic status, than it is a faceless migrant from another country. And it’s a lot easier to know what changes to the system will actually matter to people once we get to know them one-on-one. 

Next week I’ll move to from sea level rise-plagued Boston to the relatively climate safe Syracuse, NY. I’ve been racking up my “lasts” here — last visit to the Museum of Science with my daughter (by the way, check out their cool urban heat mapping project), last meeting of the Cambridge Climate Protection Action Committee… you catch my drift. My family also made our last visit to our neighbors who are resisting separation and deportation by seeking Sanctuary in a church near our house. Standing with this family has proven to me time and again that the relationships we build with immigrants, refugees, and asylum seekers not only is the power we need to address people’s needs in this moment, but also the power with which we will change the hearts and minds — that is, the people — who currently control our broken immigration system. As we manage the fallout of our climate crisis, what could be more important?

I don’t need to tell the readers of this blog that climate migration is only increasing as impacts become more severe. But as adaptation professionals we tend to turn to the technical, whereas the implications of both in-country and international migration are simple: people need new homes. And while not every climate-safe town can be “where your mom is”, it’s not that hard to start making more places feel like they are: all it takes is reaching out to a would-be friend.

Submit your ideas for the Belmont Forum scoping process on Human Migration and Environmental Change by August 14. Connect with those in the ASAP community who are addressing climate migration, by joining the Climate Migration and Managed Retreat Member-Led Interest Group — Contact Patrick Marchman for more information.