Wednesday, 29 November 2017

Why Tuvaluans aren't migrating due to climate change, yet

I've been doing a lot of reading on climate change and migration lately (mostly related to responding to reviewers' comments on the paper I discussed here). The latest issue of the journal CESifo Economic Studies has a bunch of papers on the topic. The first paper in the issue is a review of the literature by Michael Berlemann and Max Friedrich Steinhardt (both of Helmut Schmidt University in Germany). I've read a number of these reviews, but theirs is the clearest and least technical review I can recall reading, so if you want an excellent overview of the available data, methods, and results from the literature (on climate and migration, as well as natural disasters and migration), then it seems that would be a good place to start.

However, in this post I want to focus on a different paper from that same journal issue (ungated earlier version here), by Ilan Noy (Victoria University of Wellington). In this paper, Noy looks at out-migration (or rather, the lack of out-migration) from Tuvalu. Noy explains that Tuvalu is of interest, because it can: many respects can serve as the canary in the mine for climate change research. If migration driven by climate change was indeed happening today, it should be found in Tuvalu, and if this migration is not happening yet, observing Tuvalu may provide us explanations for its absence. 
Noy notes that there is a distinct lack of out-migration from Tuvalu even though, as a low-lying atoll country, the population is extremely vulnerable to the effects of climate change:
To summarize, all the available evidence suggests that disaster risk in Tuvalu is likely to increase significantly in coming decades. It will increase as: (i) the hazard intensity (mostly cyclones and droughts) increase; (ii) as more people will be exposed because of population growth, urbanization and movement to the capital Funafuti, and sea-level rise; and (iii) as households will be increasingly more vulnerable, given their increasing reliance on manmade infrastructure and imported goods.
Tuvalu does have a large diaspora (relative to the size of the domestic population), but given the risks you would be right to expect that many more of them would be getting out of Funafuti than what is actually observed. Given that, something must be hampering that out-migration. Noy suggests that: of the reasons for this lack of migration is the desire by Tuvaluans to Voice. ‘Voicing’, a concept borrowed from Hirschman’s (1970) Exit, Voice, and Loyalty, is the advocacy of expressing one’s wish for change, and that Voice often is a deliberate choice that in some circumstances may be preferred to Exit (migration).
Voicing in this context can be taken as protesting against climate change and its impacts and implications, and indeed we have seen a lot of evidence of this voicing protest (e.g. see here and here), not just from Tuvalu but from Maldives (e.g. see here and here) and the Marshall Islands (e.g. see here and here).

Why spend time and effort 'Voicing' instead of Exiting (migrating)? The third component of Hirschman's theory, Loyalty, is to blame:
The last component of this is Loyalty—the attachment of people to their communities and homelands. With strong Loyalty, the cost of exiting is substantially higher, exit is therefore less likely, and consequently a strategy of Voicing is more likely to be pursued. Loyalty makes Exit less likely, and therefore gives more scope and incentive for Voice. In part, it is this Loyalty that may explain why the Tuvaluan islanders have chosen to Voice, but it is probably only an imperfect explanation, given the high degrees of previous temporary migrations away from the islands.
It's an interesting theory, and seems to explain why we don't see large out-migrations from the Pacific Islands due to climate change. Yet. It also suggests that our models of international migration, which rely on past data, will be incomplete and inaccurate because they miss the point that migration will only occur when Voice is no longer a viable option. Indeed, Noy notes that when it becomes clear that Voicing is not working, Exiting is the last resort and at that point there is likely to be a sudden and large out-migration. When that occurs will be anyone's guess.

[Update]: The New Zealand government is considering introducing a special visa category for climate change refugees (which is Green Party policy). Although, at only 100 visas per year, I expect it wouldn't make a huge difference.

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