How to talk about environmental mobility

How to talk about environmental mobility

Kate Burrows, PhD candidate1

Every year, at least 15 million people have to move worldwide because of environmental disasters—a number that is expected to grow rapidly under future climate change scenarios. Despite the global scope of this issue, we lack a uniform vocabulary to discuss environmentally driven moves and their implications. This makes it challenging for academics to share our research and its significance with each other, let alone with the media, policy makers, and the public. To be more effective communicators and meet the growing challenge of climate change related migration and displacement, we need to reconsider and clarify our vocabulary.

My own work focuses on the health impacts of landslides and subsequent relocation in Indonesia. Other researchers are exploring important questions about who is most likely to move after natural disasters and other climactic events, where they will go, and what will happen to them when they get there. In order to answer these questions, we draw on a wide range of disciplines such as, sociology, demography, epidemiology, and climatology. This interdisciplinary approach, while important, is one of the reasons we lack a uniform lexicon.

Mobility related to environmental exposures can take many forms. Hurricanes and other sudden onset disasters can cause people to flee in advance of the storm, or relocate after assessing the damage in its wake. Droughts may lead to short term labor migration as workers seek temporary employment to send remittances home to their families. As sea-levels continue to rise, we are seeing some of the first cases of planned relocation as a response to climate change in Louisiana, Alaska, and the Pacific Islands. Usually the environment is viewed as an exacerbating force that contributes, along with many other factors, to a person’s relocation. One of the reasons we struggle to describe environmentally driven moves is that they encompass a wide range of different exposures and scenarios.

One of the biggest challenges (and inconsistencies) in describing environmentally driven moves is centered on whether a move should be considered “voluntary” or “involuntary.” Often, those who move involuntarily (i.e. are forced to move) are considered displaced while those who move voluntarily are considered migrants. However, in most cases of environmentally driven moves, we find no clear line separating an involuntary move from a voluntary one. For example, a drought (or other slow-onset disaster), might make it hard for a farmer to earn a living, resulting in the farmer and their family moving to a nearby city. However, it may be unclear whether or not this move is voluntary. A landslide (or other sudden-onset disaster) might destroy a person’s home and seemingly force relocation; however, many people would argue that they still had a choice in relocating, albeit a limited one. In my work in Indonesia, we found that many participants moved after landslides damaged their homes, but others chose to stay and rebuild (in some cases, living in temporary shelters on their property while repairing their homes). Others did not move after one major event, but after being experiencing repeated damage from many smaller landslides. Thus, in the context of environmental exposures, distinguishing between voluntary/involuntary moves is extremely challenging.

The resulting lack of consistency when describing voluntary vs. involuntary moves has led to confusion. Some scholars use “environmental migration” to include all types of moves made in part or in whole because of the environment. This phrase was popularized in response to backlash surrounding the use of the term “environmental refugee” which invokes a host of complex legal implications.2 However, because “migrant” does imply some element of choice, sometimes the word “forced” is appended (“forced environmental migration”) to indicate that these moves are not entirely voluntary. “Forced environmental migration” is often used synonymously with “environmental displacement,” but the inconsistent use of these terms is confusing and reduces easy comparison across studies. Because of this, I argue that when referring to all types of moves (both voluntary/involuntary) the term “environmental mobility” is preferable to “environmental migration” because it more clearly encompasses a wider range of movements.

Using environmental mobility to refer to all ambiguous environmentally related moves is one way to clarify our discussions. Another is to allow those experiencing environmental mobility to define themselves – did the people who experienced a natural disaster feel forced to move? Many participants in my study on landslides in Indonesia felt that that they had little control or agency to choose to stay or move, while others felt that they made their own choices despite a limited range of options. Allowing individuals to self-define affords them autonomy and dignity and would improve our ability to more accurately describe and study environmental mobility.

Ultimately, it is worth considering that the fixation on the voluntary/involuntary (displacement/migration) binary may obfuscate other important considerations. Instead of focusing on whether a move was forced or not, we may want to highlight other elements of a move: whether it was made before or after a natural disaster, how many times a person moved, whether the move was temporary or permanent, or how far a person traveled. These aspects of mobility may tell us more about the potential health or economic impacts of a move than if that move was voluntary or involuntary.

Many scholars are already considering these dimensions of mobility. However, a renewed commitment to clarifying our language and justifying which elements of mobility we are assessing would allow for a more nuanced understanding of environmentally driven moves and their impacts. Reflecting more critically on creating a shared lexicon will not only help improve our own research and collaborations but will also improve the way we communicate our findings to the media, policymakers, and the public.


Burrows, K. 2020. How to talk about environmental mobility. Tropical Resources 39, 00–00.

  1. Kate is a PhD candidate and National Geographic Explorer studying environmental epidemiology at Yale University. She is broadly interested in the relationship between humans and our environment, and how these interactions impact public health. Her doctoral work focuses on the relationship between climate change and environmentally-driven mobility in Indonesia and mental health outcomes. Kate is trained in mixed-methods public health research and is committed to community-based participatory research.
  2. The legal definition of a refugee “is someone who is unable or unwilling to return to their country of origin owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group, or political opinion”. Whether or not the environment should be added to this definition has been widely debated over the last few decades and is outside the scope of this commentary.

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