There is a real possibility that close to 20% of the planet’s land surface will be uninhabitable by 2070. For thousands of years humans have been living in a concentrated, narrow subset of the planet’s available climates. However, due to anthropogenic climate change, this climate niche is shrinking and shifting. According to a 2020 study by lead author Chi Xu and colleagues, on a business-as-usual climate change scenario, around one third of the global population is projected to experience climate extremes currently found in only about 0.8% of the planet. Absent climate mitigation and various forms of adaptation, the study predicts that temperature experienced by an average human is estimated to change more in just a few decades than it has over the past six millennia. Given that some regions may become more habitable as the niche shifts, we can expect that the human geography of the planet is likely to transform in the coming decades.
The impact this will have on human well-being is complex and hard to predict. What we do know is that vulnerability and risk under the conditions of a shrinking and shifting niche are not distributed equally across the planet and its peoples. The extent of the impact on human well-being will depend on societal responses that address the inequalities and injustices stemming from distributions that span both time and territorial space. Political, social, and economic decisions about infrastructure, including the social and built environment, rights, public services, health care, housing, governance schemes, and a range of other elements will play a significant role in determining whether climate impacts will exacerbate current inequalities and increase negative impacts on human well-being. In this way, global climate change and how we respond to it are laden with significant normative consequences and considerations about what justice requires of us.
We must ask how a justice-based approach to the moral and practical demands of our changing climate niche can meet the task of providing an evaluative framework and a principled means by which we can respond. Three tasks are important to this end. First, we must be attentive to and intentional in the way we frame the issue. How we identify the problem will have consequences for what we recognize as the wrongs needing redress, who has standing, and who bears duties to offer redress. Second, we need some evaluative criteria with which to compare states of affairs and proposed policy solutions. That is, we need a way to help us decide which solutions are better and which should be avoided. Finally, our solutions to these issues should not be slapdash or ad hoc but rather generalizable and widely applicable. At the same time, given the variety of human experience and the diverse ways in which climate change affects us, our approach must also be suitably context sensitive.
This is surely a daunting undertaking. One way to begin to approach these challenges is to examine the relationship between human mobilities and climate impacts and to develop a framework for climate mobilities justice. The reason for this is two-fold. While movement in response to climate shifts is part of a trend in human history, the increased scope and severity of both slow-onset and rapid-onset climate impacts are expected to intensify and change how and whether humans can or will move. It is thus a significant part of how human well-being is impacted by a shifting niche. Furthermore, identifying justice-based obligations to address negative climate mobility outcomes requires a normative framework that is generalizable yet comprehensive enough to address the diversity of contexts from which mobility outcomes arise.
If an account of climate mobilities justice is to accomplish the tasks introduced earlier, then it should be able to account for our obligation to those vulnerable to negative mobility outcomes, establish the correlative right they – or others on their behalf – can claim, and should be sufficiently pluralistic in order to address the heterogeneity of mobility outcomes. The way we have framed, evaluated, and tried to solve this issue has often failed on one or more of these desiderata. I propose an alternative approach. I argue that an account of climate mobilities justice must address the normatively relevant elements of our embodied relationship to livable spaces. By focusing on livability and articulating the normative significance of livable space for embodied humans within the international state system, I establish that people who are at risk and vulnerable to negative mobility outcomes have a claim to a right the state system ought to protect: the right to a livable locality.
The relationship between mobility outcomes and climate change is complex and involves a series of intersecting considerations that arise from historical, demographic, social, economic, political, and environmental contexts. To address the moral landscape that characterizes this complex relationship, I focus on climate mobilities rather than migration or displacement. I use the term to refer to the range and diversity of mobility outcomes. These include considerations of movement in the forms of both cross-border and internal migration, as well as immobility. By avoiding a mobility bias in our theorizing, we can understand movement and immobility outcomes as occurring along a spectrum from voluntary, to pre-emptive, to forced. Consequently, our theorizing can provide a moral evaluative framework for a range of possible solutions and policy approaches which are not limited to ameliorative immigration policies.
I argue that climate-induced displacement, migration, and immobility do not emerge as some natural phenomenon even though such outcomes are impacted by weather events or deteriorating environmental conditions. Instead, the plight of those impacted or vulnerable to negative climate mobility outcomes is caused, in part, by features of the global state system.
A defining feature of this system is its territorial basis. The territorial map of states is a map of effective and presumed jurisdictional authority over fixed spatial boundaries across land, air, and water areas. The all-encompassing nature of the state system, along with the presumption of a territorial notion of sovereignty, results in a system that establishes conditions for the effective or legal exclusion of people from one space or another depending on where they are located.
A frame by which we can understand this organization of power and authority is to view the state system as a social practice. Briefly put, I understand a social practice to be one that coordinates the actions of different agents according to some presumed set of shared ends or aims by way of commonly recognized social understandings. How might we understand the international state system as a social practice? And why does this help explain the nature of the wrong of vulnerability to negative climate mobility outcomes? Let me explain.
The structure of the state system, whose origins are often cited as the result of the 1648 Treaties of Westphalia, ushered in a distinct model of power distribution. The move away from feudalistic society and towards a decentralized power structure was justified in light of promised periods of peace. States would be understood as sources of protection that enable the provision of resources, security, etc. When understanding the state system as a social practice, we can evaluate whether its decentralized organizational structure is justified in light of these purported aims of peace and stability.
When people within the global state system experience negative climate mobility outcomes, the legitimacy of the state system is brought into question. Since humans are embodied beings, we must be in some physical space, usually close to the earth’s surface. This means that in a world entirely carved up into states, all people at any given time tend to find themselves physically located within the purview of some sovereign power. For this power distribution to remain justifiable, people cannot be excluded by all sovereign jurisdictional authorities, as this would leave them with nowhere to effectively “be” in the system. It would leave them without any authority by which they could advance legitimate claims of protection. Under such conditions a state cannot justify arbitrary exclusion or lack of assistance by merely appealing to the exercise of sovereignty. Appeals to sovereignty, in this case, are no longer legitimate according to the aforementioned constitutive aims of the social practice. If the places one occupies are subject to environmental instability, it is not acceptable – by the social practice’s own lights - to leave decisions regarding inclusion, membership, or aid to the ad hoc choices of states. Those who are vulnerable to climate-related negative mobility outcomes should be understood as claimants who have lost access to a basic right they are entitled to claim against the social practice of the state system.
I argue that the relevant right in question is the right to a livable locality. To put it bluntly, one cannot effectively claim certain civil rights or political rights (such as the right to self-determination) if one is under water or stranded in a desert. The right to be somewhere livable conditions the sorts of rights that characterize one’s relationship to the state that would otherwise guard against unjustifiable forms of exclusion and vulnerability within the state system. The right to a livable locality is basic; its security is indispensable for the full enjoyment of other rights whose protection is an aim of the state practice. If a basic aim of the state is to provide conditions for stable self-governance, the climate-vulnerable persons’ claim to a livable space is not a special pleading. Rather, it is a demand for fair treatment under common understandings in a shared practice. Such a claim requires the state system, not necessarily any given state, to develop an adequate protection regime which distributes duties across states and actors to contribute to such protection.
To know whether the right is secured, we need to be able to evaluate if a space is livable. The capability approach offers tools that can help us in this task. The central claim of the capability approach is that assessments of well-being, and judgements about justice should not merely focus on the resources people have. It should instead focus on the effective opportunities that people have to live the lives they have reason to value.
The capability approach utilizes two central tools: functionings and capabilities. Functionings are a person’s beings and doings: they are the kinds of activities human beings can take on or certain states they can achieve, such as being healthy. Capabilities, on the other hand, are the opportunities or freedoms to achieve such functionings. Put simply, capabilities are what people are able to do or to be while functionings are the related achievements. The capabilities approach demonstrates why assessing whether a person has some resource is insufficient for determining the quality of life of a person. Say, for example, that the resource of fresh water is abundant in a particular location. If a person may not have anything to exchange for it, or they may lack access to the infrastructure that enables its collection, the mere existence of the water is not sufficient for well-being. A person could still be vulnerable to dehydration, and their health and life is put at risk. Regardless of the resource’s presence, the important functioning of “being healthy” may not be achieved.
The capability approach is helpful because it directs us to a range of considerations beyond resources. For example, it points to “conversion factors” such as personal, sociocultural, and environmental factors (including geography, as well as the built environment) that facilitate the conversion of resources into capabilities and enable the functioning of “being in a livable space” to be achieved. I suggest that livability may be conceptualized specifically as what I call a “relational functioning.” This conceptualization draws from a phenomenological notion of being. The body is not isolated from the conditions that support it, and such infrastructural conditions are further created as bodily activities shape them. They are part of the action of exercising rights and essential actions of the human body itself. One is always in an interdependent relation of adaptation and action within an environment that affords one’s actions just as much as it affords the circumstances to choose to act. When one has achieved “being in a livable locality,” one is in a continuing relationship between choices for action and the circumstances that afford such choices in a determinate space. “Being in a livable space” must include the basic resources afforded by a stable climate niche as well as the social structures and institutions which establish the conditions for pursuing membership and participation in the territorial state system.
How is this functioning hindered by a shifting human climate niche? Negative impacts to mobilities may include a loss of material goods, property, and other resources. But it also includes a lack of relevant conversion factors and institutions. For example, one might experience epistemic deprivations that stem from the loss of infrastructural conditions. Such epistemic wrongs manifest materially and illuminate why the loss of social and other institutions are morally relevant.
Consider the following case.
In speaking to precarious conditions for her community and home in Shishmaref, Alaska, Allison Anisaaluk Nayokpuk illuminates the possibility of such a loss if her community is forced to locate: “If we move, it won’t be the same because it wouldn’t be the Shishmaref that everyone knows.” For Indigenous peoples in the U.S., the forms of deprivation associated with negative climate mobilities occur within the larger context of colonialism and territorial dispossession which compelled resettlement away from tribal homelands or disrupted traditional practices of mobility. These historic cases of displacement and resettlement contributed to the loss and disruption of knowledge formation Indigenous people experience in the context of climate change. As Kyle Whyte summarises, “lost too are the lessons Indigenous peoples learned across their histories of resistance and problem-solving having experienced different forms of resettlement before those associated with climate change today.” In addition to the loss of localities inexorably linked with identities and history, and the loss of material land or property, epistemic deprivations due to the loss of institutions and infrastructural conditions compound the injustices stemming from colonialism. This is because the infrastructural conditions and institutions which allow for the translation of knowledge of space into meaning, livelihood, and the possibility of effective adaptation are no longer stable or existent.
Access to (or restriction from) certain livable spaces can also impact opportunities for political and social engagement. Being in a livable space is fundamental to human life within a state system, as it makes this network of relations available. A failure to achieve this functioning hinders the possibility to form relationships or various networks that are stable enough to ensure the ability to reasonably plan and coordinate future action.
Being able to live within a human climate niche in the way livability specifies may require changes to particular spaces and that new spaces be made accessible. Furthermore, if certain conditions enable the opportunities to pursue the various capabilities afforded by membership in the state system, the requisite changes would have to be relevant for the localities in question. Given the differences in geographical, social, and political settings of such localities, different resources and conversion factors may be required given the various forms of relations between people and the nature of the spaces they occupy.
Thus, livability, understood as a functioning, provides the normative grounds for assessing requirements of adaptation that emerge for and from the social practice of the state system. Livability requires an expanded consideration of what forms of protection and adaptation are reasonably expected given the organizational structure and aims of the practice. In this sense, a framework of climate mobilities justice grounded by the right to a livable locality offers a principled approach which is appropriately sensitive to context.
Consequently, the right to a livable locality includes an obligation to consider and devise community-based, context-specific policy responses that include – but expand beyond – ameliorative cross-border immigration policies. In understanding livability as a normatively relevant functioning, it becomes apparent that climate mobility is also a matter of foreign assistance for in situ adaptation, as well as other policies related to social protection, the built environment, and human security.
What broader considerations about justice for a shifting climate niche does livability and climate mobilities justice engender? For one, it centralizes the need for us to consider how the distribution of climate impacts is not merely environmental. Where and how we are situated and impacted by the shifting and shrinking climate niche is not incidental. This positionality and relationship to the spaces we occupy results from the way we are distributed within a territorially based social practice that is all-encompassing and possibly exclusionary. Most importantly, the extent to which one’s mobility will be negatively impacted results from whether a normatively relevant way of “being” in the state system is achievable. Its achievement depends on access to – and interactions with – a range of factors, resources, infrastructure, and systems that allow for the possibility of being in the circumstances that afford adaptive choices and actions in a determinate space.
The practice-centred framework for climate mobilities justice I have argued for exemplifies the way in which principled progress toward justice can and ought to be context-sensitive and pluralistic. As we move towards addressing the interlocking injustices and challenges that characterize planetary change, including the daunting task of developing climate mobilities policy, the livability framework prompts us to consider that justice requires multi-faceted approaches that expand how we conceptualize adaptation obligations to better account for the material and dynamic relationship between people and the places they occupy.
Simona Capisani is a Climate Futures Initiative in Science, Values, and Policy Postdoctoral Research Associate at Princeton University in the Centre for Human Values and the High Meadows Environmental Institute. She holds a PhD in Philosophy from the University of California, Irvine as well as a Feminist Emphasis Certificate from the Department of Gender and Sexuality Studies. Her areas of specialty are in political and social philosophy, feminist philosophy, climate justice, and climate-related mobilities, migration, and displacement.