The first climate refugees? Contesting global narratives of climate change in Tuvalu

Climate change effects such as sea-level rise are almost certain. What these outcomes mean for different populations, however, is far less certain. Climate change is both a narrative and material phenomenon. In so being, understanding climate change requires broad conceptualisations that incorporate multiple voices and recognise the agency of vulnerable populations. In climate change discourse, climate mobility is often characterised as the production of ‘refugees’, with a tendency to discount long histories of ordinary mobility among affected populations. The case of Tuvalu in the Pacific juxtaposes migration as everyday practice with climate refugee narratives. This climate-exposed population is being problematically positioned to speak for an entire planet under threat. Tuvaluans are being used as the immediate evidence of displacement that the climate change crisis narrative seems to require. Those identified as imminent climate refugees are being held up like ventriloquists to present a particular (western) ‘crisis of nature’. Yet Tuvaluan conceptions of climate challenges and mobility practices show that more inclusive sets of concepts and tools are needed to equitably and effectively approach and characterise population mobility.

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