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Environment and Mobility: A View from Four Discourses


Debate and literature on the link between degrading environments and human mobility has been increasing exponentially. There is little concrete evidence, however, of efforts or policies that support the management of environmentally influenced mobility. Through discourse analysis using Q-methodology, this research aimed to scrutinize the standoff between opposing views under a fresh lens. One-hundred and ninety-seven experts from 49 nations completed an on-line survey asking them to sort, by level of agreement, 42 statements gleaned from the literature concerning the environment-mobility nexus. Four very different discourses emerged: determined humanists, benevolent pragmatists, cynical protectionists, and critical realists. The complexity of these discourses helps explain the stalemate while confirming the inappropriateness of one-sided terminology and linear quantifications. Despite diametrically opposed viewpoints, experts unanimously agree that human mobility is connected to environmental change. Dissection of these social perspectives builds a new foundation for the Rio+20 analysis and policy deliberations related to environmentally influenced human mobility.

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Fig. 2


  1. The definition of “refugee”, first provided under Article 1A of the 1951 UN Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, and amended by the 1967 Protocol, has four key parts:

    • the person must be outside their country of nationality or former habitual residence;

    • the person must fear persecution;

    • the fear of persecution must be for reasons of one of the five convention grounds (race, nationality, religion, membership of a particular social group or political opinion); and

    • the fear must be well founded.

  2. Webler’s criteria for choice of factors are simplicity, clarity, distinctness, and stability.

  3. A consensus statement is one that agrees across all factors both in sign (i.e., positive [agreement]/negative [disagreement]) and in scale (a divergence of less than one standard error between the highest and lowest scores).

  4. Flight from environmental degradation or climate change has many pathways. Three are captured in recent research by Renaud et al. (2011): (1) environmental emergency migrants/displacees who flee the worst of an environmental impact on a permanent or temporary basis; (2) environmentally forced migrants who “have to leave” to avoid the worst of environmental deterioration; (3) environmentally motivated migrants who “may leave” a steadily deteriorating environment in order to pre-empt the worst.


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Correspondence to Lezlie C. Erway Morinière.

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Morinière, L.C.E., Hamza, M. Environment and Mobility: A View from Four Discourses. AMBIO 41, 795–807 (2012).

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  • Environmentally influenced mobility
  • Complexity
  • Environmental change
  • Discourse
  • Q-methodology