Human mobility associated with climate change is a growing global reality. There are regular warnings about climate change impacts creating significant numbers of displaced people, and presenting an international security risk.

We hear significantly less often from those whose lives and homes are in danger. It is even rarer that their wealth of knowledge – based on lived experience in fragile or hazardous places – is included in policy and planning. And community-based, participatory research and planning is hardly ever conducted with a focus on the intertwined challenges of mobility, climate change, and human security.

This must change. The Global Compact for Migration urges us to “strengthen joint analysis and sharing of information to better map, understand, predict and address migration movements, such as those that may result from sudden-onset and slow onset natural disasters, the adverse effects of climate change, environmental degradation, as well as other precarious situations, while ensuring the effective respect, protection and fulfilment of the human rights of all migrants”.

This, arguably, should start with the genuine inclusion of communities facing serious climate change impacts in the production of knowledge, in policy and in planning. Advancing the security of all nation states in a changing climate starts with advancing the human security of future migrants themselves.

A fresh approach to “climate change migration” is needed that takes human security as its starting point, captured here in seven steps:

1) Decarbonize the global economy

Reducing global temperature increases will reduce the risk of population displacements.

2) Do not make assumptions

It should never be assumed that people on the move are problems to be solved, nor do they necessarily want to permanently move to the industrialised world.

3) Adopt a mobilities perspective

The world is a complex system already in flux. A mobilities perspective can direct fruitful attention to the agency and wellbeing of mobile people because it focuses less on the artificial question of what causes people to move, and more on facilitating safe mobility. Mobility-related risks must be recognized and addressed. But equally, new thinking is needed about mobile forms of livelihood diversification, contributing to adaptation to climate change across multiple sites.

4) Direct more resources to disaster prevention and in situ adaptation to slow-onset climate change impacts

Deterioration into untenable living conditions is less likely when donors, governments and civil society seek to work with communities to build climate resilience, particularly through long-term structural changes such as access to education. This can achieve results at a fraction of the cost of post-disaster relief or defence operations.

5) Start from the community scale and build upwards

Since international and national policy frameworks are often thwarted in climate change mobility planning by highly emotive politics, planning could be fruitfully focussed on the community level and be scaled upwards. Communities are neither apolitical nor homogenous; but the scale of communities may be more appropriate to debate and plan for the opportunities and effects of the displacement of individuals, households and communities, particularly within national borders.

6) Create real opportunities for people living in highly vulnerable places to be active agents in shaping their future

Those experiencing stress and fear about losing their homes from slow-onset climate change impacts may benefit from participating in policy and planning processes that are both sensitive to their beliefs and needs, and empower them to make difficult choices. To date, policy and planning for climate change migration has typically been top-down, involving little collaboration with at-risk communities. Capacity-building for community scale mobility planning is needed globally.

7) Stop sensationalising climate change and displacement

Sensationalism is no substitute for science. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change clearly states “there are no robust global estimates of future displacement, but there is significant evidence that planning and increased mobility can reduce the human security costs of displacement from extreme weather events”.

The identification of international security risks associated with climate change often draw on extremely large “predictions” without indication of peer-review or methodology. These large numbers circulate as a self-referencing, self-evident claim largely divorced from science, something that should never be tolerated in evidence-based policy. The climate migration risk to international security should derive its legitimacy from science not sensationalism.