Understanding the role of social inequality is crucial if we are to unravel the climate impact, human adaption and migration nexus, but there is limited empirical evidence addressing it, especially in urban settings. In our study recently published in Population and Environment (Tan et al. 2015) as part of the Climate Change and Migration in China project funded by the Australian Research Council, we consider social inequality from three major dimensions: material inequality (the economic), social status inequality (the social) and power inequality (the political). Our consideration was based on the theories of socio-spatial inequality (Sheppard 2002) and social inequality (Goldthorpe 2010). Taking China’s Yangzi River Delta as a case study area, our study provides new evidence that suggests households with low socio-economic status (characterised as renting housing, working on low-skill-end jobs, holding low-level educational attainment, and having little social connection with their family and other people) exhibit a higher probability of experiencing more adverse climate impacts. All factors measuring social inequality exacerbate the adverse climate effects on already disadvantaged groups and impede their capacity to carry out in-situ adaptation or migration in response.
Inequality risk is not shared equally and is dependent on access to various social and economic assets (Crompton 2008). As such, rural-to-urban migrants are expected to face disproportionate inequality risk, exacerbating their capacity to move or integrate into urban centres. Particularly, inequality among migrants is likely to intensify in the era of urbanisation in China. The New-Style Urbanisation Plan (2014-2020) (State Council of China 2014), which is the first strategic plan guiding the healthy development of China’s urbanisation, seeks to divert migrants from mega-cities (with a population of over 5 million) to small and medium-scaled centres (less than 1 million population) because mega-cities are disproportionately experiencing climate impacts, severe resource scarcity (Liu 2012; Xu et al. 2014) and substantial age-pension deficits (Peng 2011). The projected rapid aging of China’s population and a shrinking workforce over the next 20 years have given the issue even greater significance.
To date there has been little research into how multiple inequalities in China influence migrants’ decisions over their future migration patterns in terms of level, form and destination of movements. Nor has there been any systematic research to measure inequality and spatial mobility experienced by migrant groups according to gender, age, economic condition, original household registration (hukou) status and residential place. Understanding and identifying the unique challenges that diverse migrant groups confront in the context of climate change and rapid urbanisation is fundamental for developing targeted and effective policy to reduce inequality, improve adaptive capacity, and promote reasonable migration that is beneficial to sustainable urbanisation. Hence further research is needed to extend the current literature in three key areas:
- Developing stronger theoretical foundations: It is important to bring socio-ecological and socio-spatial inequality theories together as a means of understanding the complexity of social inequality and its impact on climate adaptation and migration behaviour. For example, the social-ecological dimension improves our knowledge of how a range of dynamic and complex inequality risk factors are related to people’ migration behaviour (Stokols 1996). Mobility choice is viewed as a function of individual factors and socially constructed conditions – such as Chinese hukou status, segmentation of the labour market, and access to social protection schemes and social services – and as interacting with spatial, climatic and other environmental factors. The social-ecological perspective moves the focus in adaptation and migration research from the investigation of separate ‘proximate’ causes (e.g. wage differentials between rural and urban areas) and highlights the importance of broader ‘fundamental causes’ (e.g. socio-economic status, access to social protection) in the production of adaptation and migration.
- Focusing on migrant groups, not averages: Studies reveal that inequality is disproportionately concentrated across migrant groups – the new generation (born in 1980 and after) of migrant workers (Duan and Ma 2011), those with little education and training (Han et al. 2011), and those in high risk jobs (construction) (Xia et al. 2012). These groups, their social security/welfare conditions and subsequent impacts on adaptation/migration behaviour, are either absent or hidden in existing large data sets and analysis (China Census or national floating population surveys). Further study that refocuses at the disaggregated level will be particularly needed.
- Acknowledging context dependence: In different spatial, demographic and socio-economic settings, the same inequality issue can have different effects on migrants’ lie and wellbeing in cities and on their migration behaviour depending on the context (Rye 2006; World Bank 2014). Hence evidence from one urban setting or migrant group cannot simply be translated to another setting or migrant group. It is important to develop a focused understanding of the ways that social inequality acts to influence the adaptation and migration behaviour of migrant workers, particularly those most vulnerable.
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