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Who is the climate-induced trapped figure?

Ayeb-Karlsson, Sonja; Baldwin, Andrew

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Sonja Ayeb-Karlsson


Many will remember the 1990s alarmist narratives of how a human tide of up to a billion climate refugees would flood “our” borders by 2050. By 2011, a new character joined the discourse: the trapped figure. No longer would climatically vulnerable people be forced to move, they could also end up immobile. This review examines the narratives that surround the trapped figure. The article highlights the trapped figure's (i) characterisation, (ii) geography, and (iii) storytellers. The material includes the 2011 Foresight Report, 64 English peer-reviewed journal articles, and seven UNFCCC policy reports. The textual analysis furthers our understanding of the values that shape the meaning of the trapped figure within the wider discursive economy. Out of the 64 articles, 48 located the trapped figure in Asia, while 34 placed the figure in Africa. Meanwhile, the majority of articles—62 in total—were written by scholars based at European research institutes. The study shows that the trapped figure, much as the mythical climate refugee and migrant, is constructed as both a victim in need of rescuing and as an ambiguous security threat. It is ethically problematic that planned relocation was often put forward as an effective tool to “move” the figure out of harm's way. The review also found a range of binary opposites in the discourse on trapped populations, including those of order–disorder, freedom–unfreedom, and victim–savior. This suggests that however well-intentioned the liberal discourse on trapped populations appear, it remains embedded in power relations which demands for critical scrutiny.


Ayeb-Karlsson, S., & Baldwin, A. (2022). Who is the climate-induced trapped figure?. Wiley Interdisciplinary Reviews: Climate Change, 13(6), Article e803.

Journal Article Type Article
Acceptance Date Aug 23, 2022
Online Publication Date Oct 23, 2022
Publication Date 2022-11
Deposit Date Oct 2, 2022
Publicly Available Date Mar 22, 2023
Journal Wiley Interdisciplinary Reviews: Climate Change
Print ISSN 1757-7780
Publisher Wiley
Peer Reviewed Peer Reviewed
Volume 13
Issue 6
Article Number e803


Published Journal Article (4.8 Mb)

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Copyright Statement
© 2022 The Authors. WIREs Climate Change published by Wiley Periodicals LLC.<br /> <br /> This is an open access article under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License, which permits use, distribution and reproduction in any medium, provided the original work is properly cited.

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