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Climate displacement: The next wave?

Submitted by on 30 Mar 2016 – 12:30

Experts anticipate that the vast majority of displacement stemming from climate change effects will be internal, leaving the most climate-vulnerable countries with the burden of responding to displacement due to the actions of richer, more developed countries.  Alice Thomas, Climate Displacement – Program Manager, Refugees International says we may be overwhelmed by the next wave of displacement and migration “far sooner than we think”

Alice ThomasAs record numbers of people continue to flee war and persecution, there is growing public concern regarding whether the world is ready to protect millions more who will be uprooted by more extreme weather, sea level rise, and other effects brought on by climate change. This includes not only forced displacement from major floods, storms, and other disasters that already displace tens of millions of people each year (1),  but also increased migration resulting from growing food insecurity and loss of livelihoods. Low-lying islands and other coastal populations are particularly vulnerable to inundation and sea level rise, as are indigenous populations whose lives and cultures are closely tied to land and natural resources. Tragically, this is already happening to Native Alaskan communities who, due to increased storm surge, permafrost melt, and loss of arctic sea ice, are already being forced to retreat inland. (2)

Unfortunately, the international refugee and migration regimes offer little in the way of solutions. While often referred to as “climate refugees,” those uprooted by climate change do not fall neatly within the 1951 Refugee Convention, which affords international protection to those fleeing their countries due to a “well-founded fear of persecution … for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion.” (3)

Meanwhile, proposals to revise the Refugee Convention, or for a new international convention, to protect those displaced by climate change have fallen flat. In a world that is failing miserably to protect the 60 million people fleeing conflict, the reluctance among governments to grant asylum to potentially millions of vulnerable people who may be displaced by global warming is hardly surprising. But it is definitely disappointing given the fact that in most cases neither they nor their governments will have contributed much in the way of greenhouse gas emissions.

Lack of political will aside, many complex questions remain regarding the link between climate change and human mobility that the current refugee and migration regimes are ill-suited to address. Chief among them is the issue of causation – in other words, the reason a person is forced to flee and in need of protection. In the case of sudden-onset events like typhoons and floods, not all of these hazards can be attributed to climate change as opposed to naturally-occurring weather events (despite recent progress in climate attribution science (4),  for example, assertions that climate change played a role in unprecedented flooding in the UK. (5))

In addition, evidence shows that man-made factors such as deforestation, land degradation, and lack of coastal protection serve to compound the extent of damage and drive up the numbers of people who are rendered homeless by these disasters. In the case of more slowly unfolding, climate change-related phenomena like recurrent drought, erratic rainfall, and increased temperatures that undermine traditional livelihoods, it remains difficult to determine the extent to which other socio-economic factors contributed to the decision to move and how to distinguish “climate migration” from ordinary, economic migration.

Moreover, experts anticipate that the vast majority of displacement stemming from climate change effects will be internal, meaning that neither the international refugee nor migration regimes would apply. This means leaving the most climate-vulnerable countries themselves – most of which are poor and underdeveloped to begin with – with the burden of responding to displacement due to the actions of richer, more developed countries.

The good news is that important groundwork was laid in 2015 that promises to move us closer to international consensus on how to address the issue. In October, 109 governments endorsed an “Agenda for the Protection of Cross-Border Displaced Persons in the Context of Disasters and Climate Change.” (6) The Protection Agenda is the culmination of a two-year consultative process with governments known as the Nansen Initiative led by the Swiss and Norwegian governments.

As the title indicates, the Nansen Initiative Protection Agenda applies to those displaced “in the context of disasters and climate change” thereby taking a more holistic approach to the complex causation questions. Moreover, rather than proposing a new global arrangement, the Protection Agenda proposes that solutions be pursued on a regional level and build upon a broad set of existing displacement, migration, and refugee policies and practices that have been employed by governments to protect people in such crises (e.g., humanitarian visas, temporary protection status) which can serve as a “tool box” for countries to build upon.

The regional approach is likely to prove more effective since how climate change acts to drive population movement, and how certain countries and their neighbors decide to address the issue, is likely to vary from region to region. For example, in the case of small-island nations who want to do everything possible to keep their populations and territory, the Agenda specifies that the relocation of communities be pursued only as a last resort. Where adaptation is no longer sufficient to protect people in place, and planned movement of populations becomes necessary, the Agenda calls for “migration with dignity” to avoid the particular risks that migration presents such as discrimination, exploitation, and trafficking.

Moreover, although the Nansen Initiative was initially aimed at protecting those already on the move, the Protection Agenda goes further to identify priority action areas to prevent displacement. These include scaling up investments in reducing disaster risk and building resilience of vulnerable populations to climate stress. In doing so, the Protection Agenda takes a proactive approach often absent from refugee and migration laws and policies while linking climate-related displacement to the broader disaster risk reduction, resilience, and climate change adaptation agendas from which it, to date, has been largely absent.

A second breakthrough came in Paris in December when 195 governments signed an historic agreement to combat climate change as part of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) (7). The agreement has been lauded for putting the world on a path to keep temperatures “well below” 2°C which, if achieved, would go a long way toward allowing people to remain where they are. The Agreement also commits developing and fast developing countries to ramp up financial assistance to help the most climate-vulnerable countries adapt to climate change. Going forward, climate finance must be put toward measures specifically aimed at minimizing displacement.

But that is not all. The Paris outcome goes further by calling for the establishment of a “task force” to develop recommendations for integrated approaches to “avert, minimize and address displacement related to the adverse effects of climate change.” (8) Its establishment represents a new forum under the UNFCCC for building consensus on how to address the issue and recognizes displacement as a form of loss and damage to affected countries and communities that requires redress.

Neither the Nansen Protection Agenda nor the new task force under the UNFCCC is a silver bullet, however. Left unanswered are important questions regarding how to ensure that migration or relocation programs are sufficiently funded, whether countries have an obligation to assist and protect those displaced by climate change, and whether those whose homelands are rendered uninhabitable will be remunerated for their losses. But with scientific evidence mounting that the world is warming and sea levels rising far more quickly than previously anticipated (9),  finding solutions must be prioritized. We may be overwhelmed by the next wave of displacement and migration far sooner than we think


1. IDMC (2015). Global Estimates 2015: People Displaced by Disasters. Available at: http://www.internal-displacement.org/assets/library/Media/201507-globalEstimates-2015/20150713-global-estimates-2015-en-v1.pdf [Accessed 13 January 2016].

2. Bronen, R (2013). Climate-Induced Displacement of Alaska Native Communities. Available at: http://www.brookings.edu/research/papers/2013/01/30-arctic-alaska-bronen [Accessed 13 January 2016].

3. United Nations Human Rights (1951). Convention relating to the Status of Refugees. Available at: http://www.ohchr.org/EN/ProfessionalInterest/Pages/StatusOfRefugees.aspx [Accessed 13 January 2016].

4. Earth System Research Laboratory (2015).  Interpreting Climate Conditions: Why Attribution? Available at: http://www.esrl.noaa.gov/psd/csi/why/ [Accessed 13 January 2016].

5. Cookston, C (2016), “Climate Change Strongly Linked to UK Flooding”, Financial Times 8 January. Available at: http://www.ft.com/cms/s/0/831d04d4-b5ee-11e5-b147-e5e5bba42e51.html#axzz3x95BThO4 [Accessed 13 January 2016].

6. The Nansen Initiative (2015). Global Consultation Report. Available at: https://www.nanseninitiative.org/global-consultations/ [Accessed 13 January 2016].

7. UNFCC (2015). The Paris Agreement. Available at: http://unfccc.int/resource/docs/2015/cop21/eng/l09r01.pdf [Accessed 13 January 2016].

8. UNFCC (2015). The Paris Agreement. Available at: http://unfccc.int/resource/docs/2015/cop21/eng/l09r01.pdf paragraph 50[Accessed 13 January 2016].

9. Hansen, J. et al (2015).  Ice melt, sea level rise and superstorms: evidence from paleoclimate data, climate modeling, and modern observations that 2 C global warming is highly dangerous. Available at: http://www.atmos-chem-phys-discuss.net/15/20059/2015/acpd-15-20059-2015.pdf [Accessed 13 January 2016].