The most severe impacts of climate change act as a catalyst on migration, both forced and voluntary, adding to international anxiety about existing patterns of human displacement.

This phenomenon is most readily conjured in the public imagination as a small island in the Pacific disappearing under rising seas, leaving its population with no choice but to seek a new home country. There could be no more vivid illustration of climate injustice, the footprint of contemporary lifestyles on distant minorities with no powers of restitution.

Citizens of many small island states unquestionably face this prospect within a generation but other slow onset disasters such as desertification, are likely to impose similar pressures, and on much larger numbers.

Concerns about sea level also focus on densely populated areas of low-lying cities. Some of the world’s most famous coastal cities feature in doom-laden predictions of their inundation.

The prospect of regions emptying their inhabitants as they become “beyond adaptation” is already exercising the international community. Sudden disasters such as extreme weather events are becoming more frequent although displacement is more likely to be confined within national borders, with some prospect of returning home. Oxfam research has demonstrated that displacement caused by extreme weather events between 2008 and 2016 was five times more likely to affect people in poorer countries than those in richer economies.

Approximate upper estimates suggest that, by 2050, 250 million people will have taken the bigger step of entering a new country, a figure similar to today’s entire migrant worker population. At the other end of the migration spectrum will be the poorest families, perhaps unable to move anywhere, thereby remaining vulnerable to the greatest climate risks.

Environmental degradation will rarely be the sole factor in a decision to migrate, nor can it always be blamed unequivocally on climate change. Climate change and migration therefore bring yet more ambiguity to the task of classifying displacement as forced or voluntary, for the purpose of establishing rights of protection for those affected.

The UN Refugee Agency is uncomfortable with the terminology of “climate” or “environmental” refugees out of concern for destabilising the long-established rights of political asylum under the 1951 Refugee Convention. Such terminology is likely to continue, however, until such time as a consensual vision for climate migrants can be found.

François Crépeau, the former UN Special Rapporteur on the human rights of migrants, has controversially proposed that climate-induced migration should be considered as a proactive adaptation strategy. The International Organization for Migration has likewise expressed the view that migration could be as much a solution to climate change as a problem. Such views could exercise leverage in campaigns to escalate adaptation finance.

The Paris Climate Agreement of 2015 delivers belated recognition that the many ambiguities presented by climate migration deserve international attention. A task force has been established to explore integrated approaches to avert, minimize and address displacement related to the adverse impacts of climate change. Its recommendations are due by August 2018. A similar timescale also applies to the UN’s two proposed Global Compacts on Migration and Refugees, an opportunity to merge climate concerns with the broader agenda.

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more Climate Justice briefings (updated March 2018)
Climate Justice
Kyoto Protocol
Paris Climate Agreement
Climate Justice and Right to Development
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Loss and Damage
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