Climate change is acting as a catalyst on migration, both forced and voluntary, adding to international anxiety about existing patterns of human displacement. One of the first acts of the new US President, Joe Biden, was to order a study into the options for resettling persons displaced by climate change.
This particular climate impact is most readily conjured in the public imagination as an 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.
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.
A World Bank study of the three most vulnerable continental regions estimates that land occupied by 143 million people will become unviable by 2050 due to slow-onset climate change impacts. Apart from sea level rise, these include desertification and water scarcity.
Sudden onset disasters such as extreme weather events have increased in intensity to the extent that many governments provide for emergency temporary evacuations of entire local populations, as an adaptation measure. Such facilities, now a common defence against cyclones in South Asia, have already saved countless lives. However, homes remain vulnerable to destruction, provoking their occupants to relocate.
According to the Internal Displacement Monitoring Center, 30 million people were forced from their homes in 2020 on account of extreme weather, by far the largest cause of internal displacement. Oxfam research has demonstrated that displacement caused by extreme weather events is 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 on account of climate change, 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.
The prospect of regions emptying of their inhabitants as they become “beyond adaptation” is already exercising the international community. 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.
This question was tested by a citizen of the Pacific island nation of Kiribati who argued that his home was no longer safe from the sea. His application for protection in New Zealand was analogous to a refugee seeking political asylum. Although a UN human rights committee ruled against the application, its assessment and the reaction of the New Zealand government were both sympathetic to the principle that a climate refugee should not be forced to return to a place where a normal life is impossible.
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. The Paris Climate Agreement of 2015 delivered belated recognition that the many ambiguities presented by climate migration deserve international attention. A task force has been established on potential approaches to address displacement related to the adverse impacts of climate change.
François Crépeau, the former UN Special Rapporteur on the human rights of migrants, controversially proposed that climate-induced migration should be considered as a proactive adaptation strategy. The government of Bangladesh is believed to be considering such an approach and the International Organization for Migration has likewise expressed the view that migration could be as much a solution to climate change as a problem.
An opposite view, gaining ground, insists that climate displacement, whether internal or across a border, should be contemplated only as the very last resort. Stabilising the climate through net-zero carbon goals is the fundamental solution, supported as necessary by determined investment in adaptation to enable communities to remain in their homes.
Some resemblance to this hierarchical approach can be found in The UN Global Compact on Migration, a new framework of international of cooperation that aims to implement safe, orderly and regular migration. Adopted in 2018, the Compact addresses climate displacement issues in some detail, including those specific to crossing national borders. It is possible that an eventual solution to the rights of climate displaced persons could be found through this framework.