Climate Change & Forced Displacement

Event Report: Climate Change & Forced Displacement

Watch the full event and read about the panelists on our Climate Change & Forced Displacement event page.

As part of the World Refugee & Migration Council’s (WRMC) project seeking innovative solutions for the global governance of climate displacement, the WRMC held a virtual event with the University of Toronto’s Massey College to discuss and explore gaps in international governance and legal protection frameworks for the forcibly displaced.

Experts from Brazil, Canada and the United States engaged in a north-south dialogue to address managed retreat, the role of local community adaptation in the absence of national action, the applicability of the 1951 Convention and refugee designation for climate causes, and the multifaceted characteristics of climate displacement.

WRMC’s Rosemary McCarney moderated the discussion with Dr. Robert McLeman from Wilfrid Laurier University, Dr. Erika Pires Ramos of the South American Network for Environmental Migrations, and A.R. Siders from the University of Delaware about the rapidly accelerating challenges around climate displacement as the world prepares for COP26.

The discussion began with an overview of the size and scale of climate displacement needing to be confronted and addressed. Dr. McLeman remarked that weather related events displace tens of millions of people worldwide each year – in the first 6 months of 2020 weather related disasters led to the displacement of an estimated 9.8 million people alone.  Further, climate change brought about by human activities that lead to desertification, deforestation, rising sea levels and other aspects of climate change are going to increase the severity and commonality of these events, increasing climate change induced migration and displacement.

The panelists discussed four “sets of uncertainties” facing the world regarding climate change, and how confronting them in the next 10-15 years may be able to address climate induced migration for the foreseeable future. 

  1. Greenhouse gas emissions – if the Paris Agreement is implemented to its fullest extent, then the world should be able to avoid many of the worst-case scenarios that accompany the continuation of the current trend in climate change.
  2. Development pathways – currently over a billion people live on less than one dollar a day, in a more equitable world people have more capacity to adapt to changing environmental hazards other than through migration.
  3. Demographic change – currently there are 7.8 billion people in the world, with the global population expected to rise to 10 billion by 2050, with most of the population growth occurring in South Asia and Africa, areas that are disproportionately impacted by climate change.
  4. Migration policies – the world must decide whether it is going to work together to address climate change induced migration or continue a trend of rich countries building walls to keep out those affected by weather event related migration. 

Dr. McLeman noted that If the sub-optimal policy option is taken on all four sets of uncertainties, 140 million people are estimated to be subject to climate change induced forced migration by the mid-century, while the number drops significantly if the optimal policy decision is chosen. 

Further Dr. McLeman highlighted the importance of considering multicausality when assessing climate change’s impact on displaced persons and the difficulties it present in developing policies oriented towards climate change led displacement. Climate change is at times the key driver of forced displacement, but many times it interacts with other social and economic factors that combine to drive forced displacement – such as basic social inequities tied to gender, age, income, and lifestyle amplifying people’s vulnerability to climate change. 

Following the introduction from Dr. McLeman, Dr. Siders, led an examination of what is known and unknown about environmental change as a driver of migration and displacement, and its impact on developing policies to confront climate change and displacement caused by it.

Dr. Siders brought attention to how experts model behavior associated with risk and climate change and the uncertainty of such modelling leading to a failure of governments to act proactively and collectively to address the issue. Dr. Siders highlighted the difficulty in modelling risk and the propensity for humans to underestimate the risks that are posed to us. As a result, there is a strong reluctance to invest now to prevent future harms from climate change. 

Dr. Siders also discussed the role cognitive biases such as the optimum bias play in policy leaders underestimating the risk of climate change led displacement and failing to enact policies to address it. A tendency exists for politicians to underestimate the risks that a climate change event will lead to migration.  Political leaders  fail to consider worst case scenarios. 

Policy makers are faced with multiple challenges when attempting to model and develop policy responses to deal with climate change induced migration. Stemming from the multicausality discussed by the panelists, policy makers are faced with the problem of categorizing those impacted by climate change and howto equitably deliver resources and assistance , Anticipating  accurately  where people will migrate from and to what area makes the logistics of pre-positioning and preparing challenging. The inability to easily define the root causes of displacement leads to difficulty in identifying environmental migration data from other types of migration such as economic and social factors. 

Dr. Siders noted that people experience migration differently with many experiencing both loss and opportunity while others  benefit, and others  only experience loss and harm. As of yet there is little understanding of the diverse experiences and how policy can intervene to ensure people experience less loss and harm.

The conversation then moved to a discussion of public policy at the local level and moving from immediate reactive policies to long-term policy design and strategy to confront climate change induced movement and those impacted by it. 

Ms. Pires Ramos outlined that in Latin America to assist persons displaced by environmental factors, the use of humanitarian visas for temporary migratory admission facilitates cross border-movements. However, as Ms. Pires Ramos pointed out, the use of humanitarian visas and temporary residencies are by definition not a permanent solution and fails to guarantee security. 

Ms. Pires Ramos echoed Dr. Siders by highlighting the necessity of increased knowledge and better data  to enact local level policies that help those most displaced by climate change. More work is required to understand the needs of the displaced persons including the context that migration is taking place, the communities and cultures of the displaced persons, and where groups are more vulnerable than others.

Returning to the international agenda to confront climate change driven displacement Rosemary McCarney posed the question of where climate displaced persons locate their rights in the multialteral system and where do they find the duty bearers to hold those responsible for their displacement accountable? In response, Dr. McLeman emphasized that climate change impacts a huge spectrum of people ranging from those with high levels of agency in terms of being able to make decisions about migration to people who might be completely displaced involuntarily with nowhere to go, few resources to assist them, and even to people who are completely immobile and need to move but lack the means to do so. 

Unfortunately, within the current system many of these individuals are by-and-large on their own as the international system does not have a comprehensive and non-voluntary framework to address the issue. Furthermore, the panelists poignantly remarked that until national governments start to take responsibility for addressing the underlying causes of displacement or to help when persons are displaced for environmental reasons, it is difficult to see strong, formal international mechanisms to address the issue.

The panel concluded with a Q&A period that involved a discussion of the difficulties of multicausality in attributing displacement to climate change. While reliable data is difficult to attain and prove causality, the panelists agreed that it cannot stand in the way of developing public policy. As such there is a need to use the data available and develop different categories and models to understand climate change driven migration with more targeted data than has been done in the past. Furthermore, there is a need to take action and take action quickly as environmentally led displacement continues to accelerate. Finally, international, national and local  public institutions together with refugee migration mandated and climate change mandated NGOs  can work  to develop policies that can lay the policy groundwork that can seek to address climate change  displacement.


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