This policy brief was first published in International Journal: Canada’s Journal of Global Policy Analysis.
The COVID-19 pandemic has taught us hard lessons about the excessive and avoidable costs of not planning for and anticipating global crises that know no borders. Another global upheaval, slower moving but accelerating, sits on the near horizon. In 2019, the High Commissioner for Human Rights declared climate change, and its relatively slow-onset effects, such as sea level rise, desertification, and water salinization and associated sudden onset effects like floods, hurricanes and droughts, the greatest threat to human rights in the twenty-first century. As the global population surpasses 8 billion and reaches 10 billion in the coming decades, millions of vulnerable and exposed individuals will be in search of protection and livelihoods. Indeed, analysts predict the number of people displaced by climate change will dwarf those currently of concern to the refugee regime.
In 1990, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change predicted that forced human migration could be the single greatest effect of climate change. However, it has only been over the last ten years that governance actors have begun to seriously discuss climate displacement at the global level. This policy brief first reviews the current state of this emergent governance architecture across discrete policy agendas and regimes. While important in initiating a global conversation and generating such new ideas as community resilience, voluntary migration pathways, and intact mass resettlement, among others, the global governance of climate displacement remains entirely insufficient to cope with, let alone effectively respond to, the needs of millions of at-risk individuals. Following this review, we then identify the substantive and organizational measures needed to address a pervasive lack of coordination, domestic implementation, and, perhaps most profoundly, a strong rights-based foundation in international law.
A decade of activity but persistent governance gaps
There is no comprehensive international regime of “implicit or explicit principles, norms, rules, and decision-making procedures around which actors’ expectations converge”Stephen Krasner, International Regimes (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1983), 2. for addressing climate displacement. But there is a patchwork of initiatives encompassing elements of a nascent global governance system defined as “the sum of the informal and formal values, norms, procedures and institutions that help states, intergovernmental organizations, civil society and transnational corporations identify, understand and address transboundary problems.”Thomas Weiss, Global Governance: Why? What? Whither (Cambridge: Cambridge Polity Press 2013). This system straddles multiple policy agendas, expert communities, government departments, and managerial and accountability silos. In most Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development countries there are at least three or more Ministerial or departmental “owners” that may include immigration, environment, labour, and foreign affairs, each with different and often conflicting mandates and healthy competition for budget and attention.
Effective global governance rests on shared knowledge and agreement about the existence of a problem, its causes, and the need for a global response.Ramesh Thakur and Thomas Weiss, “Framing global governance, five gaps,” in L. Emmerij, R. Jolly, and T. Weiss, eds., Global Governance and the UN: An Unfinished Journey (Bloomington: … Continue reading There is broad agreement that without reducing CO2 emissions, environmental degradation such as desertification and rising sea levels caused by climate change will be the major driver of displacement and migration this century. The World Bank estimates that up to 143 million people will be displaced by climate change in Latin America, Sub-Saharan Africa, and Southeast Asia by 2050 (55% of the developing world’s population).Kanta Kumari Rigaud, Alex de Sherbinin, Bryan Jones, et al., “Groundswell: Preparing for internal climate migration,” World Bank, Washington, DC, 2018.
Despite progress in methodology and predictive analytics, it is still difficult to precisely identify how many of the world’s current 272 million international migrants and 740 million internal migrants have moved because of climate change.World Migration Report 2020, IOM, Grand-Saconnex, Switzerland, 2020, https://publications.iom.int/system/files/pdf/wmr_2020_en_ch_2.pdf (accessed 2 April 2020), 19. The subject is dense with disagreement and contradiction. Determining voluntary versus involuntary movements is easier in situations of conflict or gross violations of human rights, or even sudden-onset natural disasters like tsunamis, earthquakes, or volcanic eruptions. Climate displacement is multicausal: an individual’s decision to flee is influenced by demographic, cultural, political, economic, and other human factors.World Refugee Council, “A Call to Action: Transforming the Global Refugee System,” World Refugee Council, January 2019, https://www.worldrefugeecouncil.org (accessed 4 August 2020). Displacement due to climate degradation alone will seldom be the sole cause that satisfies simplistic notions of cause and effect. Some researchers attempt a cause or response spectrum, use the language of tipping points, contributing factors, or force multipliers, depending on their beginning perspective. There is also disagreement about language. Some prefer “climate refugees,” others “environmental migrants.” The former connotes involuntary movement but triggers alarm in some circles about diluting the 1951 Refugee Convention. The latter implies more choice or agency, but seems to undersell the coercive nature of losing land and livelihood.
The grey zone between voluntary and involuntary, however, does not excuse inaction or poor public policy formation. It does mean that planning through adaptation strategies, safe and dignified pathways, investment in prevention and mitigation efforts, and compensation for loss and damage will need to be adaptable to a range of drivers and consequences. For this, there remain significant knowledge gaps, and more investment in quantitative and qualitative data and analysis is urgent.
Despite the absence of a clear consensus on how to address climate displacement, there exist a range of ad hoc initiatives at the subglobal level. For instance, the Climate Vulnerability Forum, a South–South intergovernmental platform, advocates for anticipatory solutions such as labour market migration to enhance opportunities for “migration with dignity.”Anote Tong, “Migration is the ‘brutal reality’ of climate change,” Climate Change News, 21 June … Continue reading Wealthy countries frequently provide temporary protection or work permits in response to rapid-onset disasters, such as Canada’s support for Haitians following the 2010 earthquake and the US Temporary Protection Status for Hondurans following Hurricane Mitch in 1999.Richard Gonzales, “DHS ends temporary protected status for Hondurans,” National Public Radio, 5 May … Continue reading While investments in preventive measures are promising, including the construction of seawalls in countries like Japan, The Netherlands, and low-lying areas of the US such as New Orleans, such expenditures are beyond the normal budgeting capacities of most governments. Other investments in research and development to enhance the resilience of drought-resistant seeds and crops hold promise. And new designs in low-cost but stable housing in earthquake- and flood-prone areas like Haiti and Philippines will enable adaptive strategies to stay in place. However, the scope and scale of the looming crisis cannot be answered by ad hoc measures.
A natural starting point for developing a rights- and responsibility-based multilateral approach for the climate displaced is the refugee regime. There is clearly scope for action through the non-binding UN Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement, which sees climate change as a driver of displacement. The protection mandate of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees has also proven adaptable to new challenges. However, negotiations to integrate climate displacement into the non-binding Global Compact on Refugees in 2017/18 were swiftly rejected because of well-grounded fears that broadening the definition of refugees by opening the 1951 Refugee Convention would dilute existing obligations, putting at risk millions of existing Convention refugees.Arjun Claire and Jérôme Élie, “The difficult legal consideration of climate migrants,” Alternatives Humanitaires, no. 11 (July 2019): … Continue reading
The Global Compact for Migration (GCM), negotiated simultaneously with the Global Compact on Refugees, did address climate change as a driver of forced migration through calls for building community resilience and adaptation capacity as well as for relocation schemes and commitments that “enhance the availability and flexibility of pathways for regular migration.”United Nations, Global Compact for Safe, Orderly, and Regular Migration, UN Doc. A/RES/73/195, 19 Dec., 2018, available … Continue reading Though promoting “migration with dignity” could open novel solutions for climate displacement and foster untapped linkages to the Sustainable Development Goals, these non-binding efforts are still in their infancy. Further, relying on language of voluntary migration obscures the lack of genuine choice in the face of land and livelihood loss as once-viable communities are hollowed out by forced displacement due to environmental degradation.
The climate change policy and advocacy communities have focused for many years on reducing CO2 emissions through the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) and the Conference of Parties (COP) meetings, and only reluctantly added a climate displacement agenda. For instance, inclusion of climate displacement in the 2010 Cancun Adaptation Framework within the COP occurred largely because of non-Party advocates.Koko Warner, “Human migration and displacement in the context of adaptation to climate change: The Cancun Adaptation Framework and potential for future action,” Environment and Planning C: … Continue reading With some momentum, however, the 2015 Paris Agreement created a Task Force on Displacement as part of the Warsaw International Mechanism. But the Task Force has no operational role and is limited to studying and making recommendations to “avert, minimize and address displacement related to the adverse impacts of climate change.”United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, Task Force on Displacement: At a Glance, UN Doc. October … Continue reading
It is now well accepted that increasing global temperatures are at least associated with sudden-onset disasters, such as increased frequency and intensity of storms, floods, and droughts, that force many people to leave their homes and communities in search of protection. The work of the Nansen Initiative (2012–2015) and its successor organization, the Platform on Disaster Displacement (PDD) are non-binding state-led initiatives to reduce and respond to cross-border disaster displacement. This approach does not articulate legal rights, but it does provide good practices that states could adopt to protect people displaced by climate change. But there are limitations. For instance, scientists have established an association between human induced climate change and increasing frequency and severity of sudden onset disasters like hurricanes, floods and droughts. But because these disasters have occurred for millennia, attributing the causes of disasters to climate change has been challenging. So while responses to disaster displacement will certainly help those displaced by climate change, the policies will miss those dealing with slow onset effects like rising sea levels and land degradation.
It was encouraging to see the Human Rights Committee (HRC) in January 2020 rely on Article 6 (Right to Life) of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) to conclude that returning people to countries where their lives may be threatened due to climate change can trigger non-refoulement obligations. The expansive reasoning of the Committee creates a legal opening for climate change displacement where life-threatening conditions exist. The impact of the HRC decision needs to be closely monitored.
The PDD’s 2018 report to the UNFCCC’s Task Force on Displacement is revealing. It indicated “a lack of overall leadership” within and outside the UN, no country-level support, and the absence of coordination for the implementation of international frameworks and processes.Platform for Disaster Displacement, “The United Nations system’s mandates with respect to averting, minimizing and addressing displacement related to climate change: considerations for the … Continue reading In 2012, Kaelin and Schrepfer identified three “critical” legal gaps regarding forced migration in the context of climate change: (a) criteria to distinguish voluntary and forced movements, (b) rights related to admittance and stay on foreign territory, and (c) the legal status of persons of foreign territories.Walter Kälin and Nina Schrepfer, Protecting People Crossing Borders in the Context of Climate Change: Normative Gaps and Possible Approaches, UNHCR: Division of International Protection, … Continue reading In 2020, it seems that we are no closer to closing these gaps given the resistance of key actors.
A way forward: A public policy agenda
There is reason for smart public policy leadership now before even the best-case scenarios of mass climate displacement come true. We would like to see both substantive and organizational actions address global governance of climate displacement. Progressive adaptation and resilience practices circulating within global policy communities like the GCM, COP process, and the PDD should be rapidly implemented at the national level. We also believe specific organizational changes are needed given the lack of coordination and complexity that currently characterize this policy field. A central institution or actor must be created or nominated to serve as a focal point for policy implementation, supervision, and research to bring about coherence and consistency and achieve a robust global governance system.
As a baseline, any informed approach to climate displacement must be grounded in fundamental principles of human rights, gender equality, and inclusion:
- Ensure gender analysis and agency and assess gendered impacts in all aspects of policy formation
Climate change and displacement has a gendered impact that is not broadly understood or acknowledged. Gender-sensitive climate policies can harness potential for women’s agency and voice and avoid reinforcing and amplifying pre-existing inequality and vulnerability. We know relatively little of the multiple and intersectional dimensions at play in household decision-making and choices about movement. Carefully constructed participation by women and girls will bring different and essential lenses to policy formation.CARE’s report provides an excellent overview of the gendered impacts of climate induced displacement and “gender-transformative” practices to address the differential effects of climate … Continue reading
- Develop individual international rights for those displaced by climate change consistent with humanitarian and human rights law
Perhaps the most critiqued governance gap is around “a legal framework to address climate change related, cross-border displacement which can guarantee access to territory, assure status and rights during stay, and offer long-term solutions.”Claire and Élie, “The difficult legal consideration of climate migrants,” 81. Though most see the expansion of refugee status for climate migrants as unwise, and the Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement only apply to those displaced from climate change internally, important emerging legal doctrine by the HRC’s work on climate displacement and the “right to life” in the ICCPR is significant because it finds that people cannot be returned to a place where their lives are threatened by adverse effects of climate change. The “right to life” provision can also link to other human rights, including access to an adequate standard of living, such as food, clothing, and housing, and to the continuous improvement of living conditions (Art. 11 International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights [ICESCR]); the right to the conservation of cultural heritage (Art. 15(2) ICESCR); the right to work and make a decent living (Arts. 6 and 7 ICESCR); and potentially the right to self-determination (Art. 1 ICCPR).Jefferi Hamzah Sendut, “Climate change as a trigger of non-refoulement obligations under international human rights law,” EJIL: Talk, 6 February … Continue reading In October 2019, the Council of Europe recognized its responsibility to “develop in asylum systems of Member States and in international law, protection for people fleeing long-term climate change in their native country.”Parliamentary Assembly, Report on the Committee on Migration, Refugees and Displaced Persons, Council of Europe, Doc. 14955, 3 October 2019, para 5.4.
- Implement promising and progressive adaptation and resilience practices at the national level
Both the UNFCCC and the GCM identify adaptation and resilience practices to minimize “adverse drivers and structural factors that compel people to leave their country of origin”United Nations, Global Compact for Safe, Orderly, and Regular Migration, UN Doc. A/RES/73/195, 19 Dec., 2018, available … Continue reading — to allow people to lead peaceful, productive, and sustainable lives in their own countries. Building both resilient communities and climate adaptation involve good development principles already reflected in Agenda 2030, in particular, creating opportunities for voluntary migration. “Migration with dignity” pathways for vulnerable or at-risk populations, either in situ or permanent resettlement, enable at-risk populations to access protection and labour markets and then remit money to assist adaptation of home communities. Free movement protocols (both entry and lawful stay) already exist in the regions of South, West, and East Africa and should be further studied and expanded.Tamara Wood, “New pact paves way for innovative solutions to disaster and climate change displacement in Africa,” Thomson Reuters, 28 February … Continue reading
Bolder planned relocation and labour migration programs offer immense opportunities for host countries with aging populations and must be tried. Migration of whole communities facing severe land loss due to rising seas would enable and accelerate successful integration. Voluntary migration also will look more attractive to destination countries when education and training are boosted for populations at acute risk, so that migrants can compete in international labour markets. In the absence of global frameworks, bilateral agreements can be struck through regional arrangements, which can then be supported financially by the global community through funding mechanisms that recognize shared responsibility for forced displacement.
The legal and policy complexity of climate displacement makes it a “wicked problem.”Jeff Conklin, Min Basadur, and GK VanPatter, “Rethinking wicked problems: Unpacking paradigms, bridging universes,” NextD Journal, 2007, 3. Analysts of complexity argue that predetermined solutions are usually ineffective to bringing about change given the multiplicity of actors, rules, and procedures that must be engaged simultaneously to address novel policy challenges. Complex problems can be solved only by cross-sector coalitions to achieve non-linear and emergent change. How we create an inclusive platform for a relatively new and highly controversial global challenge must therefore be multi-faceted and built on shared understanding, values, and commitments:
- Commit to the principle of common but differentiated responsibilities (CBDR)
CBDR is already an institutionalized norm in the climate change community and represents the best pathway to shared responsibility for those who are the largest contributors to climate change and those who are experiencing its harsh impacts. The principle acknowledges the different capabilities, national circumstances, and responsibilities of countries in addressing climate change and forced migration, and can be contrasted with the standard implementation of undifferentiated and individuated responsibilities. Intended to fairly apportion the burden and responsibility of global action on climate change, CBDR is often referred to as a principle of “global climate justice.”Jutta Brunnée, “Climate change, global environmental justice and international environmental law,” in Jonas Ebbesson and Phoebe Okowa, eds., Environmental Law and Justice in … Continue reading It is also an emerging principle within the refugee and forced migration context for large refugee-hosting countries.
- Harmonize implementation, supervision, and research
In the absence of a global consensus, national governments can act to model legislation and policies that are consistent with international norms and conventions, especially the CBDR principle. Environmental experts are too often overlooked in immigration policy formation. And, while national climate policies often include references to population movements, interdepartmental draft committees rarely include migration governance actors.International Organization for Migration, Mapping Human Mobility and Climate Change in Relevant National Policies and Institutional Frameworks, The Warsaw International Mechanism for Loss and … Continue reading A whole-of-government approach should be pursued to design policies that address labour market conditions; human rights obligations; demographic needs; and social resilience, cohesion, and capacity at a national and subnational level. National leadership alone and in alliances and cohorts will influence future plurilateral and multilateral negotiations by building consensus for global approaches.
Effective and collaborative research partnerships investigating the relationship between slow-onset effects of climate change and migration and mass movements are needed. Migration linked to slow-onset processes like rising sea levels, salinization, desertification, and land degradation is multicausal, interacting with social, economic, and other human and development factors, which makes attribution challenging. Experts predict that slow-onset processes will also increase the frequency and severity of sudden-onset disasters, but the causal link remains evasive as sudden-onset disasters have occurred for millennia. Some argue that identifying causality with confidence in this context is impossible, and that we should instead focus on the rights violations suffered by climate migrants.Calum Nicholson, “Climate change and the politics of causal reasoning: The case of climate change and migration,” The Geographical Journal, 180 no. 2 (2014), 151–160. Leaving questions about motivation and causality unexplored, however, risks poor policy planning, uninformed investment decisions, and missed opportunities for averting, minimizing, and addressing displacement. Certainty is less important than probability based on solid investment in qualitative and quantitative data in how we anticipate the many millions soon to be forcibly displaced and the questions that will inevitably arise about the scope of their choice and our responsibility for their futures. A networked coalition of research institutions and nongovernmental organizations with a pragmatic research agenda would accelerate the confidence of policy-makers to act on this looming humanitarian and economic crisis.
Given the uncoordinated state of global governance on climate displacement, establishing a common agenda and shared measurements is needed among the different actors—states, international organizations, and civil society groups—responsible for relevant policy fields. It is sometimes said that responding to wicked problems makes solutions secondary and problem understanding central. Even though all of the actors reviewed above are working to address climate displacement, the UNFCCC and COP may have a different understanding of the problem and goals than, say, the disaster risk reduction community, the HRC, or the work of the GCM. Subtle differences in understandings and goals among these groups can undermine their collective response. What is needed is a common understanding of the scale and scope of the problem, agreement on joint goals to address it, and establishment of common indicators for accountability and progress. A coordinating entity to ensure the issue remains a priority would accelerate smart policy formation, knowledge and practice exchange, as well as strategic presence and intervention in the patchwork of consultations and local initiatives that will increasingly be called upon to be responsive when we are (again) too late for anticipatory policy and investment.
Photo: Flickr/Texas Military Department
|↑1||Stephen Krasner, International Regimes (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1983), 2.|
|↑2||Thomas Weiss, Global Governance: Why? What? Whither (Cambridge: Cambridge Polity Press 2013).|
|↑3||Ramesh Thakur and Thomas Weiss, “Framing global governance, five gaps,” in L. Emmerij, R. Jolly, and T. Weiss, eds., Global Governance and the UN: An Unfinished Journey (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2015), 31.|
|↑4||Kanta Kumari Rigaud, Alex de Sherbinin, Bryan Jones, et al., “Groundswell: Preparing for internal climate migration,” World Bank, Washington, DC, 2018.|
|↑5||World Migration Report 2020, IOM, Grand-Saconnex, Switzerland, 2020, https://publications.iom.int/system/files/pdf/wmr_2020_en_ch_2.pdf (accessed 2 April 2020), 19.|
|↑6||World Refugee Council, “A Call to Action: Transforming the Global Refugee System,” World Refugee Council, January 2019, https://www.worldrefugeecouncil.org (accessed 4 August 2020).|
|↑7||Anote Tong, “Migration is the ‘brutal reality’ of climate change,” Climate Change News, 21 June 2016, https://www.climatechangenews.com/2016/06/21/anote-tong-migration-is-the-brutal-reality-of-climate-change/ (accessed 27 September 2020).|
|↑8||Richard Gonzales, “DHS ends temporary protected status for Hondurans,” National Public Radio, 5 May 2018, https://www.npr.org/2018/05/05/608802896/dhs-ends-temporary-protected-status-for-hondurans (accessed 11 July 2020).|
|↑9||Arjun Claire and Jérôme Élie, “The difficult legal consideration of climate migrants,” Alternatives Humanitaires, no. 11 (July 2019): 76–87, http://alternatives-humanitaires.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/07/AH_N11_2_Focus_6_Arjun_VEN.pdf(accessed 28 June 2020).|
|↑10||United Nations, Global Compact for Safe, Orderly, and Regular Migration, UN Doc. A/RES/73/195, 19 Dec., 2018, available at https://refugeesmigrants.un.org/sites/default/files/180713_agreed_outcome_global_compact_for_migration.pdf(accessed 26 September 2020), 5.|
|↑11||Koko Warner, “Human migration and displacement in the context of adaptation to climate change: The Cancun Adaptation Framework and potential for future action,” Environment and Planning C: Government and Policy, 30, no. 6 (1 Jan, 2012):1061–1077.|
|↑12||United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, Task Force on Displacement: At a Glance, UN Doc. October 2019, https://unfccc.int/sites/default/files/resource/TFD_brochure_29102019.pdf (accessed 26 September 2020).|
|↑13||Platform for Disaster Displacement, “The United Nations system’s mandates with respect to averting, minimizing and addressing displacement related to climate change: considerations for the future,” Task Force on Displacement, Activity II.3, 2018, 8.|
|↑14||Walter Kälin and Nina Schrepfer, Protecting People Crossing Borders in the Context of Climate Change: Normative Gaps and Possible Approaches, UNHCR: Division of International Protection, 2012, https://www.unhcr.org/4f33f1729.pdf (accessed 12 July 2020), 2.|
|↑15||CARE’s report provides an excellent overview of the gendered impacts of climate induced displacement and “gender-transformative” practices to address the differential effects of climate displacement. CARE, “Evicted by climate change: Confronting the gendered impacts of climate-induced displacement,” 2020, https://care.ca/wp-content/uploads/2020/07/CARE-Climate-Migration-Report.pdf?utm_source=BenchmarkEmail&utm_campaign=Evicted_by_Climate_Change%3a_Confronting_the_gendered_impacts_of_climate-induced_displacement&utm_medium=email (accessed 12 July 2020).|
|↑16||Claire and Élie, “The difficult legal consideration of climate migrants,” 81.|
|↑17||Jefferi Hamzah Sendut, “Climate change as a trigger of non-refoulement obligations under international human rights law,” EJIL: Talk, 6 February 2020, https://www.ejiltalk.org/climate-change-as-a-trigger-of-non-refoulement-obligations-under-international-human-rights-law/ (accessed 12 July 2020).|
|↑18||Parliamentary Assembly, Report on the Committee on Migration, Refugees and Displaced Persons, Council of Europe, Doc. 14955, 3 October 2019, para 5.4.|
|↑19||United Nations, Global Compact for Safe, Orderly, and Regular Migration, UN Doc. A/RES/73/195, 19 Dec., 2018, available at https://refugeesmigrants.un.org/sites/default/files/180713_agreed_outcome_global_compact_for_migration.pdf(accessed 26 September 2020), 5; and United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, What Do Adaptation to Climate Change and Climate Resilience Mean? UN Doc.,2020, https://unfccc.int/topics/adaptation-and-resilience/the-big-picture/what-do-adaptation-to-climate-change-and-climate-resilience-mean|
|↑20||Tamara Wood, “New pact paves way for innovative solutions to disaster and climate change displacement in Africa,” Thomson Reuters, 28 February 2020, https://news.trust.org/item/20200228175003-4k8dq/ (accessed 12 July 2020).|
|↑21||Jeff Conklin, Min Basadur, and GK VanPatter, “Rethinking wicked problems: Unpacking paradigms, bridging universes,” NextD Journal, 2007, 3.|
|↑22||Jutta Brunnée, “Climate change, global environmental justice and international environmental law,” in Jonas Ebbesson and Phoebe Okowa, eds., Environmental Law and Justice in Context (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009), 316–332.|
|↑23||International Organization for Migration, Mapping Human Mobility and Climate Change in Relevant National Policies and Institutional Frameworks, The Warsaw International Mechanism for Loss and Damage Associated with Climate Change Impacts, Task Force on Displacement, 2018, 6–10.|
|↑24||Calum Nicholson, “Climate change and the politics of causal reasoning: The case of climate change and migration,” The Geographical Journal, 180 no. 2 (2014), 151–160.|