Opening the Floodgates: how should we respond to climate-induced migration and displacement?

Student Group: 

Discussions on climate adaptation at COP18 generally glossed over the issue of climate migrants–people whose displacement is the direct result of climate change and the extreme weather events it brings. As negotiators look toward the future of UNFCCC negotiations, they must confront this pressing crisis.

In Alfonso Cuarón’s dystopian film “Children of Men” UK cops keeps thousands of refugees in fenced ghettos, turning back a flood of asylum-seekers who have fled the combined crises of rising waters and poverty in their home countries. Set in the near future, the film’s dark environmental narrative warns of a pending crisis of climate-induced migration. Thankfully, most developed nations are not the police states of post-apocalyptic science fiction. However, such countries must begin thinking seriously about how they will react to a possible influx of climate refugees. People are increasingly being displaced by weather events that are ostensibly linked to climate change. Some sources estimate that there will be as many as 200 million climate refugees in the next thirty years.[1]

Traditionally, migration and displacement have often been considered temporary crises, pointed out IPCC Secretary Renate Christ who oversaw a recent IPCC publication on extreme weather events and spoke at a COP18 side event focused on climate migration. After a storm surge recedes or a conflict ends, families typically move back to their communities and start the process of rebuilding. With climate-induced migration however, there is potential for migration to become permanent as arable land becomes a parched desert or salt-water infiltration decimates the agricultural capacity of a low-lying island nation. In these cases, aid must be focused not just on providing immediate relief (potable water, sustenance, shelter) but on helping displaced communities reestablish themselves in new locales when returning to their original homes is deemed impossible.

Another intertwined issue is that of choice: do migrants leave their homes voluntarily or are they forced to do so by the conditions they face? Kevin Henry of the leading international relief and development NGO CARE expressed his view at a side event that migration should always be a choice. His organization seeks to facilitate migration for those struck by climate-induced disaster if they so choose to leave their home behind, or to stay if they think that is their best option.

Developed nations are rightfully called upon to help those nations vulnerable to climate-induced displacement address water management in high risk areas and help communities obtain technologies to make them resilient to climate change. Many believe these issues are nested in the principle of Common but Differentiated Responsibility, and such ideas were viciously debated in multiple negotiation tracks as COP18. But migration is often missing from the adaptation portfolio. In the case of low-lying Pacific atolls, residents who suffer as a result of climate change may prefer migrating to other countries over investing in seawalls or other adaptation technologies. Countries like New Zealand and Australia, who are in close proximity to high-risk areas, must continue to grapple with the prospect of climate refugees. How will these nations react as more and more displaced peoples seek their shores?

Perhaps because of concurrence of the tragic effects of Typhoon Bopha in the Philippines and the COP18 itself, the link between climate change and extreme weather events seemed to be at the forefront of everyone’s minds during the conference. Many countries voiced sympathy and concern for the devastating impacts of extreme events and the displacement and suffering they can cause (if not in action than at least in rhetoric). Bopha killed more than 600 people, a horrific loss of life, but it also caused more than 170,000 to flee to evacuation centers. How many will return to their homes or seek a new life elsewhere remains to be seen. As the international community continues to confront the effects of climate change, nations must formally recognize climate refugees as distinct from other displaced peoples. When weather events that cause displacement can be confidently attributed to anthropogenic climate change, countries should accept their share of the responsibility for causing families to leave their homes for higher ground.


[1] Jakobeit, Cord and Methmann, Chris (2007) GreenpeaceGermany.