As severe weather patterns intensify, climate change will continue to displace communities across the globe. The World Bank estimates that there could be more than 143 million people internally displaced by slow-onset disasters in Latin America, Sub-Saharan Africa, and Southeast Asia by 2050. Populations with the least capacity to respond and adapt to a changing climate are more likely to suffer from the worst impacts.
States have a responsibility to ensure that individuals displaced because of climate change impacts are treated with respect and dignity. Yet international law does not recognize climate displacement as a subject warranting special protection or status. The 1951 Refugee Convention only recognizes persecution on account of five protected grounds (nationality, race and ethnicity, political opinion, religion, or particular social group), leaving those fleeing environmental disasters under circumstances not attributable to those specified reasons without protection.
Despite the urgent need for action, governments have been slow in creating pathways to protect climate-displaced people. If anything, increasing militarized approaches to migration flows and national security rhetoric has permeated mainstream discourse on climate migration. Discussions about “economic migrants” and which groups are deserving of international protection distract from real solutions that can provide relief and uplift the dignity of individuals displaced by climate. Also concerning is the fact that authoritarian governments have leveraged the ongoing United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP27) to either greenwash their image or exclude environmental advocates from accessing the climate talks.
Although climate migration is not on its official agenda, COP27 offers an opportunity for international climate negotiators and advocates to tackle the issue in three ways: (1) promote changes in domestic legal frameworks that will protect internally displaced populations; (2) raise awareness of how existing legal protections under asylum frameworks intersect with climate change; and (3) guarantee climate finance pledges are met by mobilizing funds dedicated to adaptation and mitigation.
1. Protect Internally Displaced Populations
Most climate displacement is and will be internal. This means governments have first and foremost an obligation to protect their own populations that are internally displaced by environmental and climate-related events. States should develop robust disaster risk management frameworks that prioritize climate vulnerable communities and only resort to relocation as a last measure. In order to prevent further challenges arising from cross-border mobility, governments should design and implement inclusive solutions that center on the needs of those most affected.
By implementing best practices and guidance using international frameworks such as the Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction, the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, and the Global Compacts for Migration and Refugees, countries can reduce climate risk and protect those who are internally displaced. Anticipating and preparing for environmental disasters will allow people to remain in their own countries and further bolster adaptation efforts.
2. Leverage Legal Protections in the Context of Climate Change
Without new legislative or executive actions, receiving countries can leverage existing mechanisms to protect populations displaced by climate change. For example, using humanitarian visas and other forms of relief such as parole after a rapid-onset event like a hurricane can offer immediate protection to individuals fleeing disaster. Moreover, allowing a general right of admission to those affected is a necessary first step in ensuring long-term protection.
Similarly, countries should increase their focus on climate displacement falling within the present asylum protection scheme. The UN High Commissioner for Refugees has released legal guidance on the intersection of refugee law and climate displacement. States should adopt this guidance and integrate it into their adjudicator training. States should further supplement their asylum laws with broader protections (such as temporary protected status) for those displaced by climate events not meeting asylum requirements.
While humanitarian protection and asylum frameworks have a role to play, those displaced as a result of climate impacts should ultimately be able to access pathways to citizenship and permanent protection.
At a minimum, all countries should include migration in their National Determined Contributions (NDCs). NDCs are submitted every five years and may be adjusted at any time with a view to enhancing the ambition of a country’s climate targets. As mobility-related challenges increase, migration should be central to countries’ plans to adapt to climate impacts.
In the United States, the Biden administration has signaled some action on climate migration issues by issuing an executive order that tasked several agencies with producing the first-ever report on the impact of climate change on migration. While not sufficient on its own, this type of action is critical to centering climate migration issues and mobilizing stakeholders across government, civil society, and the private sector.
3. Honor Climate Finance Commitments
Migration, whether temporary or permanent, is a last resort solution. Relocation as a strategy itself can often be costly, inefficient, and lead to human rights violations. Tackling the root problems with climate change are necessary to prevent and mitigate challenges arising from climate displacement. Similarly, adaptation efforts are necessary to ensure communities can become more resilient in the face of climate impacts and adapt before they are forced to move.
To that end, industrialized countries must meet all their climate finance commitments to support both mitigation and adaptation efforts, particularly in light of the disproportionate contribution of those countries through their decades of emissions to global climate change. A recent assessment by Carbon Brief found that the United States, the United Kingdom, and Canada are billions of dollars short of their “fair share” of climate funding for low-income countries. Industrialized states must take seriously their responsibility to deliver on climate funding promises to ensure adequate measures are in place to prevent and respond to climate-induced migration.