Human Migration: The Glaring Omission of Emissions

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  • 2015•12•08

    Philip Vaughter

    cop21logo-colourThis article is part of UNU’s COP21 series featuring commentary related to the 21st Session of the Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (COP21), 30 November–11 December 2015 in Paris.


    Scroll through any social media feed or access almost any type of journalism and you will likely come across the topic of human migration. Whether referencing immigration, emigration, refugees, urban growth, or hypermobility brought on by global trade and tourism, human movement is a prevailing topic.

    What is interesting about coverage of the topic is the focus of the narratives. Those familiar with the ‘three-pillar’ model of sustainability will recognise the prominence of economic and social perspectives, and just as quickly notice the absence of environmental aspects. A significant amount of attention is paid to economic incentives for migration, especially in relation to immigration, urbanisation, and globalisation, while sociopolitical cause and effect is probed when looking at emigration and human displacement.

    The glaring omission of environmental factors in media coverage of human migration is perhaps unsurprising. As a species, we think in the short term. War, recession, and employment are immediacies, which we experience firsthand or through a perpetual news cycle. But global environmental systems change quite slowly relative to our short life spans.

    Some have stated that the effect of the environment on human migration is always dependent on social and economic contexts, but is this necessarily true? And if so, will this always be the case? After all, the world’s environment is changing, and these changes are already having an effect on human migration.

    The migration narratives that do relate to environmental change often present migrants as “climate refugees” — put simply, people displaced because of changes in their natural environment. While decisions to migrate in response to droughts, floods, and storms are highly varied, the response to sea level rise will likely be more stark; societies unable to afford or build infrastructure necessary to protect their coasts from rising tides will have to leave. In doing so, they will become migrants because of a changing planet, not a changing society per se. Sociopolitical and economic forces will likely shape these migrations as well, but the movements will be forced by the geophysical reality of land being submerged by the sea.

    Small island developing states (SIDS) will be most vulnerable to sea level rise. SIDS are low-lying coastal countries and territories that share sustainable development challenges including limited resources, susceptibility to natural disasters, vulnerability to external shocks (such as energy price hikes), and a high dependence on international trade. Additionally, many SIDS structure their economy around tourism, and with rising tides and degraded beaches, this revenue source may begin to dry up — an economic loss instigated by environmental change.

    According to IPCC emissions scenarios, sea level rise will become a clear reason for displacement of SIDS populations, but it will certainly not be the only climate change-induced cause. As oceans continue to acidify as they absorb excess carbon from earth’s atmosphere, coral reefs will suffer and die off, leaving many coastal regions vulnerable to tidal surges.

    Increasing intensity of tropical storms may not force people to relocate en masse, but repeated storm impacts will slowly chip away at the resilience of coastal societies. Even coastal land that is not submerged will likely be degraded and made unstable by increasing precipitation and erosion. These environmental changes will in turn cause social and economic upheaval, as social systems are stressed and trade patterns are interrupted by changes to the earth’s atmosphere and oceans.

    In order to visualize what sea level rise and coastal impacts could mean for human migration, let’s consider the following scenario. There are 37 countries within the United Nations that are recognized as SIDS. A further 40 overseas territories are also included in this group for statistical purposes. All told, nearly 70 million people live in SIDS, or approximately 1 out of every 100 people on the planet. This is a population greater than that of France. Even in a low to mid-range IPCC emissions scenario, a significant amount of SIDS residents will be displaced, either internally or externally, if their territories become uninhabitable.

    But what would a response to refugees from SIDS look like within the international community? Potentially, 70 million people could find themselves needing to migrate if their homelands are no longer able to support them. Approximately three million SIDS residents are citizens of the European Union by virtue of residing in an overseas country or territory of a European Union member state. So while these individuals may be displaced, they have citizenship or pathways to citizenship and therefore certain legal entitlements in another nation. Similarly, approximately four million SIDS residents are United States citizens or residents of a country that is in free association with the United States, somewhat lowering the barriers for migration to the United States mainland. This in no way guarantees migration will be easy for these populations, but a legal framework exists that (in theory) will allow them to relocate.

    However, for the remaining 63 million residents of SIDS, migration options are far less certain. The current state of refugees from numerous human conflicts is deplorable. However, international refugee and asylum law gives migrants displaced by human conflict legal standing.  No such standing exists for people displaced by climate change.

    As Benjamin Glahn of the International Bar Association notes, “climate refugees fall through the cracks of asylum law”. While international humanitarian law provides legal frameworks for populations displaced internally within their own nation’s borders due to climate change, no such framework exists for those who are forced to cross borders due to climate change. And for SIDS, crossing borders will likely be migrants’ only option due to their small land areas and remoteness. Essentially, populations who need to relocate because of the unfolding disaster of climate change are made non-entities in the eyes of international law. Although all nations on the planet are contributing to rising greenhouse gas emissions which are driving climate change, there are no legal frameworks for the migrants displaced by these actions like there are for migrants displaced by conflict.

    The political left and the political right in most nations are keen to differentiate their approaches to refugees or migrants seeking residence and employment, but they are mostly uniform in their silence on those who are displaced by changing environments. Discourse among the global public does not fare much better. Our current social media and journalistic narratives further mask the plight of people who are or will be displaced by a changing climate. While our news feeds and airwaves are filled with nuanced opinions about people displaced by human conflict or shifting labor markets, we can no longer shrug off discussion and action to support those displaced by the impacts of climate change.


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    Human Migration: The Glaring Omission of Emissions by Philip Vaughter is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.