Environmental Migration, Social Vulnerability and Climate Adaptation

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  • The Environmental Migration, Social Vulnerability, and Adaptation (EMSVA) Programme examines how changing environmental conditions affect the different ways that people adapt or fail to adapt. Over the past years the UNU Institute for Environment and Human Security (UNU-EHS) has through this work examined three issues of growing importance to global discussions: environmentally induced migration, social vulnerability and alternatives for climate change adaptation, including insurance. Research and outreach activities in these areas have resulted in pioneering new initiatives such as the Climate Change, Environment and Migration Alliance (CCEMA). Moreover, these activities examine the interaction of poverty, climate change and opportunities for adaptation and resilience-building for the poor. The programme engages private and public partners in the research, while diversifying the donor base, particularly in the insurance sector. The work on environmental change and migration also provides a point for “future global views”, considering not only challenges but also opportunities, in connection with future climate change-related human mobility while also assisting states in identifying areas where such opportunities can be enhanced.


    A project proposed in 2012 will collaborate closely with a research network in Bangladesh, offering the potential for UNU twinning in that country [partnership with EHS, International Center for Climate Governance and the Munich Re Foundation (MRF)].

    Focal Point

    The programme is managed by Dr. Koko Warner.


    The purpose of this programme is to contribute substantially to the empirical base on and understanding of the mechanisms of forced migration in relation to environmental degradation/change, social vulnerability and financial adaptation mechanisms such as insurance-related approaches. UNU-EHS is actively involved in the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) negotiations and submitted several proposals that are reflected in the negotiating text and continues to position itself as a key institution to provide a policy relevant knowledge base for intergovernmental decision-making.


    Deliverables include empirical fieldwork, publication in journals and policy papers for the UNFCCC and UN Convention to Combat Desertification intergovernmental processes in particular. Partners include the International Organization for Migration (IOM), the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), the UN Environment Programme (UNEP), the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, the International Strategy for Disaster Reduction, the UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs, the World Food Programme, World Meteorological Organization, Food and Agriculture Organization, International Labour Organization and the Inter-Agency Standing Committee, as well as more than a dozen leading universities, foundations (Munich Re, German Marshall Fund, Rockefeller, MacArthur) and NGOs.

    UNU-EHS is involved in key publications: several scientific books (Springer, Oxford Univ. Press, etc.), journal articles (Population and Environment, Natural Hazards, Disasters, Nature Climate Change, Climate Policy), Scientific American, contributing to the IPCC Fifth Assessment Report Working Group 2 as a lead author, etc. UNU-EHS co-chairs a consortium that fosters transatlantic dialogue on migration consequences and policy options. UNU-EHS continues to develop a cadre of young academics working in this field.


    There are almost equal numbers of women and men working in the section.

    Target Audience

    The beneficiaries of the research and policy-relevant activities of the programme include parties to the UNFCCC talks process, humanitarian and risk management organizations at the international level and stakeholders impacted by climate change at the national and sub-national levels. The Programme bridges several international and national policy initiatives in migration and also climate-related insurance coverage — a bridge used by countries in the UN system, experts at other UN and international organizations, civil society and NGOs, and industry for ongoing dialogue. Collaboration within the CCEMA framework is pursued by this programme on behalf of UNU. The programme incorporates the MRF-supported Chair project on social vulnerabilities, and the recurring annual MRF sponsored summer academies on social vulnerability.

    The Munich Climate Insurance Initiative began receiving funding at UNU-EHS in the summer of 2008, with UNU-EHS serving as the project office for the initiative. In this project, UNU-EHS is engaged with a public-private partnership aiming to develop financial adaptation mechanisms in response to the growing realization that insurance solutions can play a role in adapting to climate change, as suggested in the Framework Convention, the Kyoto Protocol and, most recently, the Cancun Adaptation Framework. In addition to providing a link to UNFCCC with this involvement, UNU-EHS contributes to the High Level Committee on Programmes Working Group on Climate Change, and the Secretary-General-led UN initiative on climate change. This initiative also engages private sector participation from key NGOs, research institutes and insurance companies.

    Intended Impact

    Impact: Influencing policymaking in the United Nations System
    Target: The programme aims to consider environmental migration as a means of adaptation in the negotiated text of the Conference of the Parties of UNFCCC. Further, the programme has submitted a proposal to include risk reduction and insurance in the adaptation package in the Copenhagen Agreement.
    How: This will be achieved through regular attendance at climate talks and COPs including the organization of side events together with IGO and NGO partners and academia. Advocacy and direct discussions with delegates are among the most efficient means to achieve the target.

    Impact: Influencing policymaking at the international level
    Target: The programme will influence policymaking at the international level through close collaborative joint research projects, and coordination with key operational organizations on the topics of environmentally-induced migration and climate adaptation including financial risk management tools like insurance.
    How: With respect to environmentally-induced migration, the programme coordinates on a bimonthly basis with IOM, UNHCR, Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, UNEP and members of CCEMA and also is an active member of the Inter-Agency Standing Committee (IASC) Task Force on Climate Change and Migration. With respect to climate adaptation, the programme coordinates regularly with the UNFCCC, Parties to the UNFCCC, the World Bank and regional banks like the IASC and Asian Development Bank to discuss innovations and challenges of climate risk management.

    Impact: Rethink/revisit existing theories/policies
    Target: The programme pursues research directly related to policy needs, and pushes the frontiers of knowledge in the area of environmentally-induced migration. This research challenges existing stereotypes and helps promote fresh thinking about managing the dual challenges of climate change and migration. On climate adaptation, the programme actively engages in UNFCCC talks as well as promotes dialogue on insurance-related solutions between Parties, experts, and civil society. This dialogue will result in new models of risk transfer that will help countries that particularly vulnerable to climate change to adapt.
    How: The programme pursues original fieldwork, case studies, methodological development, expert workshops, ongoing policy dialogue with key operational and academic organizations and through the dissemination of research findings in peer-reviewed journals and other publications.

    Impact: Furthering knowledge in an academic field
    Target: The programme aims at contributing original applied research in a variety of geographical and cultural settings on the topic of environmentally induced migration and climate adaptation alternatives and other linked topics described above.
    How: Most of the projects are implemented with academic and/or research organizations worldwide. All projects will be oriented towards research and will thus lead to the production of a new body of knowledge that will be published in peer-reviewed journals or books.

    Impact: Teaching
    Target: The programme will actively engage in teaching and disseminating research findings to graduate students. The knowledge generated in the research projects will be passed on to MSc and PhD students/researchers worldwide.
    How: New knowledge will be systematically introduced into the teaching activities to which the programme will contribute. Teaching at the University of Bonn and associated institutes and teaching at the ETH Zürich Advanced Studies Program for Natural Hazards, as well as invited lectures at professional, academic, and other training courses. The MRF-supported summer academies on social vulnerability also address environmental migration.

    Research Findings

    In 2011-2012 EMSVA will undertake eight case studies about rainfall variability, food security and migration (Guatemala, Peru, Ghana, Kenya, India, Bangladesh, Thailand, Vietnam) and work in five countries in the Caribbean on a new program on adaptation, risk management and insurance (Jamaica, Belize, Guyana, St. Lucia, and Grenada).

    Policy Bridging

    The EMSVA Programme presents all of its research findings to policy fora (such as in Washington DC, Brussels, Berlin, Geneva, New York) in national decisionmaking processes (Bundestag, Senate Foreign Relations Committee, EU standing committees, etc.) and UN processes (UNFCCC, 2nd Committee of the General Assembly). This work is carried out particularly for environmental migration (UNU-EHS contributed to para 14(f) of the Cancun Adaptation Framework) and the work on risk reduction and insurance (the UNU-EHS MCII initiative is involved in discussions around insurance at the regional and UNFCCC level).

    Value Added

    Of added value is the contribution as lead author to Chapter 20 of the IPCC WG2 for the 5th Assessment Report. During 2011-2012 EMSVA will produce eight case study reports and a syntheses for policy makers related to the rainfall project. It will produce five country reports and shape adaptation plans with respect to disaster risk management and insurance in the Caribbean. Scientific and policy papers on methods, implications for policy, etc. will be prepared on all three topics of focus for the section.


    All work implemented in this programme will be published in peer-reviewed scientific journals and also published as policy briefs, reports, book chapters, blogs, etc. for a wider audience. Peer-reviewed journal publication takes on a particular significance for the programme at this time, as the IPCC Fifth Assessment Report is gearing up and will only reflect the topics of environmentally induced migration and the possibility of linking risk reduction and risk sharing approaches if these research results are well represented in journals. These will also serve as benchmarks to evaluate the programme in the medium to longer term.

    Timeline/Programme Cycle

    The programme has been steadily developed from 2005 to date, with 2005 to 2007 focusing on programme development, methodologies and literature reviews. From 2007 to 2009, the programme has been heavily involved in fieldwork and methodological refinement. From 2010 to 2012, the programme will move into a phase of new projects, methodological development, case studies, and ongoing fieldwork and dissemination, and collaboration and partnerships. The programme has now reached a certain maturity and it is likely that the number of projects that it can handle and the level of staffing will remain stable. To 2012, the programme delivered many different types of outputs (due to projects ending and PhD researchers completing their research). In 2012, depending on the outcome of key policy processes such as the UNFCCC climate negotiations between 2011 and 2012, the programme will adjust itself depending on UNU and UN priorities.


    The programme will be evaluated in terms of successful completion of its research projects as judged by donors and peers, the quality and size of new projects it can successfully secure in each biennium, the progress of graduate students associated with the programme in making academic progress/achieving their degrees and the number of both peer-reviewed publications and policy briefs it will generate.


    The programme faces two related challenges: securing stable funding to pay for staff salaries and research activities and ensuring satisfactory working conditions (contracts) for core staff. Most of the projects and activities are undertaken with third-party funding. All staff positions are dependent for all or the largest part of their salaries, so that if competitive project bidding does not result in new project funding, immediate staff cutbacks could result. The programme has developed a core team of leading young experts and is vulnerable to losing this investment if more attractive job offers arise (i.e., those that offer social benefits such as health and pension). These very competent researchers who are crucial for the success of the projects may decide not to remain with UNU-EHS if they cannot achieve UN staff status.

    Expected Duration

    Program Duration: ongoing

  • Activities within the programme will involve cooperation between UNU Institute for Environment and Human Security and nine partners:

    • UNU Institute for Natural Resources in Africa
    • UNU Vice Rectorate in Europe
    • UNU World Institute for Development Economics Research
    • UNU Office at the United Nations, NY
    • United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change
    • Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees
    • United Nations International Strategy for Disaster Reduction
    • World Bank
    • International Organization for Migration
  • Title: Adaptation and Insurance in the Caribbean: Findings and Recommendations for 5 Caribbean Countries
    Author(s): Warner, K; Young, S; Broesche, D.; Coffey, S; Kreft, S., Zissener, M. et al.
    Publication/Output Type: 5 country reports, policy recommendations, implementation plan, several papers
    Available at: will be available at UNU-EHS website
    Publisher: journal articles, UNU-EHS policy brief
    Date Published: 2013

    Title: IPCC Fifth Assessment Report, Working Group 2, Chapter 20
    Author(s): Warner, Koko
    Publication/Output Type: contribution to the IPCC Fifth Assessment Report, which will be published in 2014
    Available at:
    Publisher: IPCC
    Date Published: 2014

    Title: Where the Rain Falls: Findings from 8 Case Study Countries
    Author(s): Warner, Koko; Afifi, T; Rademacher, C.; Milan, A.
    Publication/Output Type: 8 country case studies
    Available at: will be available at UNU-EHS website
    Publisher: journal articles, UNU-EHS policy brief
    Date Published: 2012

  • Dr. Jakob Rhyner, Director
    United Nations University
    Institute for Environment and Human Security
    UN Campus, Platz der Vereinten Nationen 1
    53113 Bonn, Germany

    T: +49 228 815-0200
    F: +49 228 815-0299