Putting a Human Face on Climate Change

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  • 2015•12•08

    Andrea Milan

    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.


    Millions of people worldwide are at risk for displacement resulting from sea level rise, slow-onset environmental degradation and increasing natural disasters. Although recent talks for a “climate change displacement coordination facility” captured little media attention, its value cannot be underestimated. COP21 in Paris must address the potential of such a facility to help millions of vulnerable people.

    Past UN climate change agreements signed in Cancun (2010) and Doha (2012) called for more research into the relationships between climate change and different forms of human mobility. However, negotiators are yet to agree on any substantial measures to protect and assist vulnerable people who are forced to leave their homes.

    The proposed funding and coordination facility would help UN Member States, and international and non-governmental organisations provide much needed support to people affected by the adverse impacts of climate change. Now, a few years after Cancun and Doha, there are two reasons why the Paris climate conference is the right time to establish this facility.

    Firstly, recent and current research offers plenty of insights into maximising the benefits and minimising the risks of migration in climate change hotspots worldwide. The 2011 Foresight Report on Migration and Global Environmental Change showed that climate change will multiply economic and environmental threats to vulnerable people (especially in the global South), by making many of their livelihoods unsustainable. Among these people, some will move, but others will remain in places exposed to natural disasters and environmental degradation. In some cases, people are and will be moving to areas where they are in fact more vulnerable than they were in their areas of origin.

    Several multi-country empirical research projects are now shedding light on the reality of migration in climate change hotspots in the global South. Among them, the Where the Rain Falls project (2011–2013) showed how and under what circumstances people migrate to diversify their income sources amid increasing rainfall variability and unpredictability. From another angle, the Migration, Environment and Climate Change: Evidence for Policy project (2014–2016) is highlighting the conditions under which migration benefits households in their efforts to adapt to a changing climate. Meanwhile, the Pacific Climate Change and Migration project (2014–2016) is developing a model of migration flows under various climate change scenarios. This aims to help low-lying Pacific nations like Kiribati, Nauru and Tuvalu better prepare for the future.

    Secondly, we have increasingly innovative tools to monitor and predict migration linked to sudden- and slow-onset environmental stressors (which are likely to be exacerbated by climate change). For example, migration patterns can be tracked through the analysis of anonymised cell phone data, particularly during natural disasters like earthquakes, floods, hurricanes, landslides and storms. Moreover, agent-based modelling of migration allows researchers to effectively simulate future migration patterns under different climate change scenarios. Funding aimed at understanding human mobility in the context of climatic stressors should target these innovative methodologies.

    From a legal and policy perspective, there is a range of tools dealing with both internal and international displacement linked to natural disasters and the adverse impacts of climate change. Under the UN Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement, people displaced by disasters who remain within their country qualify as Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs). Still, the Guiding Principles are not binding for UN Member States, so it is up to individual states to protect IDPs under their own legislation.

    In the case of cross-border displacement, migrants face a clear legal gap: there is no internationally agreed legal framework guaranteeing their right to enter a third state. Building on a series of regional and global consultations under the Nansen Initiative, on 13 October 2015 officials from more than 100 countries endorsed the conclusions and recommendations of the “Agenda for the Protection of Cross-Border Displaced Persons in the Context of Disasters and Climate Change”. The agenda is a great step toward more effective protection for those who are both displaced and cross a national border; however, it remains a non-binding text for Member States.

    We already have the knowledge and tools available to help those displaced by climate change. Essentially, the adoption and implementation of the Nansen Protection Agenda (for international displacement) and the IDP Guiding Principles (for internal displacement) would help bridge many gaps in protection faced by vulnerable people across the global South.

    But above all it is time for world leaders to address climate change displacement and its financial implications. A great first step would be to establish a coordination facility with a funding mechanism to support those countries most vulnerable to climate change displacement.


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    Putting a Human Face on Climate Change by Andrea Milan is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.