What is a climate change refugee?

“But what happens to our identity? What happens to our culture?” When I had the opportunity to listen to a young man from the Pacific Island of Kiribati this June at Global Power Shift in Istanbul, I realized that climate migration is a much bigger challenge than just providing people shelter in a different place. And how much of a threat rising sea levels are to an island like Kiribati whose highest point is only 3 meters above sea level: “The houses we live in, the water we drink and the food we eat are affected by rising sea levels”, he told me and 500 other young climate activists.

So, for me, it was no surprise when another man from Kiribati recently tried to seek recognition from a court in New Zealand as the world’s first climate refugee. But climate migration is not only about small islands facing rising sea levels. It’s becoming one of our society’s biggest challenges and an issue of climate justice as those least responsible for climate change are often the ones most vulnerable to droughts, storms, rising sea levels and other effects of climate change. And while it’s hitting the poorest people in developing countries most as these are often forced to live in zones of highest risk, it even already affects people in Alaska and other places in developed countries.

In face of the recent IPCC projections which expect further global warming above the 2-degree-threshold, more and longer heat waves, more frequent and more intense extreme precipitation events, and sea level rise exceeding the rate observed in recent decades, it is clear that climate migration will become a more apparent and more pressing topic in the course of this century as migration has always been one longstanding response to environmental change and will be one way that humans adapt to climate change. This was also highlighted by another recent IPCC special report which states that some areas will become increasingly marginal as places to live or in which to maintain livelihoods, that migration and displacement could become permanent and that many residents of these areas might have to become climate refugees and relocate.


Climate refugees

In the face of growing migration due to more severe climate change, we have to ask the question what exactly is a climate refugee? First and foremost, there is no legal framework specifically addressing environmentally/climate induced migration and no legal definition of the term “climate refugee” as climate change and other environmental factors aren’t included in the definition of a “refugee” according to Chapter 1, Article 1 (A) of the UN Convention and Protocol relating to the Status of Refugees.

Nevertheless, the EU states that “in the past few years a number of stakeholders, including UN bodies and agencies, governments, international organizations and NGOs have been reflecting on how to adjust their humanitarian and development cooperation and/or their adaptation strategies in light of the link between migration and climate change”.  For instance, IOM defines the interchangeably used term “environmental migrant” as “persons or groups of persons who, for compelling reasons of sudden or progressive changes in the environment that adversely affect their lives or living conditions, are obliged to leave their habitual homes, or choose to do so, either temporarily or permanently, and who move either within their country or abroad.”

So, while there are attempts to address the questions of defining climate refugees and building a supportive legal framework, there are also problems with labeling people as “climate refugees”. According to Randall, the term “climate refugee” is problematic because of negative images associated with the term “refugee” (people do not want to leave as refugees but with dignity as skilled migrants), because it often involves individual short-term, short-distance migration (instead of massive migration waves) and because it’s difficult to state that climate change was the primary or sole cause for someone’s movement. Moreover, there are also concerns about a potential backlash against migrants and misuse of terms like “refugee” if migration is portrayed as a solely negative outcome of climate change.

Generally, it might also be better to use the term “climate migrant” instead of “climate refugee” because “climate migrants often have a higher degree of negotiation room than refugees, particularly in the case of slow-onset climate change, where these migrants may have time to plan their relocation” and to recognize the complexity of migration decisions. In this regard, the EU also states that “with the exception of certain clear-cut cases such as small island states affected by sea level rise, it is very difficult to establish straightforward links between migration and environmental degradation” because of “the complex relationship between environmental factors and other processes at work in regions of origin and destination which may drive migration”. In particular, it is necessary to discuss the complex nexus between climate change, migration and conflict/instability which was most visible during the Arab Spring “where food availability, increasing food prices, drought, and poor access to water, as well as urbanization and international migration contributed to the pressures that underpinned the political upheaval”.


Scope of climate migration

So, with all these uncertainties around the definition of climate refugees, the insufficient legal framework and the complexity in assessing the reasons for migration, politicians and the public are getting more concerned about the question if we will see massive climate migration in the upcoming decades. Despite the fact that “deteriorating environmental circumstances have historically driven people to turn to migration as an adaptive mechanism”, there are no solid estimates of the number of likely migrants or refugees because it is extraordinary difficult to estimate and calculate the number of environmental refugees worldwide. The EU states that “vulnerability to climate change does not automatically imply that migration will occur” and that it is expected that “most migration and displacement will take place in an intra-State context or within developing regions”.

Displacement as a last resort solution to the adverse effects of environmental change will probably only be necessary in cases such as small island states affected by sea level rise and other situations with extreme stresses on human health such as heat waves, malnutrition and decreasing quality of drinking water. In this regard, it is particularly difficult to assess to what extent slow-onset climate events like drought and desertification contribute to migration. So, there should be caution with existing estimates ranging from 200 million to 1 billion climate migrants by 2050 such as by IOM.


Addressing climate migration

Coming back to the introductory questions, it is important to think about the diverse range of challenges that climate migration poses and how to address them. For instance, while it might be theoretically feasible to relocate the less than 500,000 inhabitants of the four islands Kiribati, Maledives, Marshall Islands and Tuvalu that are most threatened by rising sea levels, it is also necessary to look at legal, social, cultural and other factors. First of all, it is important to address the principal gaps in existing law and policy concerning legal rights and funding. In particular, there is a lack of a right for refugees in existing law to remain permanently in another country due to environmental conditions in the home country and a lack of a dedicated source of international funding to help offset the costs that developing countries may incur in dealing with climate change migration.

Moreover, “even if most climate migrants move only short distances, these shifts have the potential to alter political dynamics, increase ethnic tensions, or provoke clashes over resources.” So, it is no surprise that the EU states that climate migration requires comprehensive responses involving a broad range of issues and policies such as “climate change mitigation, disaster risk reduction, urban planning, education, social policy, asylum and migration policies, development policies and humanitarian and civil protection policies” and considering varying needs depending on people’s age, health, gender, socio-economic status and other factors.

Bread for the World also proposes a set of strategies for further actions on three levels:

  • Local level: Support local people in finding ways to adapt, coordinate humanitarian aid with civil society and local governments, work towards increasing local capacity and supporting communities and households, educate and build information-sharing networks, foster people’s ownership of and participation in the process (turn victims into agents of the process), etc.
  • National level: Engage the media proactively, educate parliamentarians, connect national authorities to on-the-ground experience, build national organization networks, build bridges between different policy communities, etc.
  • International level: Connect large humanitarian organizations and local communities, catalogue and pursue different options for acquiring a recognized status for climate change displace persons, bring more attention to human rights in the climate change regime, refocus discussions on states’ obligations, develop a strategy to develop and derive climate change victims’ rights from civil and political rights, foster global-level advocacy, etc.

In addition, policies and actions should also be differentiated based on the stage of climate induced migration, “ranging from actions to mitigate climate change, the offer of protection during the phase of displacement and (re)integration or resettlement measures in the last stage”. Providing shelter, access to land, water, food and new sources of income and developing supporting mechanisms in receiving communities is therefore important so that climate refugees can not only start a new life but also preserve their culture, traditions and identity.


Note: This was an assignment for the Coursera / University of Melbourne MOOC “Climate change”.

Posted on October 20, 2013 in Climate Change

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About the Author

Andreas Lindinger is a Vienna-based business consultant, sustainability expert and urban thinker passionate about livable cities, sustainable transportation, renewable energy and civic engagement. Andreas offers a transdisciplinary business, finance and sustainability background, industry expertise in energy, mobility and environmental consulting and broad international experience gained in Vienna, Vancouver, Berlin and Dublin. Make sure to also check out Vienncouver.com and to follow @lindinger on Twitter.

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