Conference poster for Mixed Migration Roundtables, Tunisia, 2009. Photo courtesy of UNHCR.

As more people worldwide experience increased storm severity, floods and other climate change impacts, policymakers are growing increasingly concerned about climate displacement and searching for legal mechanisms to assist those uprooted from their homes.

Two recent conferences examined the issue of climate displacement and debated possible solutions. The first, the UN Refugee Agency’s Nansen Conference on Climate Change and Displacement in the 21st Century, was held June 6-7 in Oslo. The second, on general climate change issues facing small island developing states, including displacement, was hosted by Columbia University’s Center for Climate Change Law and the Government of the Republic of the Marshall Islands from May 23-25 in New York.

These conferences come at a time when there is more use of problematic terms such as “environmental refugees,” as well as projections of hundreds of millions of climate displaced peoples, than there is rigorous evidence to support those claims.

In order to find appropriate solutions for the real needs of people suffering from climate and environmental change impacts, scholars say, we need to fully understand the problem.

Some policymakers, such as David Hodgkinson, believe that because “environmental refugee” is not a legally recognized term and therefore not covered under the UNCHR Refugee Convention of 1951, or because the UNFCCC’s framework also does not deal with climate displacement, we need a new international treaty specifically for this purpose.

Some policymakers, such as Erik Solheim, Norway’s Minister of the Environment and International Development, believe that existing instruments, such as the UNCHR and the World Bank, are enough to support migrants moving for climate change reasons. Others, such as Michele Klein Solomon of the International Organization for Migration, say that international legal mechanisms such as consular law can also help.

Still others, such as Jane McAdam, Director of the International Refugee and Migration Law Project of the University of New South Wales, say a new international treaty cannot solve the problem, and may obscure more realistic solutions. McAdam argues we need more flexible options and increased empirical research on climate change, migration and displacement.

There are compelling reasons to support the idea that a new treaty is not needed.

Migration and displacement are complex. A large body of evidence from around the world shows that people move for a variety of social, political and natural factors, with most migration occuring for economic, not environmental, reasons. People base their decisions to migrate on assumptions about their destination that are often incorrect. Because of this complexity, it is impossible – and some academics argue, unfair – to isolate climate change as the sole reason people move.

Even if climate change aggravates existing environmental degradation, and becomes the tipping point for an individual or household’s decision to move (or becomes a stronger determining factor in the years ahead), that movement can occur gradually, such as with coastal erosion; temporarily and desparately, such as after a natural disaster; or through a government, moving its citizens away from harm. Since pressures, timing, speed and scale depend on the context, an international approach is unlikely to work. Moreover, while migration and displacement do happen around the world, making them global phenomena, people predominantly move within their own countries (a significant problem in its own right) or to adjoining countries.

It is currently unclear whether climate change will affect the short distance and short-term nature of migration and displacement, even if it increases the frequency of natural disasters. Even those Pacific islanders who have been forced to leave their homes because of climate change impacts have so far not moved outside their own countries. If sea-level rise becomes so severe that entire atoll states do submerge, bilateral, regional or other localized arrangements are far more likely to be flexible than an international mechanism. Human rights approaches, international burden-sharing agreements and guiding principles on external displacement may be other options, but without enforcement, such choices become time-consuming and risky.

Scholars who do not support a new international treaty are not dismissing the real challenges of displacement and climate change. On the contrary; they warn of underestimating the complexities with potentially inappropriate solutions. They also warn of overstating numbers,which can add fuel to xenophobic fears about migration, leading to a closing of borders and an intensifying of prejudice.

Whatever solution policymakers decide on – whether it’s to continue using existing mechanisms or create new ones – one scholar suggests a likelier way of finding them. Brad Blitz of Kingston University, London, points out that climate change and migration experts tend to keep to separate circles, creating a false disconnect and competition between subjects. Perhaps if those gaps are closed there is a better chance for a more optimal solution. As it stands, only one scholar, McAdam, presented at both these conferences.


Blitz suggests that the term “statelessness” – controversial though it is – is a way to bridge the gap between scholars and find solutions for small island nations and others who are displaced from climate change. More on this topic next week.

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