It is becoming increasingly common knowledge that citizens of island countries are already experiencing climate change impacts such as sea level rise, drought, salt water intrusion, cyclones and more. Earlier yesterday, the New York Times illustrated that well, with an in-depth look at the disappearing Marshall Islands. According to a new study being conducted by the UN University Institute for Environment and Human Security (UNU-EHS) across 3 Pacific Island nations (neighbors of the Marshall Islands), these impacts have begun to drive migration as an adaptation strategy, which in turn is revealing serious and complex issues about mobility.
It is not yet clear whether such information might influence the Paris Agreement. As of 8:00 am Paris time today, Article 5. in the draft Agreement addressing Loss and Damage, and containing a provision to create a climate change displacement coordination facility, remained an option on the table.
It would behoove the climate policy community to pay attention to this unprecedented new research that is seeking to understand current and future scenarios for people vulnerable to climate change displacement impacts. The ultimate goal is to “improve the capacity of Pacific Island countries to better plan and manage the impacts of climate change on migration.” And yesterday at COP21, the project director, Dr. Koko Warner, Senior Expert at UNU EHS, presented her team’s findings to date.
The study, funded by EuropeAid, has involved more than 6,000 surveys of nearly 900 households in Kiribati, Tuvalu, and Nauru, utilizing local citizens who received training in the survey method. These surveys have made clear that movement is no longer just because of economics or persecution, and that both mobility and adapting in place are constrained by multiple factors. Those surveyed have serious concerns about leaving and staying.
Climate change was independently and specifically cited as a reason for migration by 23% of migrants in Kiribati and 8% in Tuvalu, without it being introduced in the questions. And, significant numbers of households surveyed (>70% in Kiribati and >35% in Nauru) indicated they would likely choose migration, if droughts, sea level rise, and floods worsen. Yet, many Pacific Islanders face visa issues, and education and financial constraints that prevent them from using migration as a way to manage climate change risks. Nor has internal migration, which is far easier and less expensive than international movement, served as a durable solution for climate change. In Kiribati, many residents of the outer atolls have moved to the capital island, only to experience overcrowding, high unemployment, and limited fresh water, without reduced vulnerability to climate change. For Pacific Islanders seeking to or forced by economics to adapt in place, the toolbox is still pretty empty – insufficient weather data, incident early warning systems, and fresh water protection strategies, among other issues.
The larger, more fundamental issue being revealed is that even though managed migration could increase the capacity to adapt, the concept is absent from current legal and institutional frameworks. Conventional 20th century tools used for mobility are not workable for 21st century climate migrants. For Warner, “the lesson is how unprepared we are and how ill equipped our current … arrangements are” for this increasing challenge.
Warner’s work could well begin to erode the credibility of some policymakers who insist that existing institutions can be employed to face this challenge, and may make inroads toward keeping the loss and damage Article and its climate change displacement coordination facility in the Paris Agreement. We are watching closely.