The Rising Need to Address Climate-Induced Displacement

Fiji’s role as a developing island state and President of the COP brings Loss and Damage (L&D) into sharper focus at COP23. At negotiations thus far, differences have emerged between developing and developed countries. Developing countries generally want the Warsaw International Mechanism on Loss and Damage (WIM), established at COP19, to have a broader scope, increased capacity, and more international cooperation on addressing L&D. Developed countries, on the other hand, are satisfied with the work of WIM and requested that WIM be given a chance to carry out its three functions: enhancing knowledge around comprehensive risk management of L&D; strengthening cooperation between relevant stakeholders; and enhancing action and support, including finance, for addressing L&D.

Screen Shot 2017-11-08 at 3.11.19 PML&D is an especially important issue to developing countries and one noneconomic form of L&D is human displacement by climate change. On average, sudden onset disasters (i.e. extreme weather) displace around 25 million people per year and slow onset events will displace many more. Moreover, people in low and lower-middle income countries are five times more likely to be displaced than people in high-income countries. Mandated by the COP21 Paris Decision, the Task Force on Displacement was created under WIM to recommend ways to address, avert, and minimize displacement. These recommendations will be delivered to the Parties at COP24 in 2018.

The many extreme weather events that have affected communities worldwide in 2017 frame the current conversation on climate change-induced displacement. This conversation requires discussions on many questions including: what to call environmental migrants (the term “climate refugee” as largely been rejected); how can countries prepare for inevitable displacement; and, what rights and resources will displaced peoples have?

At the side event “Uprooted by Climate Change: Responding to the Growing Risk of Displacement,” His Excellency Anote Tong, former President of Kiribati, expressed his concern for the future of Kiribati. He explained that Kiribati will inevitably be destroyed by climate change, despite mitigation efforts, either by extreme storms or eventual sea level rise. His call is to prepare these future climate migrants through training and education programs so they can easily be assimilated into a new country. He called this strategy “Migration with Dignity.” The former President does not like the term refugee – in this case, people would have choice and agency in how they move.

Today’s side events on displacement highlighted the swath of agencies working on this issue including the UN Refugee Agency, UN Migration Agency, the Platform on Disaster Displacement, and even the UN Food and Agriculture Organization and World Meteorological Society, among many others. Collectively, speakers from these agencies highlighted the need to put protection of people at the center of displacement discussions, especially concerning legal rights, and that internal displacement will continue to strain governments. Forced relocation was emphasized as a last resort for communities.

In the words of His Excellency Anote Tong, “What do we do for whom it’s too late” and displacement from climate change is inevitable? COP23 has continued the discussion on displacement yet, much more needs to be done to ensure that when people relocate, they can call a new place home.