Climate change and displacement: new perspectives from Paris.

One of the topics under scrutiny at last fortnight’s climate talks in Paris was the role of the UNFCCC governance and legal framework in responding to ‘climate change induced displacement, migration and planned relocation’.

Many media commentators continue pitch this issue as a question of how developed nations should deal with ‘climate refugees’. Accompanied by the obligatory image of a Palm-fringed low-lying atoll in king tide conditions, the thrust of much of stock-narrative is something like this. Idyllic, but under-developed Pacific island states are in imminent danger of sinking beneath rising seas. The only hope of salvation for their residents lies in the ability to migrate to safer havens in developed countries – in this region, Australia and New Zealand. But authorities and the courts in those countries won’t or can’t respond. Conventional refugee protection pathways are not available, because the current international regime doesn’t recognise environmentally displaced people as refugees. We should change update our interpretation of the Refugee Convention, or change it, or make a new convention.

The issue is, of course, more far more nuanced than that. The phrase ‘climate refugee’ is itself fraught, at least in a strict legal sense. Even the more neutral phrase ‘climate changed-displaced’ person has its shortcomings. Climate change is best understood as a ‘threat multiplier’ rather than single cause of displacement – especially in the case of ‘slow onset’ climate change-related pressures, such as sea-level rise and some forms of drought or sustained meteorological changes. This suggests that simplistic analyses of the causes for or solutions to displacement or migration are not especially helpful. Appropriate responses need to take into account the complexity of environmental, economic, cultural and other contributors to decisions to move from locations and countries vulnerable to the impacts of climate change.

The issue of climate-related displacement has been lurking on the fringes of the UNFCCC framework for a number of years. In 2010 in Cancun, parties agreed that under an adaptation framework, consideration should be given to ‘measures to enhance understanding, coordination and cooperation with regard to climate change induced displacement, migration and planned relocation’. However, progress in the area has been slow, in part, perhaps, because not all countries at risk from the effects of climate change have been enthusiastic about offering a ‘free pass’ to developed countries to continue to emit greenhouse gases by supporting a climate change-migration scheme.

Early drafts of the Paris climate package included an explicit reference to the need to develop approaches to address climate change induced displacement, migration and planned relocation in the operative text of the agreement, supplemented by words in the accompanying Conference decision. The President’s draft text released on Wednesday 9 December contained the following as a bracketed option in the much-debated ‘loss and damage’ section:

A climate change displacement coordination facility shall be established under the Warsaw International Mechanism…to help coordinate efforts to address climate change induced displacement, migration and planned relocation.

Those words were steadily watered down over the remaining 4 days of negotiations. The final adopted text of the Agreement contains no explicit reference to climate-related displacement in the operative agreement, however paragraph 50 of the accompanying COP decision requests the:

Executive Committee of the Warsaw International Mechanism [for Loss and Damage] to establish, according to its procedures and mandate, a task force to…develop recommendations for integrated approaches to avert, minimize and address displacement related to the adverse impacts of climate change.

The removal of legally binding obligation to establish a climate change displacement coordination facility in the final Agreement will have come as a disappointment to a number of states and international organisations, as well as many among the thousands of activists who – defying a French government ban – gathered in central Paris for a ‘red lines’ protest on the final day of the talks.

However, an explicit acknowledgement of the importance of addressing climate-related displacement in the COP decision will, it is suggested, continue to strengthen momentum building elsewhere on this issue – including through the UN High Commissioner on Refugees, International Organisation on Migration, the Nansen Initiative and other international organisations – inching towards a coordinated framework for oversight and collaboration on displacement responses, and potentially a system of legal protection for environmentally displaced people.

At a side event at the Paris-Le Bourget Conference Centre on 10 December, some common themes emerged in presentations by UN experts in this area. One was the need for proactivity.

“We must focus more on prevention and preparedness” was the message from Assistant Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Deputy Emergency Relief Coordinator Kyung-wha Kang, “so that the losses, and the need for humanitarian interventions are minimized when disasters do strike. And they will strike.”

Speakers also highlighted the potential positive effects of climate-related migration, not only for affected communities, but for their future hosts, in the event that permanent movement is necessary.  Michelle Leighton of the International Labour Organization put it like this:

“We have to stop seeing migration as a failure of development, and we have to start looking at it as an opportunity and potential solution for a climate changed future…

These are people who bring skills, and talents, and ideas that can help fill labour shortages (of which there are many) not only from countries within their region, but in other regions. They can become entrepreneurs, run small businesses, and contribute to the economies of their host communities. And at the same time, these movements reduce pressure on climate-affected landscapes.”

New Zealand government representatives have participated in discussions on development of international frameworks for disaster response, including the Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction 2015-2030 and the Nansen Initiative. The Nansen ‘Agenda for the Protection of Cross-Border Displaced Persons in the Context of Disasters and Climate Change’ adopted in October 2015 identifies as ‘effective state practices with regard to preparedness’:

Including cross-border displacement scenarios within bilateral or regional disaster contingency planning exercises…

Reviewing existing legal frameworks at the regional and national level and, if relevant, harmonizing them, with respect to receiving cross-border disaster-displaced persons.

Neither of those common-sense actions are, publicly at least, on the government’s current agenda. The administration has effectively adopted a ‘wait and see’ policy under which (according to a January 2013 MFAT briefing paper to the Associate Climate Change Minister), New Zealand would “continue to respond to climatic disasters in the Pacific and manage changes as they arise…” but otherwise has no active planning for responses to climate-related displacement underway. The renewed call for purposeful and pre-emptive policy towards climate-related displacement in the Paris package is a timely reminder for the need for a refreshed approach in New Zealand towards this emerging and critical issue.

Written by