As governments meet in the Conference of the Parties of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) in Paris (COP 21), addressing the consequences of environmental change on human mobility should be high on their agenda. And they should be aware that the link between climate change and human mobility is much more complex than often assumed or depicted by the media. People have been moving for thousands of years due to environmental change. With climate change, however, such movements will likely accelerate. For many, voluntary migration will be an effective adaptation strategy if they are able to move in safety and dignity.
Paragraph 14(f) of the Adaptation Framework adopted in the COP held in 2010 in Cancún invited States to enhance action on adaptation by undertaking, inter alia, “measures to enhance understanding, coordination, and cooperation with regard to climate change induced displacement, migration and planned relocation, where appropriate at the international, regional and national levels”. In Doha in 2012, the COP reiterated the need for more attention to human mobility, noting in Paragraph 7(e) the need for greater understanding of “how impacts of climate change are affecting patterns of migration, displacement and human mobility.”
Since 2010, significant progress has been made in building the evidence base needed to assess the impact of climate change on movements of people. Starting with the UK government’s Foresight Report, there has been growing consensus among experts as to the role played by the environment, as one of many factors that precipitate movement. The most recent report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change summarized the state of knowledge succinctly: “Climate change over the 21st century is projected to increase displacement of people.” IPCC’s review of the evidence indicated that “Extreme weather events provide the most direct pathway from climate change to migration” but in the longer-term “sea level rise, coastal erosion, and loss of agricultural productivity … will have a significant impact on migration flows.”
KNOMAD’s work on environmental change and migration confirms these findings. A report on the state of the evidence concluded that there were four principal pathways through which environmental change affects movements of people: longer term drying trends; rising sea levels and glacier melt; increased frequency and magnitude of weather-related natural hazards; and competition over scarce natural resources. All will affect livelihoods, habitat and human security.
Research also indicates that pre-existing resilience of people to shocks can have a profound influence on both their migration patterns and the impact of this mobility on their future well-being. Those who are already more resilient can move with foresight and planning and benefit from this adaptation process. By contrast, those who are more vulnerable are more likely to be displaced against their will, especially by acute events, or become trapped in place.
There has also been progress in defining principles and guidelines to protect people who must move in the context of environmental change. The Nansen Initiative, an intergovernmental forum that focused on displacement from natural disasters and the impacts of climate change, promulgated an Agenda for the Protection of Cross-Border Displaced Persons in Context of Disaster and Climate Change . The agenda outlines proactive steps that States need to take at the national, regional, and international levels. In October 2015, over 100 countries endorsed its conclusions and recommendations. A parallel initiative led by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, Brookings Institution and Georgetown University has developed guidance on planned relocation in these contexts.
We need urgently to reduce the potential for involuntary displacement while facilitating voluntary migration for those who choose this path. This can be achieved by increasing the resilience of households and communities today and finding sustainable solutions for all of those affected by climate change. As governments develop their National Adaptation Plans and climate resilience strategies, human mobility should be an important factor in their planning.