Climate change and refugees: Adaptation is the key to preventing displacement

23 January 2016

Somali refugees fleeing drought in the Horn of Africa arrive at the Dadaab camp (Kenya), in July 2011.
Somali refugees fleeing drought in the Horn of Africa arrive at the Dadaab camp (Kenya), in July 2011.

The hundreds of thousands of refugees who came to Europe lately have been fleeing wars and persecutions in Syria, Afghanistan or Erythrea. But an even greater wave provoked by climate change might soon pose a bigger challenge.

Prince Charles, Barack Obama, Mary Robinson and Naomi Klein have all linked climate change to migration and displacement. President Barack Obama, in his 2015 State of the Union address stated that: “No challenge – no challenge – poses a greater threat to future generations than climate change. If we don’t act forcefully, we will continue to see dangerous droughts and floods, and massive disruptions that can cause migration and conflict and hunger around the globe”.

Many commentators have also noted that global warming helped trigger Syria's bloody civil war, forced millions to leave Syria, and fuelled Europe’s so-called refugee crisis. Meanwhile, before the Paris climate summit, Naomi Klein called for an agreement that recognizes the “full rights of climate migrants to move to safer ground”. In the aftermath of Paris, and given Europe’s current refugee challenges, it is worthwhile examining the link between climate change and displacement in some depth.

Clearly climate change is affecting the movement of peoples. After all millions from the Mekong Delta to the Horn of Africa, rely on consistent weather for their livelihoods and are vulnerable to extreme weather events, which are exacerbated by climate change. Many live in areas prone to sea-level rise (think of the low-lying Pacific Island states) and flooding (the Bangladeshi Sundarbands are home to millions). Furthermore, many hope that by emphasizing how climate change will drive displacement of peoples, world leaders will take action and reduce emissions and avoid the dangers of moving beyond 2 degrees of warming. The Paris agreement is an important milestone in this direction.

However, in finding a solution to displacement that is related to climate change we must acknowledge that the links between climate change and migration are more complex than a direct cause and effect. Senior officials from the United Nations High Commissioner of Refugees and the International Organization for Migration have highlighted that climate change does not always directly cause displacement. Scholars such as Alexander Betts have also highlighted how migration is a multi-causal and complex phenomena. Climate change is one of many intersecting factors that impacts on movement. Furthermore, even in the most extreme cases of environmental disasters, not everyone moves. It is often the most vulnerable that are left behind, such as with Hurricane Katrina where people in the poorer Black communities in New Orleans were left on roof-tops surrounded by flood waters.

In fact, what is most critical – be it Hurricane Katrina (2015), the earthquake in Sichuan (2008), or drought in Syria (2008 – 2011) – is how politicians prepare and respond to natural disasters. President Bush’s preparation and his response were a failure of epic proportions and the inadequacy of underfunded, ill-equipped and poorly staffed federal agencies like Federal Emergency Management Authority (FEMA) was clearly exposed. In Sichuan (clearly not a climate related disaster but a good example of political mismanagement in a natural disaster) over 5,000 children died when their schools collapsed on their heads because of the failure to enforce building codes. Meanwhile in Syria we know that the Arab Spring, the drought and long-simmering discontent led to uprisings against Assad who in turn is waging a bloody war on his own people, which is now compounded by conflict with the Islamic State. The critical point here is that while climate change is a threat multiplier, it is political leaders, and the economic and social structures they govern, which determine who suffers the most in any disaster.

It is vital to acknowledge these political factors which help determine who moves and who stays. If we frame the problem simply as one of climate change induced displacement – often referred to as ‘climate refugees’ or ‘climate migrants’ – we risk formulating the wrong solutions. By way of example, some scholars and NGOs, such as Friends of the Earth, have called for a new international protocol to protect and assist ‘climate refugees’. They have, correctly, emphasized that people displaced by natural disasters are not covered by the 1951 Refugee Convention which only covers people who have fled their country of nationality due to persecution.

Yet establishing a new category of ‘climate refugees’ would be extremely problematic. After all it is usually difficult to link climate change to any particular meteorological event, let alone to someone’s movement. It would be almost impossible to identify actual ‘climate refugees’ and administer relief to them on this basis. Furthermore, targeting assistance to ‘climate refugees’ would ignore those who were displaced by natural disasters that were not climate change related – such as earthquakes in Haiti or Sichuan – as well as those who were left behind. It would also ignore the needs of many other displaced peoples who flee state collapse, such as in Afghanistan and Iraq, but are not covered by the refugee convention. We need to expand international protection to a much greater group of people than just ‘climate refugees’.

So what should we be doing to assist those affected by climate change? It is crucial that all governments prepare national adaptation plans to prepare for and deal with the adverse effects of climate change. Adaptation includes everything from constructing flood barriers to educating farmers on the changing climatic conditions. In addition, states should increase their financing for adaptation in the most vulnerable developing countries. There were promising signs at Paris – the US Secretary of State John Kerry announced he would double U.S. financing for adaptation to more than $800 million per annum. However, only 16 percent of current public climate financing goes to adaptation and there is a major shortfall in financing for adaptation. In 2012 – 2013 public financing was between $23 to $26 billion [€ 21bn to 24bn] yet developing countries will need at least $70 billion per annum by 2013. After Paris, we must put all pressure on governments to develop and finance adaptation policies and help the most vulnerable adapt to climate change.

Factual or translation error? Tell us.