Climate change, migration and displacement: the need for a risk-informed and coherent approach

Submitted by Anna Hickman | published 17th Nov 2017 | last updated 20th Dec 2017
The 10 largest displacement events of 2016 were climate related

The 10 largest displacement events of 2016 were climate related (figure 1, page 10 of the report). 

Introduction

This report* presents an overview of the current evidence base on the complex relationships between climate change and human mobility. It aims to support the development of an informed global discourse across the humanitarian, peace and sustainable development agendas and as a counter to some of the sensationalist claims often propagated by the media. In so doing, the paper illustrates that to adequately address human mobility in international and national policy responses, the links between climate change, displacement and migration need to be better understood.

There is a lack of clarity as to the direct influence of climate change on human mobility. We know that some areas worldwide are becoming less habitable due to increasingly extreme climate-related hazards. We know that other areas could become more habitable, allowing new economic activities such as agriculture or tourism. International processes, particularly those on migration and displacement, climate change and disaster risk reduction, increasingly refer to the links between climate change and human mobility. However, these links are not always grounded in evidence, and this increased attention has not led to the coordinated, significant policy or legislative change that is required. This report responds to these challenges.

*Download the full report from the right-hand column.

Key messages (abridged)

The key messages of the report are summarised as follows:

  • In 2016, over 24 million people were newly displaced by sudden-onset climate-related hazards, such as typhoons and floods.
    • However, there is no means of tracking how many might have moved partially in response to slow-onset hazard events, such as drought or desertification.
    • In addition, directly attributing human mobility to climate change is extremely difficult as there are many other drivers of migration.
  • Analysis is hampered by this complexity and the interrelatedness of drivers of migration.
  • Significant data challenges make estimation of migration and displacement under a changing climate problematic.
  • The distinct role of underlying vulnerability and capacity in driving human mobility and its impacts illustrate that the links between climate change and human mobility are not just for disaster risk management efforts or humanitarian assistance to address, but should be fundamentally ingrained in sustainable development processes.
  • Human mobility, both autonomous and planned, presents opportunities that may aid adaptation to climate change, and serve as an adaptation measure itself.
  • The links between climate change and human mobility have been recognised and are starting to be addressed to varying degrees within many global regimes.
    • E.g. the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC).
    • The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development (2030 Agenda) includes Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and targets on both climate change and migration, though explicit links between the two are absent.​

Lessons Learnt

To conclude, the report summarises a few key adaptation measure which could help resolve some of the issues presented and speculates future human migration patterns under changing climates:

  • Risk-informed development strategies and policies are paramount.
    • They have the potential to reduce vulnerability and enhance the ability of an individual, community or country to cope with, respond to and acquire the necessary skills to deal with shocks and stressors, including those posed by climate change.
  • Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) and national adaptation and disaster management processes and plans can play an important role.
  • If carefully managed and with the necessary resources, adaptation and disaster management processes and plans have the potential to:
    • Reduce vulnerability and ensure individuals, communities and countries have the necessary skills to cope with and respond to climate-related hazards;
    • Determine the flows, conditions and impacts of human mobility; and
    • Support migrant and displaced workers and communities.
  • This potential will be lost unless these strategies and policies are based on and account for the ways in which climate-related hazards affect people’s needs, welfare, income, and subsequent decisions to move (or stay).
  • Such plans must operate in both origin and destination communities, acknowledge the heterogeneous nature of those moving, and account for permanent, temporary and circular migration.
  • To be able to effectively operate in this way, additional financing and technical support from the international community is required.
  • The Global Compacts on Migration and Refugees, to be finalised in 2018, offer scope for climate risk-informed action.
    • If the Compacts and NAPs could be better aligned, in terms of language and approaches, links could plausibly be made between global and national ambitions, alongside a means to support people who want or need to move.
    • This could start to shift the discourse, to seeing migration as an adaptation strategy rather than a failure to adapt to climate change.
  • Patterns of human mobility are highly likely to shift as the climate continues to change.
    • National and global policy must act to give people choice – the choice to stay or go, and the support to do so.
  • Ultimately, countries must honour their international commitments to climate change mitigation to ensure communities are not left with no choice at all.