It is widely recognised that the effects of climate change will force people to flee their homes, villages, cities and countries on an unprecedented scale. While exact estimates are contested, the UNHCR predicts that in the coming decades, climate change will become the biggest driver of population displacement worldwide. The number of people displaced by climate change will greatly outstrip existing flows of refugees.

No international consensus has been reached, nor has a legal framework been developed, to deal with this expected mass movement of people.

Climate change impacts and forced displacement

The most recent report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) makes it clear that, on current trajectories, rising sea levels will make many small island states uninhabitable. Droughts and water scarcity will ruin crop productivity in traditionally fertile regions. An increase in floods and the intensity of storms will destroy essential public infrastructure.

For Australia’s neighbours, the low-lying Pacific atolls of Kiribati and the Marshall Islands, climate change isn’t something that will happen; it’s already happening. Droughts of increasing intensity and length and a rising sea level are forcing the people of these tiny nations to reconsider their futures on the islands.

While those on the frontlines are already suffering the consequences of climate change, the law is still catching up. Despite being referred to as “climate refugees”, people displaced by climate change do not fall under the narrow definition of ‘refugee’ in the 1951 Refugee Convention.  At the time the Convention was adopted, its authors could not have envisioned the impacts of climate change. There has been little political mobilization to amend the definition of ‘refugee’ and numerous concerns raised about doing so, even by those most likely to be affected.

The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), the centerpiece of the international climate change regime, also fails to address the situation of those displaced by climate change.

Previous agreements reached by the parties to the UNFCCC do briefly refer to the need to consider climate change induced displacement and migration. In the lead-up to the conference of the parties in Paris in 2015, an advisory group led by the UNHCR made recommendations on concrete steps to address human mobility in the context of climate change. However, these recommendations were scrapped from the final text of the Paris Agreement.

First step towards effective action

The most promising international framework to address this issue is the Nansen Principles. Developed in 2011, the Principles contain a broad set of recommendations ‘to guide responses to some of the urgent and complex challenges raised by displacement in the context of climate change and other environmental hazards’.

Efforts to embed these principles in a new binding international agreement have so far been unsuccessful. However, Norway and Switzerland have now established the Nansen Initiative to build consensus among interested states about how best to address cross-border displacement in the context of disasters exacerbated by climate change. It remains the most promising way to deal with the coming displacement crisis. 


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Last updated 9 February 2016