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5 November 2021

Why climate migrants are missing from the debate at Cop26

Until the world agrees how to define a “climate migrant”, legislation to protect them will lag behind the reality of climate change.

By Patrick Mulholland

Developed countries must “strengthen their commitments” to the increasing number of people escaping the adverse effects of climate change, the UN Network on Migration has said at Cop26. “Enhancing the availability and accessibility of regular migration pathways, and ensuring decent work for migrant workers will be critical,” said the UN in a statement addressed to world leaders in Scotland.

Across the globe, the World Bank estimates there could be as many as 216 million climate migrants by 2050, including 105 million in Africa, 88.9 million in south and east Asia, and 17.1 million in Latin America. 

In the past, these climate-induced migrations were somewhat masked by the process of urbanisation. People in developing countries, typically the worst-affected by climate change, would leave rural areas for nearby cities. But now, there is a rising trend of cross-border movements, as exemplified by the crisis along the US-Mexico border, where 1.7 million migrants have been apprehended during the fiscal year that ended in September 2021. 

This has prompted a change of tack for US policy in the region. Increasingly American officials are regarding fragile ecosystems as “stressors”, which are capable of destabilising weak economies, undermining state institutions and perhaps most crucially for the US, spurring irregular migrations. 

On a recent visit to Colombia, secretary of state Antony Blinken feted national leaders for their conservation efforts and pledged “much-needed financial assistance” to prevent rapid deforestation. Since 2001, the Amazon rainforest has lost 65.8 million acres of primary forest coverage – an area larger than the UK. Around three-quarters of Colombia’s carbon emissions can be traced back to the clearance of land for unsustainable agricultural production, such as cattle grazing, according to Blinken.

[See also: Why the deforestation agreement is badly needed to save the Amazon]

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“The climate crisis… [is] displacing people from their homes and communities in areas where droughts and floods are becoming more frequent and severe,” said Blinken in a speech. “We know this problem is only going to get worse unless we act quickly and ambitiously to reduce emissions, slow global warming, [and] invest in climate resilience.” 

Last month, the White House National Security Council released a report detailing the effects of climate change on cross-border migration. The long-awaited analysis, which also marks the first time the US government has taken an official position on the matter, was commissioned under an executive order signed by President Biden in February, shortly after he took office. 

“For too long, climate and migration issues were treated as siloed and separate issues; this report recognises that the two are inextricably linked,” said Erol Yayboke, a director at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, whose work helped inform the findings.

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Others were less impressed. In a statement, Kayly Ober, senior advocate at Refugees International, praised the report for its assessment of the challenges posed by climate-induced migration, but expressed disappointment that it was “long on description and too short on prescription”. 

As part of its literature survey, the government introduced new vocabulary to its lexicon, contextualising its policy recommendations in terms of “mitigation” and “adaptation”, rather than outright solutions to the looming climate crisis.

“Even with aggressive international and whole-of-government action to mitigate future climate change, many effects to the physical environment are now unavoidable and will continue to shape our security environment,” said a Department of Defense climate risk analysis also released in October in one sobering passage.

However, not all nations bear the same burden, nor are they all equally equipped to rebuild after a major disaster. Wealthy countries, namely Germany, through good governance, are capable of responding to devastating floods, whereas other countries, such as Honduras, are not so fortunate, explained David Victor, a senior fellow at the Brooking Institute.

In August, a month after deadly floods ravaged the Rhine basin, Germany put together a €30bn reconstruction fund – an aid package nearly 1.5 times larger than the GDP of Honduras. According to the International Rescue Committee, “not nearly enough” has been done to assist the Central American country, which saw the displacement of 937,000 people, almost a tenth of its population, following the destruction wrought by hurricanes Eta and Iota in November 2020. 

Yet the climate change migration report was careful not to label climate change as “the sole driver of migration” and struggled to develop a workable definition of what constitutes a “climate refugee”.

“Embedded in the report you see the uncertainty with what to call these individuals,” said Beth Ferris, a research professor from the Institute for the Study of International Migration at Georgetown University. “Most migration is multi-causal. People leave because of their economic situation, family relationships and personal tolerance of risk.”

Meanwhile, within the international community, there is little appetite to revisit the 1951 Refugee Convention and expand its wording to include those who involuntarily leave their countries due to climate change, added Ferris. “Our terminology hasn’t caught up with reality.”

Notwithstanding these ambiguities, the report drew attention to the outsized impact of climate change on poor and middle-income countries, many of whom cannot cope with resettling large influxes of people. Similarly, in a rare admission, the report also identified the limited number of legal migration pathways as a root cause of human trafficking (which, in turn, was found to breed corruption and erode public institutions in weak states). 

For its part, the US does not consider its human rights obligations to include protections for climate migrants, but noted that it was in the national interest to devise new immigration categories for those “fleeing serious, credible threats to their life… as a result of direct or indirect impacts of climate change.” 

In order to achieve this, the report recommended the creation of an interagency working group on climate and migration in America. “The inner workings of the US government are not always exciting and headline-grabbing, but it is important to acknowledge that the actions that myriad parts of the government will take will likely be seeded and discussed in such an interagency process,” said Yayboke. 

One way the US government might aim to better accommodate climate migrants is by building on the Temporary Protected Status programme, a legislative instrument allowing foreign nationals from certain countries to live and work in the US if their home country is facing an armed conflict, environmental disaster or other extraordinary conditions.

But the limitation of this policy is baked into its name – “temporary”. That is why there is no substitute for landmark climate legislation. Even for the Biden administration, which has done more to combat climate change than any government in US history, what will really move the needle is the financial backing of Congress, said Victor.

“The best scenario is that the report will be one note in a symphony of efforts by the Biden administration to address the impacts of climate change,” he explained. “If they get the big reconciliation bill, if they get more money for foreign assistance, if the right people are in place, and if they get re-elected, so you’ve got eight years or more – then it could be very significant.”

[See also: UK and US lead move to end overseas funding for oil and gas at Cop26]