Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Jon Barnett Debunks Sea-Level Rise and Forced Migration Scenarios

We can add another voice to the climate change and forced migration debate. Jon Barnett of the University of Melbourne, claims that "no one is currently emigrating from Pacific small island states principally due to climate change."

"In this short interview conducted at the Woodrow Wilson Center, Barnett situates climate change’s potential future impacts within the broader social, political, and economic challenges for residents of small island states, reminding us that there is great physical and political diversity among these islands.

Stressing the mix of pushes and pulls that motivate people to move, Barnett suggests we examine existing patterns of migration to better understand how they will develop in the future. He emphasizes that climate change is most likely to push islanders to move due to declining food production and drinking water availability, rather than sea-level rise—despite the iconic image of lapping waves submerging low-lying countries. These sober reminders on the complexity of climate-migration links are worth keeping in mind when evaluating the plethora of new reports on the topic."

Source: New Security Beat

Monday, June 8, 2009

UNHCR Offers Outline for Climate Refugees

In a fateful coincidence, the day the very first blog post launched on this site, UNHCR wrote and submitted a report to the Bonn Climate Change Talks - June 2009 about "Forced Displacement in the Context of Climate Change: Challenges for States Under International Law." While we have been calling for the UN's, particularly UNHCR's, presence in the debate on climate refugees, they are hesitant to take the lead in legal protection. Within their submission, they instead place the responsibility on that of the State, suggesting even that
"State Parties should build on existing international response mechanisms and ensure policy coherence between mitigation, adaptation, humanitarian responses and development" (p. 3).
Pinning the fate of climate refugees on existing international law has been a popular refrain. In the case of internal displacement, UNHCR suggests using the 1998 UN Guiding Principles on International Displacement as a starting point. They claim that under it, States "bear the primary duty and responsibility to provide assistance and protection in all phases of internal displacement (Guiding Principle 3) for all IDPs, including those displaced by the effects of climate change" (p. 3-4) In fact, they stress that the State must address the challenge of climate refugees on mutliple levels; namely, through preventative measures like mitigating climate change, and reducing risks created by climate change, and of course, responsive actions like protecting those individuals displaced by climate change. Other international organizations suggest the same.

Human rights law, in general, also dictates that the "right to life....create[s] positive obligations on States to take appropriate steps to safeguard the life, limb and property of those within their jurisdiction against the threat of disasters," which is further compunded by the duty of the State "to put into place a legislative and administrative framework designed to provide effective protection against such threats" (p. 6) . Some regional instruments like the 1969 OAU Convention Governing the Specific Aspects of Refugee Problems in Africa and the 1984 Cartagena Declaration on Refugees, which both broaden the refugee protection framework to include those compelled to flee due to "events disturbing public order" or a "massive violation of human rights", are offered as a potential stepping stone towards climate refugee recognition.

A larger problem arises when climate refugees become refugees in the truer sense of the word, when they cross international borders. Important protection measures already exist within the 1951 Refugee Convention, specifically Article 33(1), which prohibits the refoulement of asylum seekers to "the frontiers of territories where his life or freedom would be threatened" (p. 11). But, again, UNHCR shies from expanding the traditional definition of refugee and leaves the designation up to each receiving state. They offer various examples, including the U.S. Temporary Protected Status mechanism -- which was enacted in 1990, but put into use in 1998 after Hurricane Mitch. This mechanism allows nationals of foreign states temporary refugee status so that they can stay within the U.S. if they meet three key criteria: 1) there has been an environmental disaster in the foreign state resulting in a substantial, but temporary, disruption of living conditions; 2) the foreign state is unable to handle adequately the return of its own nationals; and 3) the foreign state has officially requested such a designation.

While we applaud the attempt of UNHCR and the international system to acknowledge the threat of climate refugees, it seems they are disproportionately placing the burden on states -- and largely developing ones at that. What are the chances that a Burma or Zimbabwe would actively aid their citizens when disaster strikes or petition a neighboring state for temporary relocation? We're willing to bet slim to none.

Below you'll find the entirety of the report submitted on behalf of UNHCR to the Bonn Climate Change Talks - June 2009.

Forced Displacement in the Context of Climate Change

Thursday, June 4, 2009

Carteret Islands as Poster Child

As mentioned in a previous blog post, the Carteret Islands seem to be getting most of the media attention as the "first climate refugees." This is further bolstered by a Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting documentary about the islanders needing to move because "rising sea levels have polluted their fresh water wells with salt water. High tides flood more and more of the islands, and erosion is a growing problem." ('Next Wave' chronicles the climate change refugees). This comes on the heels of a groundbreaking resolution passed by the UN that acknowledges climate change's threat to security, particularly for small Pacific islands. While nonbinding, the resolution looks to be just the start of international recognition on climate change and possible forced migration scenarios.

To learn more about the climate change's effect on the Carteret Islands, see the short preview below:

"Located 50 miles off the coast of Papua New Guinea, the Carteret Islands are disappearing into the ocean. Climate change is destroying the atoll, forcing the islanders to search for homes on Bougainville, an autonomous region of Papua New Guinea. Though this is the story of one remote community, scientists estimate climate change will displace up to 50 million people by 2050."

Sunday, May 31, 2009

The Media’s Role in the Debate: Hot Topic or Hot Air?

Yesterday the Inter Press Service featured a question and answer session with Maurizio Gubbiotti of Legambiente, an Italian NGO which recently released a study claiming that environmental refugees exceed the number of war refugees. Gubbiotti believes that the greatest impact will be within already fragile states, like Africa, and coastal areas in Asia, especially Bangladesh and the Pacific islands. In particular, “Maldives islands, where 85 percent…is threatened by rising seas, and about 300,000 people will have to move soon.” The president of the Maldives is, incidentally, already in negotiations with other countries to relocate the island's entire population before it is too late.

A few days ago the New York Times offered a more nuanced piece (“Refugees Join List of Climate-Change Issues”) that looked at climate change induced migration pressures on small islands and land-locked countries already in the throes of conflict. This post was particularly encouraging for two reasons: 1) the link between climate change, migration and conflict was discussed as legitimate and recognized by the UN as a security threat -- “For the first time in history, you could actually lose countries off the face of the globe,” said Stuart Beck, the permanent representative for Palau at the United Nations. “It is a security threat to them and their populations, which will have to be relocated, which is the security threat to the places where they go, among other consequences.”

And more importantly: 2) a reputable and popular news source brought the issue to the forefront.

Although enjoying resurgent popularity, climate refugees have been the media’s darling for some time. From’s article on Tuvalu’s search for higher ground before its population is inundated by rising seas; to assertions that high tides have already claimed the first “climate refugees” in multiple small island states like Kiribati and the Carteret Islands (which seems the most accepted example; see here as well). Add to that a running series called “Bangladesh: Where the Climate Exodus Begins” on GreenWire, and it seems the news is brimming with doom-and-gloom scenarios of climate-induced migration. Most of these stories revolve around anecdotal evidence, which often illegitimizes the very real future problem of climate refugees. And, while increasing coverage is heartening, and is a means to catalyzing international and legal recognition; we must wait for more than just anecdotes in order to create sustainable solutions. I think Dhananjayan Sriskandarajah, former head migration researcher at the Institute for Public Policy Research, hits the quick of the matter with the thought that "there shortage of political or media interest in the nexus between climate change and migration. Yet there seems to be a dearth of analysis on how exactly climate change will lead to displacement and on what should be done to minimise adverse impacts. This has resulted in limited commitment to no action." We must, therefore, wait and hope for the discussion to move out of the annals of the media and into larger, more influential halls like those of the UN.

Shout Out: Dennis Dimick, executive director at National Geographic, has been particularly in the fold, with his blog Signs From Earth regularly covering climate refugee issues and linking to other newsworthy sources.

Side Note: To keep track of recent media coverage, we encourage you to check out our “Breaking News” box.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

The Crux of the “Climate Refugee” Debate

From dire prediction to lukewarm reception, the term “climate refugee” has yet to find a definable home within legal and academic parameters. However, the concept of forced migration due to environmental pressures has a storied background, arising some two decades ago when Essam El-Hinnawi published a paper for the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP), which defined “environmental refugees” as those “who have been forced to leave their traditional habitat because of a marked environmental disruption that jeopardized and/or seriously affected their quality of life.”

Curiosity over the term solidified after the Inter-governmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released figures of global warming-induced sea-level rise scenarios ranging from 22 centimeters to 34 centimeters between 1990 and 2080. With unexpected collapses from the West Antarctic or Greenland ice shelf, levels could climb even higher. These numbers are especially relevant as we consider that an additional rise of just 38 centimeters would increase the number of people displaced by flooding five-fold. However, all of these estimates remain just that, estimates.

The biggest proponents of the pressing reality of “climate refugees” are often environmentalists. They are the outspoken voices behind the issue that create such estimates. Lester Brown theorizes that by 2050 40 million people will be displaced in Bangladesh alone. While Norman Myers believes that 25 million environmental refugees already exist due to prolonged drought and food insecurity and, that by 2010, that number will double to 50 million.

Migration academics are hesitant to lend the refugee label to those migrating due to environmental factors. They argue that such migration is nuanced and multi-faceted, and the environment is simply a “push” factor, while economic opportunities make for a heavier “pull”. One such academic is Richard Black of the University of Sussex. He claims the term environmental refugee is myth, and not reality. Furthermore, applying the term refugee in this case, they say, is misleading and undermines true political refugees. Stephen Castles, in particular, is of this ilk; having gone so far as to compare Myers and Black’s work, and siding with Black.

So who should we side with?

The truth is there is no real answer. The concept of environmental (or climate) refugee is in its beginning stages – and the preliminary research needed to establish it is either in the process of being gathered or sorely lacking. It will be the task of this blog, and you diligent readers, to help form and propel the debate.