2021 has been a watershed year for the much overlooked link between climate change and its impact on human mobility. This is a result of several extremely consequential reports, a UN resolution and emerging court rulings, all which break through the pre-established limits of where the climate conversation could/should go.
The climate emergency the world is faced with has forced ‘seeing’ not just upon the political world, emitting industries, financial managers and the world’s citizens but also upon research and interdisciplinary approaches. As I write this blog in my current role as a climate policy specialist advising NGOs and EU institutions, I can’t help but remember that my determination for joining this highly technical and infinitely complex policy realm emerged from my academic background in migration studies. Ten years ago, moving from migration to climate policy was not an obvious next step to anybody from either field, quite the opposite – my move from migration studies to climate policy looked more like a career change rather than pursuing the same rationale deeper.
There were legitimate reasons for keeping the two areas of research and inquiry relatively separate. From a research perspective, the near impossibility of drawing a direct correlation between one particular weather event and wider climate change together with the sheer difficulty in establishing direct causation between migration and changes in the climate, which interact with other big factors such as economic development, conflict or access to resources, made this a difficult area of inquiry. To better understand each phenomena it was deemed best to keep them apart and steer away from their respective grey areas – climate induced migration was the greyest of the grey areas.
There were other reasons why connecting them was to be trod upon carefully, most notably that the legal international framework governing much of the forced migration discussions had not foreseen a role for climate or environmentally driven migration and was wary of doing so.
Both these rationales have fundamentally altered in 2021.
One of the first executive orders that the newly elected President of the United States Joe Biden signed upon taking office was to commission the National Security Advisor to produce a report looking into climate change and migration. This is the first time the US government directly chose to report on the link between these two phenomena. This report was completed and published 10 days before the start of COP26.
The main conclusions can be summarised as follows: the link between these two phenomena is already making itself seen and often intersects with conflict; given the expected temperature changes expected to occur over the next 50 years and the population dynamics already occurring in the areas of the world most exposed to devastating effects of climate change, these trends will most certainly intensify posing global security risks. The link that exists between them requires much investment and efforts to go both towards mitigation of further climate change but also and especially urgent, towards adaptation to climate change.
The report identifies investments in adaptation to be at the core of the strategy to safeguard the national interest of the US, which in the context of this report is described clearly to be the protection of those individuals and risks displaced or at risk of displacement. This is particularly relevant since, to date, the emblematic $100bn/year pledge to adaptation financing has not been met yet and the US appears to be furthest behind in progress made towards meeting its fair share of climate finance (progress in this regard is measures in terms of GNI, cumulative CO2 emissions and population).
Adaptation matters and is important not just because of its relationship with human mobility, a relationship which is complex and multi-layered.
In reality, adaptation matters most for those who stay behind, either by choice or by the inability to move and are therefore faced with conditions which could easily fall outside what has been called as the ‘climate niche’ of our species. We must not forget that migration is in fact a choice for very few and the most vulnerable members of a community are not able to engage in it, something that the US White House report rightfully points out.
2021 saw a plethora of new writings on migration as adaptation to climate change, including several recent articles in the Financial Times in the month leading up to COP26 (October 2021). These articles build on academic research and conclude that given the temperature increase scenarios we are looking at for the next 50 years could change the living conditions for nearly 3 bn people around the globe, the question of human geography and planning for mass scale relocations to Northern countries where the population is decreasing should be taken into consideration as a global adaptation strategy to the worse climate scenarios. Such proposals are dangerous in several ways, but most importantly by introducing and normalising the idea that the fight against climate change has been lost and that climate induced migration remains a human geography question alone, to be answered by geographic redistribution.
In reality, while mobility has always been used as a coping mechanism or for increasing livelihoods in most regions around the world, the sort of problems posed by climate change which could make entire parts of this Earth uninhabitable would be systemic triggers that would very likely generate further issues such as economic instability and future health challenges, and therefore will not be resolved by planned migration. Hence adaptation and resilience building at the local level should be prioritised.
2021 saw several developments in the field of environmental rights which bring a very important discussion about grounds for international protection to the forefront. In France, a court ruled that a citizen of Bangladesh could not be returned to their country on health grounds, since the air pollution there posed a life risk to the respective citizen. Such a decision goes beyond the issue of institutional accountability for poor environmental management as it admits the existence of a link between the need to relocate from places where environmental degradation can pose a life threatening risk.
Environmental criteria is not part of the legal framework for forced displacement and does not constitute a legal consideration at international level. Nonetheless, cases such as this do give hope that a long overdue reconsideration of what constitutes legitimate grounds for forced displacement in the 21st century will be incorporated in the existing framework.
Most importantly, however, also in October 2021, the United National Human Rights Council in Geneva adopted a resolution which recognizes access to a healthy and sustainable environment as a universal right. This had been decades in the making but the climate crisis has been a key trigger in getting this agreement through, mostly through the link that exists between burning fossil fuels and air pollution which is a public health concern only accentuated and showcased further by the COVID-19 pandemic.
This makes climate mitigation and the shift away from fossil fuels even that much more urgent and enriches the discussion on historical responsibility, because although more industrialised countries do have a bigger responsibility for the climate crisis, existing governments of developing countries also a real responsibility towards their current citizens in ensuring their right to life is not affected by environmental degradation. This should work in the direction of fast-forwarding the phase out of the most carbon intensive technologies, such as coal plants and harmful incineration practices.
COP26 is actually the COP for adaptation finance as much as it is the COP for much needed announcements on higher ambition. While previous promises for adaptation finance were seen as covering up for the lack of increase in ambition pledges, we must be aware not to make the reversal of this mistake when it comes to COP26 and allow the urgent need for increased adaptation finance to be brushed under the carpet.
Migration offers a very important lens of analysis into the climate crisis. Yet, we should be careful to avoid painting apocalyptical future scenarios of billions of people on the move as the reason we should care about climate change. We have to care about the climate emergency because it is already affecting the lives of many, be it migrants or those who endure the already unfolding impacts of the changes in temperature, in extreme weather events or through the poor air quality which directly impacts on their quality of life.
Extreme weather events have also occurred in the so-called ‘Global North’ and the impact of coal burning on shortening human lives has been documented in Europe as well. So this is really not just about the ‘Global South’ but because of the complex interconnections between climate and food security, as well as access to clean water, air and housing, the need for adaptation finance to be boosted up is undeniable and the Global North can and should increase their financial commitments. This is about the biggest planetary challenge but which could yield planetary wellbeing if acted upon in this year, 2021.
COP26 and the decisions taken there are vital and urgent because they matter for the migration already occurring as a result of climate induced environmental degradation, because conditions for those staying behind are likely to worsen in the next decade. So yes, ambition increases are welcome and necessary but they fade away in the absence of a solid and predictable increase in the adaptation financing required for this COP to have been considered a successful one in the history of humanity.
Suzana Carp is a graduate of the Oxford MSc programme in Migration Studies (2010). She is currently working as an independent advisor to EU institutions and NGOs on climate policies and the EU Green Deal, having previously led the EU engagement strategy of 2 international climate NGOs. Suzana focuses on carbon pricing as a tool to channel revenues form polluters to citizens and has previously written on topics such as the idea of a ‘climate democracy’.
 Executive Order 14013, “Rebuilding and Enhancing Programs to Resettle Refugees and Planning for the Impact of Climate Change on Migration”