Climate Change Adaptation = Migration?
People have always moved from one country to another for many different reasons. Some move because of their political beliefs or as a result of wars, others are looking for better jobs and education. Thousands of years ago people left places with harsh or deteriorating conditions looking for food and friendlier climate.
In the last few decades, however, increasingly it was climate change that forced people to migrate. It seems that migration, both internal and cross-border, is expected to keep rising because of that same reason.
“By 2050, there will be an estimated 150 million climate refugees, forced to leave their homes by droughts, extreme weather patterns and sea level rise,” according to the Environmental Justice Foundation. However, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) believes this number to be even higher, around 200 million by 2015. The majority of people to be affected by climate change will be in Africa, densely populated Asian delta areas, small islands of the Pacific, Mexico and some South American countries, all the way up to the United States.
It is difficult to make accurate estimations, especially because there are several different definitions of “climate refugees”. An official definition still doesn’t exist, nor does any legal framework regarding these migrants.
Two different climate-change related factors force people to migrate: climate processes and climate events. The former refers to the impact that climate change has during longer periods – such as desertification, water scarcity, rising sea levels, and the impact these factors have on small islands and coastal cities. Climate events, on the other hand, are sudden events with immediate impacts – examples include floods and storms.
It’s interesting to note that there are many laws that deal with migration as a consequence of political persecution, wars and conflicts, as well as natural disasters. But there is no legal framework for climate change-induced migration which is already happening: think small islands in the Pacific that are slowly drowning, or vast areas that become uninhabitable deserts.
The main risk for “climate migrants” is permanent loss of their country, such as in the case of those from small islands. In international law there is a gap on this issue. It usually considers cases of migrants living in countries occupied or conquered by other countries, hence the deprivation of their citizenship. However, it does not cover cases of citizens of a country which disappears under water, for instance, and where no successor state would exist. What would be the legal status of citizens of such islands? Stateless persons or landless citizens of a state that no longer exists? The quality of life for these people would be damaged, but would the international community intervene and compensate for this damage?
Who should be responsible for that? This case is especially relevant to the small Pacific islands. The international community needs to take action and try to help these populations achieve a smooth transition and adaptation to a new habitat.