Paving the way for climate-related moving populations

Paving the way for climate-related moving populations

In recent years, the world has witnessed an increasing wave of extreme climate events and natural disasters that are impacting the livelihoods and safety of populations around the world. According to the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre’s (IDMC) latest report, from 2008 to 2013 natural hazard events have forcibly displaced an average of 27 million people annually. However, this figure only reflects one fraction of the problem, since it does not include cross-border displacement or progressive onset climate hazards, i.e. droughts and desertification, and therefore the numbers are likely to be much greater and expected to increase.

The same report states that in 2013, approximately 22 million people were displaced by natural disasters, Asia being the most impacted continent in the world. In Southeast Asia, last year typhoon Haiyan brought devastation to the Philippines, forcing more than four million people to leave their homes, and killing over seven thousand. This year, the already vulnerable islands were hit again by typhoon Hagupit’s strong winds and heavy rain, triggering landslides and further destruction to the islands and those who reside there.

At the same time that typhoon Hagupit was hitting the Philippines this December, the UN Conference of the Parties (COP20) was taking place in Lima. The COP is an annual meeting at which a high-profile commission evaluates the actions taken by the 198 member countries to decrease their greenhouse gas emissions. As the main decision-making body of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), COP20 has the responsibility to urge national leaders to create the foundations for a new global climate deal, which is expected to reach conclusion by 2015 before the next COP21 in Paris.

In the context of escalating global environmental degradation and climate change, the intensity and frequency of heat waves, floods, hurricanes, droughts and other hazards are expected to increase significantly, along with population mobility—i.e. displacement, migration and planned relocation. In spite of being complex, the link between environmental degradation, climate change and human mobility is significant. Extreme climate events are likely to drive populations to move, either voluntarily or forcibly. However, since human mobility is multi-causal, it remains extremely difficult to isolate the environment and climate change as primary drivers, other factors such as economic context, political responses and social network also shape mobility patterns.

In response to this, organisations such as the International Organization for Migration (IOM) and the Nansen Initiative are advocating for the inclusion of population mobility into climate change negotiations and adaptation plans. Both organisations held events during the COP20 and stressed the importance of integrating human mobility into COP21 potential international agreement on climate change.

The increasing number of natural hazards and the corresponding number of people being displaced by climate-related events substantiates the need for this inclusion. Unpreparedness to such hazards has built up a belief that mobility is a failure to adapt; however, it can play a key role in adaptation strategies. According to the IOM and the Nansen Initiative, planned migration and relocation can ensure families and communities safety in the context of a changing environment and climate. If included in National Adaptation Plans (NAPs), mobility measures can offer a better array of options to susceptible populations by both reducing risks and vulnerabilities of a sudden onset event and displacement, and enhancing population resiliency in adapting to progressive onset events.

Furthermore, the integration of climate-induced mobility into national and international policies may also be measure to prepare populations and nations for extreme climate events, as well as to prevent the drastic consequences of forced displacements. In this sense, installation of early warning systems and evacuation procedures, for example, can safeguard lives and protect vulnerable populations; hence the differentiation between a natural disaster and a humanitarian crisis is made.

The recognition that climate change is a global reality that is already posing severe threats to populations’ livelihoods, while triggering huge waves of displacements, paves the way for action at local, national and international levels that acknowledge this vital link. After the 2010 and 2011 succession of floods and displacement, Colombia was the first country in South America to include mobility into the nation’s climate change policy, Colombia being home to largest number of internally displaced people in the world as the result of both climate and conflict induced displacement. Hopefully, this example will be followed by other countries, and particularly incorporated into the COP21 international agreement on climate change.

Given the significant connection between forced displacement and climate change, it appears time for high-profile negotiators and state representatives to heed the warnings of nature and acknowledge the physical reality that climate thresholds are being crossed with tremendous impacts upon the lives of people all over the globe. Without significant steps taken transnationally to mitigate and adapt to the causes and consequences of climate change, it is certain that extreme weather events will continue to displace millions of people in the years to come, with those belonging to the most marginalised groups of society paying the greatest price.