By Andreas Neef

Andreas Neef looks at what a failure of the negotiations at the COP26 Climate Summit in Glasgow could mean for climate migration in the Pacific and beyond. 

As thousands of delegates from around the world gather in Glasgow at the COP26 Climate Summit to agree on collective climate action, each day thousands of climate-affected people in the so-called Global South have to leave their homes.

Humans have moved due to environmental and climatic changes for centuries and even millennia, but those changes used to unfold over several generations. Yet what we are witnessing today are accelerating cycles of climate-induced environmental changes triggered by major fast-onset events such as devastating cyclones, typhoons and floods. These are increasingly combined with slow-onset events, such as sea-level rise and chronic droughts. Hence, the speed of climate-induced environmental changes and how this has affected the movement of people is unprecedented.

I am currently leading a large research consortium across 15 universities and research institutions on five continents funded by the Worldwide Universities Network (WUN) that looks into the global and regional scope of climate migration.

In our group, we have identified several hotspots, such as Bangladesh and India, where millions of people in low-lying coastal areas are affected by sea-level rise, floods and typhoons. Another region where people are increasingly on the move as a result of climatic changes is the Sahel Zone in West and East Africa, where hundreds of thousands of people will be internally displaced by severe long-term droughts over this decade. Many parts of the Middle East and North Africa are likely to suffer from ultra-extreme, life-threatening heatwaves that will lead to chronic freshwater shortages, affecting people, livestock and crops. A further hotspot is Mexico and its neighbouring Central American countries where climate change interacts with other drivers of migration, particularly conflict and poverty. And here in the South Pacific, it is predicted that at least 50,000 people could lose their homes each year over this decade due to the increasing frequency and severity of climate-related extreme hazards.

But we have to keep in mind that although some people will be forced to move to other countries, the vast majority of climate migration will continue to occur within the borders of the most affected countries. The World Bank estimates that in the absence of more decisive climate action, more than 216 million people will be internally displaced through slow-onset climate change impacts by the year 2050 in six major world regions, including about 40 million people in East Asia and the Pacific.

Ironically, most of the affected countries have contributed very little to the climate crisis the world is facing. For instance, all small island developing countries in the Pacific combined account for only 0.03 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions, and the entire African continent with its 54 countries produces less than 4 percent of global emissions.

Despite the alarmist numbers on internal and international climate migration, our research finds that many people will actually remain in climate-affected areas despite facing existential threats to their lives and livelihoods, either voluntarily due to their strong attachment to place and ancestral ties or because they remain trapped in poverty and are therefore unable to move.

While wealthy countries like Aotearoa New Zealand, Australia, Singapore or the United States are not immune to the impacts of climate change, they have the financial, technical and institutional capacities for adaptation, such as building stronger seawalls, increasing the height of land reclamation areas or organising managed retreat. The New Zealand Government is currently changing legislation to deal with climate migration in a more planned and orderly manner, while trying to address the justice issues associated with managed retreat.

Among small island nations in the South Pacific, Fiji is the first country that has introduced comprehensive guidelines for planned relocation and has started to resettle coastal communities further inland. Our Government has pledged donor money to contribute to Fiji’s relocation fund. But, in some cases, people in these new locations are also getting exposed to new hazards and risks, such as flash floods and landslides. Hence, planned relocation is not always a straightforward solution. Despite the challenges of keeping its own population safe from climate change impacts, the Fijian government pledged to provide a new home to i-Kiribati and Tuvaluans who may need to leave their countries due to climate change.

To date, there are severe limitations to cross-border migration for climate-affected people due to a lack of international legislation and policy frameworks. Climate migrants are not covered by the 1951 Geneva Convention which was designed to protect people fleeing from war, violence or persecution. Hence there is no legal ground for using the term ‘climate refugee’.

In 2015, the New Zealand Government famously deported a family from the small Pacific Island nation of Kiribati who attempted to become the first recognised ‘climate refugees’. Despite the questionable ethics of the decision, the legality of the family’s deportation has recently been confirmed by the UN Human Rights Committee. This means that, up to now, climate-vulnerable people cannot easily migrate to overseas countries.

What is urgently needed is a global policy framework for addressing the issue of climate migration. The Global Compact for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration which was launched by the United Nations in 2018 was a promising first step, but there needs to be a more legally binding framework for climate-induced migration that holds the major emitters of greenhouse gases to account. There can be no climate justice without mobility justice.

In the run-up to the COP26 Climate Summit, leaders of small island developing states in the Indo-Pacific and the Caribbean called on wealthy nations to take decisive action on climate change mitigation and – at the same time – help them adapt to climate change. Yet, there is little doubt that some low-lying island nations like Nauru, Tuvalu, Kiribati, the Bahamas and the Maldives will become largely uninhabitable over the next few decades, particularly as a result of contamination of freshwater resources by saltwater intrusion and a loss of arable land. Hence, their citizens will ultimately need to relocate in dignity and in a coordinated manner to other countries, raising complex questions of sovereignty, nationhood, and acceptance of climate migrants by host communities.

Wealthy countries like Aotearoa New Zealand or Australia have a moral obligation to accommodate a fair share of future climate migrants from the Pacific, due to their history of colonial exploitation of the Pacific Islands and their continuously high per-capita greenhouse gas emissions. Once our Government decides to move towards a more proactive approach to Pacific climate migration, it will need to honour its obligations to Te Tiriti o Waitangi and consider Māori as equal Treaty partners in negotiations on the acceptance of future Pacific climate migrants. Seeking a just solution to Pacific climate migration must not come at the expense of further injustices against Aotearoa’s tangata whenua.


This article was originally published on Newsroom and was republished with permission. For the original, click here.

Andreas Neef is a Professor in Development Studies at the University of Auckland. He is an expert in climate change adaptation. 

Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article reflect the author’s opinion and not necessarily the views of The Big Q.

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