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Climate migration will only be a crisis if we make it into one

By Alex Randall on November 20, 2017

Migration caused by climate change doesn’t have to be a crisis. In fact, with the right planning, migration can become a powerful form of climate adaptation.

Land degradation is a prominent problem in Senegal. Adopting integrated soil fertility management (ISFM)—practices that combine organic inputs and judicious amounts of inorganic fertilizer and improved seeds—offers farmers a higher profit and is more sustainable than using inorganic fertilizer. Yet its adoption rates across Africa south of the Sahara (SSA) are among the lowest worldwide.

Last year 23 million people were displaced by extreme weather. As climate change alters the atmosphere, we can expect this kind of human displacement to increase. The displacement of people is now fundamentally linked to climate change.

It is therefore right that the international climate change negotiations happening this week look at this kind of displacement. However it would be a mistake to think that the climate negotiations can ‘fix’ climate-linked migration and displacement. Or even to think that climate-linked migration is something that needs to be fixed.

Migration as climate adaptation

A new way of thinking about climate change and migration has emerged recently that attempts to harness the power of migration as a way of coping with climate change. Conventional ways of looking at climate-linked migration see it as an apocalyptic problem. News coverage often focuses on the numbers of “climate refugees” who may be on the move.

However human movement does not have to be chaotic or problematic. Millions of people across the world are currently migrants. It may be that migration will also become a key way for some people to adapt to the worst impacts of climate change. This is very different to conventional adaptation projects, which usually focus on helping people adapt where they are now.

Migration as adaptation aims to help people move in an organised and dignified way to somewhere safer. This could potentially happen in a number of ways – for example by helping people finance their move, or by providing education and training to help them find work in new places. And by building infrastructure like decent housing in the places they could move to.

The hope is that by helping people migrate in a dignified way, they won’t suffer being forcibly displaced when their situation reaches crisis point. There is a vast difference between migrating in an organised way and being suddenly forced from your home by a disaster.

Climate and migration at the climate negotiations

States will discuss displacement, among a vast array of other topics, at this year’s climate negotiations. A new task force on displacement, established in previous negotiations, will also issue a report at this year’s gathering, but we don’t yet know what its recommendations will be.

We can hope that it might ask governments to consider the idea of migration as climate change adaptation. The remit of the task force is to “avert, prevent and minimise” displacement caused by climate change impacts. One of the key ways of minimising future displacement could be through the preventative medicine of helping people move in a dignified and organised way in advance. Whether governments will be open to this suggestion is of course another question.

A key issue the climate talks will struggle to address is the rights of people who have to move due to climate change. The climate negotiations are geared up for states to agree on cutting emissions and planning adaptation, but the question of the rights of migrants and displacees doesn’t sit neatly anywhere in the talks.

Not the only show in town

For this reason there are a number of other international negotiations dealing with this. This is a strange situation as only a few years ago climate-linked migration was not being dealt with by the international community at all. It is now the focus of several sets of global talks.

This means that eventually the issue of climate-linked migration will be addressed by a patchwork of international agreements, rather than one.

Hopefully the climate talks will deliver something useful on climate-linked displacement. However, the rights of people who move due to disasters are more likely to be addressed by the new Platform on Disaster Displacement. How states work together on dealing with the risks of disasters will be addressed by new Sendai Framework. The new Global Compact on Refugees recognised climate change as a driving force of migration, but it isn’t yet clear what this agreement will result in. Individual governments may also act alone. New Zealand, for example, has proposed the idea of new climate refugee visas for some islands in the Pacific.

There will not be a neat global ‘fix’ that deals with the entire issue. But given the global nature, and complexity of climate-linked migration perhaps this patchwork approach is the best option.

By Alex Randall

Alex manages the Climate Change and Migration Coalition – an alliance that exists to challenge the lack of long-term strategies to support and protect people at risk of displacement linked to environmental change.

Before joining Climate Outreach, he worked at the Centre for Alternative Technology. He has also worked for the Public Interest Research Centre on their Values and Frames project. He co-founded Cheat Neutral, a spoof offsetting company, and UN Fair Play, an organisation that works with small island states at international climate change negotiations.

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