Climate Displacement policy paper

A paper I worked on with the Liberal International Climate Justice Committee constituting of liberal politicians from around the world

Christian Ottosson (Sweden), Susanna Rivero Baughman (Spain), Imad Ahmed (UK), David Zimmer (Canada), Imran Khan (Bangladesh), Daniela Morales (Belgium).

September 2021 | Download the PDF

Executive summary

Millions of people already today face great difficulties in handling climate-driven events. These problems are evident and the aim here is to address them with policy recommendations. We suggest a climate justice pathway that links human rights to human and economic development, as well as safeguarding the rights of the most vulnerable people. We part from the historical fact that much of the moral burden of causing this situation is shared between many economically successful nations, not least the Global North.

Even more relevant as we are approaching the COP26 at the end of this year, parties now need to agree on actions on a variety of issues connected to climate change. As for the recommendations in this paper, more than anything we call for the creation of an effective international framework to deal with climate displacement.

Introduction on the context of Climate Displacement
Research published by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change suggests that we have a carbon budget of approximately 10 years before a point of no-return in triggering Earth system feedback effects which will exacerbate the adverse effects of climate change (IPCC, 2018, p.108; Ritche and Roser, 2020).

These irreversible system feedback effects include the thawing of permafrost in the Arctic releasing methane; weakening of the land and sea to act as carbon sinks and instead acting in the opposite way with increased forest fires and increasing bacteria in the ocean producing more CO2 (Berners-Lee, 2019, p.272).

The adverse effects include an increased frequency of droughts, floods, disappearance of small island developing states, increased food insecurity, adverse effects to human heat, increased threats to livelihoods and an increase in poverty, changing structure of communities, and interacting and cascading risks (IPCC, 2018, pp.234, 238, 240, 244).

Adverse effects to human health in both the Global North and Global South through increased diseases and bacteria (such as an increased incidence in Lyme disease and other vector-born diseases and Virbio bacteria in Canada and Northern Europe), malnutrition, greater vulnerability to diseases through malnutrition, greater risk of injuries and deaths owing to more intense heatwaves and fires(IPCC, 2018, pp.240-241).

Climate change will fundamentally affect the lives of millions who may be forced to seek refuge in other areas. Between 2008 and 2014, more than 25 million people per year were uprooted because of rapid onset disasters such as floods and storms (Biermann and Boas, 2018, p.405-406). In practical terms, climate-induced displaced people, whether displaced internally or across borders, in developing countries will be an issue of international concern, cooperation and assistance.

It is these people who are most likely to be compelled to leave their homes for other locations both within their countries as well across national borders owing to low adaptive capacities, their often vulnerable location vis-à-vis climate change events, often high population densities, already existing hunger and health problems, low incomes, often weak governance structures and political instability (Biermann and Boas, 2018, p.409) that is exacerbated by the effects of climate change. By increasing food and water shortages, increasing the population of disease vectors, and increasing temperatures, climate change will also harm labour productivity and economic growth in already highly constrained countries in the Global South.

Furthermore, in general, people who are marginalized – in terms of economy, culture, politics, and economics – are more vulnerable to climate change and adaptation to mitigation responses that fail to defend their rights. According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the impacts of climate change deepen existing gender inequalities. For instance, according to sociocultural norms, women have less opportunity to influence decisions to mitigate and cope with the impacts of climate change.

To address these issues, the 200th Executive Committee Meeting of the Liberal International Declared in 2018 in Berlin several important principles for approaching the problems. Among the conclusions in the declaration reached were that all countries will need to act and that this will require action by many stakeholders. Perhaps most importantly, that climate justice is precisely the task of linking human rights to these issues, using a humanitarian approach and “safeguarding the rights of the most vulnerable people and sharing the burdens and benefits of climate change and its impacts equitably and fairly” (Berlin Declaration).

There is still no clear and internationally accepted institution or framework to assist people who are displaced by causes attributable to climate change. In terms of “the legal gap” these groups are still not covered by today´s international agreements, although there have been promising initiatives during the last 15 years, as just to mention one, the Global Compact for safe, orderly and regular migration from 2018 (Jakobsson 2019 pp 15-24). The current system of international law (including refugee, human rights and migration law) is not equipped to deal with climate induced migration. The intersection of climate change and migration requires comprehensive solutions to the multidimensional challenges it creates.

There is also a lack of agreement among scholars and institutions on the appropriate definition to use for people who have been displaced by causes attributable to climate change.

To conclude, this means that millions of people in different parts of the world already today face great difficulties in handling these climate-driven events. Historically, the factual and moral burden of causing this situation is shared between many economically successful nations, not least the Global North. These problems are evident, and the aim of this paper is to address them with the following policy recommendations. We aim, therefore, to prevent and mitigate the forecast problems by outlining a climate justice pathway that links human rights to human and economic development, as well as safeguarding the rights of the most vulnerable people. In the following, we seek to approach a humanitarian approach based on sharing the burdens and benefits of climate changes and impacts equitably and fairly.

Policy recommendations

  1. Getting the terminology right
    We raise the issue of the most appropriate definition to use on climate displacement.2 We believe that
    “climate displacement” is the most useful term. Recognising the somewhat confused situation in this
    matter, we believe that things should be called by its proper name. The alternative term, climate-driven
    migration, have other annotations that we wish to avoid. Migration is, indeed, one adverse effect
    following from climate change, but all stakeholders must at the same time recognize that re-allocation
    of persons due to climate effects will exist – and evidently already exists – in practically every nation
    and every region in the world. To us, the term migration will most probably continue to mislead the
    discussion as if this matter would be a challenge only for some nations.
    Another issue to be mentioned is the rising use of the term “environmental” displacement, referring to
    other sorts of adverse effects than those from greenhouse gases. In this paper we hold the view that
    other environmental consequences could be included in the term climate displacement.
  2. Creating an effective international framework
    We suggest creating an effective international framework. With their legacy of contribution of
    greenhouse gases, the Global North have a responsibility in creating such a framework. We call on the
    EU to contribute to the commitment of the Global North in developing such a framework and take the
    lead in the Global North to reduce damage caused by climate change. There are several areas that we
    would like to suggest as important aims of such a framework.
    • a. Develop and support climate adaption programmes in areas vulnerable to possible climate displacement. Examples of priorities are risk assessment, facilitating living standards, financial instruments for managing natural disaster risks and needed infrastructural projects and sustainable finance.
    • b. Support the development and the diffusion of new technological innovations that, in a sustainable way, prevent the adverse effects of climate displacement. More specifically, there is a need for early warning systems and other applications to be made accessible in the Global South.
    • c. Recognize the promising work already accomplished, as for example manifested in the Global Compact for safe, orderly and regular migration and the Nansen Protection Agenda. There is a need for further research efforts on coordinated migration and strengthening of multilateralism.
    • d. Support governments and local communities to create protection in most efficient and decentralised ways and promote regional solutions such as for example insurance schemes to raise resources for prevention of climate displacement. This includes sheltering support and all levels of government and in coordination and collaboration with relevant stakeholders.
    • e. Strengthen the legal protection for climate displacement migrants who are not already covered by other regulations.
    • f. Finally we wish to propose an international alliance of the willing to create further support for those people not recognized within the legal framework. Once again, the nations of the Global North have the responsibility of taking lead in this, and such an alliance could find new methods of handling the issues mentioned in this paper.

Berners-Lee (2019). There is no Planet B: A Handbook for the Make or Break Years. Cambridge University
Press. ISBN: 9781108439589.
Bierman, Frank and Boas, Ingrid (2017) “Towards a global governance system to protect climate
migrants”. In Research handbook on climate change, migration and law ISBN: 9781785366581.
IPCC (2018) “Mitigation Pathways Compatible with 1.5°C in the Context of Sustainable Development”.
Jakobsson, Elin (2018) “Climate change and migration, policy approaches for a sustainable future”.
European Liberal Forum and FORES.

About the authors
The policy paper is as a result from the Climate Migration Impact Series, an initiative by Liberal International through which the following participants have chosen to elaborate this paper:
Christian Ottosson (Sweden), experienced politician and commissioner responsible for climate issues in the Municipality of Huddinge, earlier UNDP project experience in Latin America.
Susanna Rivero Baughman (Spain), experienced practitioner in the field of sustainability, Foreign Affairs and Cooperation Advisor in the office of the Secretary for the Environment and Sustainability of the Government of Catalonia, member of Liberal International’s Climate Justice Committee.
Imad Ahmed (UK), Liberal Democrat representative, member of the Academic Board of the Paddy Ashdown Forum, an ELF think tank, executive member of Liberal International British Group and a postdoctoral research fellow at UCL.
David Zimmer (Canada), lawyer, chair and CEO of Ma-Mo-Weh-Soo-Ka-Twiin, former director of the Canadian Institute of International Affairs and former director of United Nations Association of Canada (Waterloo Branch), member of Provincial Parliament & Minister of Indigenous Relations & Reconciliation.
Imran Khan (Bangladesh), corporate & investment banker, policy analyst and social activist.
Daniela Morales (Belgium), policy development adviser at ALDE Party (Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe)


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