Will Climate Refugees Be Included in the Outcome of the Paris Climate Talks?

(PARIS) –  There are few other issues in the larger financial and political discussions at COP 21 that highlight the human aspect of climate change than the issue of climate refugees.

According to the Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC), some 26 million people are forced to leave their homes due to extreme weather conditions. These are millions of people who flee due to dried up water resources, lack of arable land, floods, drought, and devastating hurricanes. They are mostly concentrated in Asia and Africa. And for the most part, they do not enjoy the kinds of protections typically afforded to refugees under the 1951 Refugee Convention. That’s because, as Nina Birkeland of NRC explains, the Convention “is all about persecution.”

But can a damaged climate be considered a persecutor? As delegates at COP 21 race to complete the final outcome document, they are treating the question of climate refugees with extreme caution.

The draft negotiating text in Paris stands at approximately 48 pages and over 950 pieces of language that need to be negotiated before 190 countries leave Paris later this week. The key term in which negotiators are discussing the fate of climate refugees is “displacement,” — and so far, it has four mentions in the draft text.

Birkeland says that though the text “needs work,” having the element of displacement included all is a big first step. Before the October inter-session of the climate talks, the Co-Chairs leading the negotiating parties had taken out all mention of “human mobility,” as Birkeland explained it. The fact that delegates are engaging the issues of climate refugees is at least a step forward.

But, those four mentions of displacement is no guarantee that smallholder farmers in Ethiopia, fishermen in southern India, and millions of people in small island developing states will be provided the same types of protections and aid that typical refugees are generally afforded.

Birkeland points out that the location  of “displacement” within the Paris Agreement text are really the key. The NRC and others want human mobility language to be included in both the adaptation and loss and damage sections of the Agreement.

Adaptation is the term used in these talks to refer to measures taken to help developing countries adapt to an already-changing climate. These measures include infrastructure development, improving emergency response systems, building geographically-relevant seed banks, and other public goods. If included in the Adaptation language, current climate refugees would be able to take advantage of better facilities to deal with their new climate and environment. Birkeland said including it here would allow for “migration with dignity” and intra-state refugees can have “planned” movements rather than “sudden flight.”

Loss and Damage is, simply put, the term used to describe compensation for developing countries and vulnerable populations when climate-related natural disasters occur. (A strong Loss and Damage section is something that the poorest countries in the world are insisting upon.) Including “displacement” in the Loss and Damage section of text would allow developing nations to accommodate future climate refugees. Even if you get an amazing Paris Agreement in terms of reducing carbon emissions, the environment won’t change overnight. The hope is that natural disasters will be mitigated over time, but that takes…time.

What difference does it make where you put displacement language, though?

As with everything at the COP, climate refugee protection has also become political because it is tied to the larger, complex, and contentious fight about money.  Though all parties here agree that financing for adaptation must occur, the amount of money devoted to that versus mitigation – the reduction of carbon emissions – is a hot button issue. Also, countries like predictability in financial commitments, both those pledging it and those receiving it. Loss and Damage, tied to natural disasters, is necessarily unpredictable and in a week where developed countries like the EU, U.S., Australia, and Japan among others are trying to limit their costs, it may be difficult to add the issue of climate refugees to an already contentious section of the outcome document — particularly an issue that could send climate finance needs estimates soaring.

As the week progresses we’ll see the true flexibility of countries’ positions on Loss and Damage and Adaptation, and that includes the context in which  “displacement” will be referenced. Even still, it is undeniable that climate refugees will be an enduring feature of our warming planet. As Birkeland said, the NRC and other civil society observers want language to be included in both sections to really benefit the forcibly displaced, noting that “anything you can do before flight…is better financially and for their well-being.”