Seeking an International Climate Displacement Agreement

15 février 2017

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The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change estimates that in the coming years millions of people will be forcefully displaced by the effects of climate change.[1] But victims of such displacement currently lack recognition and protection under international law. The Geneva Convention of 1951 defines “refugee” narrowly, not taking into account climate refugees or internally displaced people.[2] Yet, according to Article 25 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, all states have the legal and moral responsibility to provide all people with an adequate standard of living.[3] If this human right is to be upheld, then all states must work to establish legal recognition for climate refugees.

What is needed is an international climate displacement agreement that sets global targets and holds all states accountable.[4] Such an agreement could be inspired by international climate negotiations, which culminated in the Paris Agreement on November 4, 2016. The Agreement rallied 194 signatory states to the common cause of undertaking ambitious and binding efforts to keep the rise in the planet’s temperature below 2°C compared to pre-industrial levels.[5]


The Process and Evolution of the Climate Regime

The first step in climate negotiations was the adoption of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) in 1992, acknowledging the existence of climate change as a global challenge that the international community needs to address.[6] The Convention called on all OECD countries and several economies in transition (for a list of the so-called Annex 1 countries click here) to take a leading role in emissions reductions and provide developing countries with funding and technologies. Once this organizational structure for cooperation was set, states had a forum to hold regular conferences and coordinate future action. High-level meetings raised public attention for the topic, increasing pressure on governments to conclude new agreements.

An important milestone in climate negotiations was the Kyoto Protocol, adopted in 1997, which set binding targets and included mechanisms for action.[7] Finally, the Paris Agreement introduced Intended Nationally Determined Contributions (INDCs). Each country was invited to submit its INDCs to the UNFCCC Secretary prior to the COP21. Afterwards, they could send in their INDCs if they wanted to make changes – if they did not submit a second version, the INDCs became their NDCs with the ratification acceptance, approval or accession of the Paris Agreement. This approach takes into consideration the different capabilities of the states and could be a model for future climate displacement policies.[8]

The rise of climate change in the international agenda brought so much public interest to the topic that governments were pressured to reach an ambitious agreement. Addressing both developing and developed states, the Paris Agreement is a global effort to meet the challenge of climate change.[9]


Climate Agreements as Best Practice?

The evolution of climate negotiations shows how a topic receiving little public attention in the 1980s was able to become the substance of a partly binding Paris Agreement. The Paris agreement has legally binding elements, particularly regarding the procedural obligations. It is often referred to as the first universal, legally binding climate agreement (for further information, please check out the websites of the UN and the European Commission). A similar evolution is needed for climate displacement. An international agreement could increase the global salience of the problem.

States need to take the initiative, but we also need conjoint action by civil society in developing and developed countries to encourage governments to launch the process. Currently, the issue is discussed predominantly among experts and in migration-related forums.[10] But a bottom-up approach is more promising than international decision-making detached from the people. It allows for the inclusion of local knowledge on capabilities and needs of those most affected by climate change, living in regions of the global South, where adaptation capacities are limited. Furthermore, governments are more inclined to act on the issue if public pressure is increased through high media coverage and demonstrations.

Alongside individual states, the International Organization of Migration (IOM), the UN Human Rights Council and the UN High Commissioners for Refugees and Human Rights could push the issue forward. Once climate displacement is a salient issue, the Conference of the Parties (COP), which is the supreme decision-making body of the UNFCCC, could take a facilitating role in setting up a separate body or forum to develop a legal framework to address climate displacement.

The creation of an international convention has several key advantages. First, it would make it possible to define the exact denominations and status of people displaced by climate alteration. Second, the agreement could comprehensively address closely interlinked challenges, such as climate change, food security and migration. Third, all affected actors could discuss complex issues, including planned migration.

Such an international agreement needs to acknowledge new forms of climate change Adaptation measures and seek to adjust ecological, social, or economic systems in order to reduce the negative impacts of climate change. Alterations in processes, practices, and structures provide an opportunity to reduce potential damages or increase gains from climate change. Migration and flight can be seen as forms of adjustment to altered climate conditions that make people’s former living space uninhabitable, including both migration resulting from lengthy environmental degradation and flight as reaction to extreme weather events. Climate action on adaptation pledged within the framework of the Paris Agreement could address environmental displacement. But since in many cases adaptation measures take place too late to halt climate displacement, countries should develop a plan for voluntary migration that allows for burden sharing based on the principle of common but differentiated responsibilities as included in climate negotiations.

Another mechanism that a climate displacement agreement should borrow from climate negotiations is the collaborative action of all states through the “pledge and review” process. In a first step, countries should formulate their voluntary contributions, including financial contributions to adaptation or a commitment to receive a number of displaced people. In a second step, the international community needs to establish a reviewing process to make sure that countries comply with their pledges.

If civil society, states, and international organizations take joint action and draw on the lessons from past negotiations, a comprehensive climate displacement agreement protecting the human rights of those affected by climate change could well become reality.



[1] IPCC, “IPCC Fourth Assessment Report (AR4),” Ipcc 1 (2007): 976. Informal group on Migration/ Displacement and Climate Change of the IPCC 2008. “Climate Change, Migration and Displacement: Who Will Be Affected?”

[2] UNHCR, “UNHCR – Convention and Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees,” Convention and Protocol relating to the status of Refugees”, 1956.

[3] UN General Assembly, “Universal Declaration of Human Rights,” United Nations, no. December (1948): 1–6.

[4] Etienne Piguet, “Climate Change and Forced Migration,” Change, New Issues in Refugee Research, no. 153 (2008): 1–13.

[5] United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), “The Paris Agreement,” 2015,

[6] UNFCCC, “About – UNFCCC,” 2016,

[7] United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), “The Kyoto Protocol,” 2014,

[8] United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), “Intended Nationally Determined Contributions (INDCs),” 2014,

[9] Bundesministerium für Umwelt Naturschutz Bau und Reaktorsicherheit (BMUB), “Die Klimakonferenz in Paris,” 2016.

[10] Cord Jakobeit and Chris Methmann, “Klimaflüchtlinge: Die verleugnete Katastrophe” (Hamburg, 2007), http:// e_endv.PDF.

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