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Climate Change, Migration and Security Climate change not only disrupts ecosystems; it also poses threats to the livelihoods and survival of people worldwide.

The Governance of Climate Change-Induced Migration

Climate change-induced migration deals with complex social-ecological interactions, so it is little wonder that it is also a complex area to govern. Migration due to the effects of climate change is caught at a policy crossroads, with different policy areas all having legitimate claims to why they should be involved. However, climate change-induced migration has not been integrated into any policy area as a core part of their work and few concrete steps have been made to govern.

For the purposes of this article, global governance refers to the system of laws, rules (formal and informal), policies and organisational setups which develops to manage common affairs, in this case climate change-induced migration. Many of these laws, rules, policies and organisational setups will develop at the international level, but interaction with regional, national and local levels of governance will also take place and a variety of stakeholders ranging from international organisations to states to non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and local grassroots movements will be involved.

This is by no means the only definition of global governance, with broader and narrower definitions existing. This definition is purposefully broad and makes it clear that global governance is a complex (and often disputed) area of politics. This complexity is nowadays inherent to rule making in areas of international concern. Climate change-induced migration is situated squarely in this category, given the transboundary nature of climate change and of some movements of people. In the case of climate change-induced migration, the mechanisms and organisations which are involved straddle not only the different levels of politics mentioned above but also different issue areas, with environmental, developmental and migration politics all particularly relevant.

Climate change-induced migration: challenges to global governance

Climate change-induced migration is still largely an unknown phenomenon. Although many attempts have been made to quantify climate change-induced migration (Jacobson 1988; Myers 1993; Myers & Kent 1995), these have been largely discredited by others (Black 2001; Billsborrow 1992; McGregor 1994), as it is difficult to establish causality between climate change and specific migrations. Frequently the drivers of migration are multifaceted and climate change may build upon existing vulnerabilities, only then leading to migration. Research which examines the relationship between climate change and migration, using proxies such as climate variability in the form of rainfall variability or natural hazards such as floods or sea-level rise and livelihood security, has indicated that climate change can play a role in migration decisions, however it is not the only driver (Warner et. al. 2012; Jäger et. al. 2009; Oliver-Smith 2011; Foresight 2011). The question for governance is then whether it is possible to govern this type of migration alone, despite the inability to prove mono-causal links and the fact that it is interrelated with facts such as poverty and social inequality.

Aside from the problem of establishing causality, climate change-induced migration also provides a challenge to global governance in that it comprises a number of different kinds of migration. In migration and displacement governance generally, the distinctions between different kinds of migration and displacement carry a great deal of importance, as different terms are tightly defined legally, and therefore different terminology brings different legislation into play.

Climate change-induced migration may take place across state borders or, more frequently, will be internal to a state. Migration may also be temporary or long-term and could be either the reaction to a slow-onset event (such as desertification) or fast-onset (natural disasters). Migration may be a planned adaptive measure (for example seasonal migration for income diversification) or take the form of a more traditional displacement scenario. A further frequently neglected aspect is those who migrate towards areas of environmental risk, for example in moving to a low-lying coastal city for income diversification.

These different issues combine to create a difficult phenomenon to govern. In the first instance, a common definition must be agreed upon in order to even begin discussions regarding possible governance reactions. However, given the huge range of different migration scenarios this is no easy task. The attempt which has come closest to becoming an accepted definition is by the International Migration Organisation (IOM), which defines environmental migrants as follows:

“Environmental migrants are persons or groups of persons who, for compelling reasons of sudden or progressive changes in the environment that adversely affect their lives or living conditions, are obliged to leave their habitual homes, or choose to do so, either temporarily or permanently, and who move either within their country or abroad” (IOM 2007).

This definition gains favour because of its all-encompassing nature and sensitivity to many of the subtle differences in types of climate change-induced migration, which have previously often been overlooked. One group of people not included in the definition above is so called ‘trapped populations’. Often the most vulnerable people are unable to migrate, either temporarily or more permanently, despite livelihoods becoming unsustainable (Black & Collyer 2014). Therefore, if rules are being designed with the vulnerability of potential climate migrants in mind, those whose vulnerability is increased through their inability to migrate should be considered.

Another aspect of this definition which should be considered is that is refers to ‘changes in the environment’ and not specifically to ‘climate change’. This broadens the definition and removes the problem of having to attribute causality for environmental changes to climate change. However, if the term ‘climate change’ is not explicitly included, global climate change governance (including, importantly, the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC)) could distance itself from the issue. Since the most high profile attempt to govern to date has originated from the UNFCCC’s Cancun Agreement, it is possible that this could limit the most promising current governance options.

Furthermore, in order to design a system of laws, rules, policies and organisational structures, governance of climate change-induced migration needs to have a concrete goal. There are two main options for what this goal could be. On one hand, governance may view migration as failure to adapt to climate change and aim to prevent migration. Alternatively, migration may be viewed as a legitimate adaptive strategy to cope with the negative effects of climate change and one of the aims of governance may be to facilitate and support migration. These two visions of climate change-induced migration are vastly different and therefore require very different policy responses. In actual fact, it could be that governance aims are made up of a combination of these approaches, with responses aiming to prevent migration in some cases but also assisting migration in a more planned manner should it be suitable. This may seem counter-intuitive to many states and therefore if this is an aim of governance certain political hurdles will have to be overcome.

Political Biases

In addition to the structural complexities of global governance, the success of rule-making is highly dependent on political context. If we turn to the success and strength of international mechanisms such as the Refugee Convention, we can see that the historical context, a reaction to some of the atrocities of the Second World War, led to the momentum behind such a strong piece of legislation. When strong momentum is not provided by the political context then this must be found elsewhere.

The political context can equally provide for negative feeling in a particular direction. States are prone to sedentary bias, tending towards a negative and generally suspicious view of migration. This translates into policies aimed towards preventing migration from taking place. States’ sedentary bias has also increased in recent years, especially in the aftermath of 9/11 and increased attention given to terrorism and the potential for international terrorist networks to operate across state borders.

The apocalyptic tones which have been used by many to discuss the issue of climate change-induced migration may also have had a negative effect on political will. Although intending to emphasise the severity of the issue to be confronted by the international community, it is possible that this rhetoric has instead served to deter state governments from agreeing to action due to the perceived scale of the issue. Rather than being met with action these arguments have therefore been confronted with increasingly closed migration policies and anti-migration rhetoric.

Potential global governance responses

Naturally, suggestions have been made as to ways in which global governance could respond to the phenomenon of climate change-induced migration. However, all of these potential responses involve problems which will probably prevent them from being implemented. Three of the most frequently cited suggestions are: (1) an amendment to the Refugee Convention to encompass climate change-induced displacement; (2) Guiding Principles akin to the Guiding Principles on Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs); (3) the creation of new legally-binding legislation specifically related to climate change-induced migration.

An amendment to the Refugee Convention to include those displaced due to climate change has been proposed, most prominently by the government of the Maldives (Republic of the Maldives Ministry of Environment, Energy and Water: 2006); however this suggestion is flawed for several reasons. Firstly, the Refugee Convention is a strong document which was created as a reaction to a very particular type of displacement, namely persecution by the state. This convention enjoys nearly universal recognition and has been employed to support people fleeing from precarious situations since its inception. The very process of altering this document would risk undermining this support. This process would also run the risk that states could use the process as an opportunity to weaken their convention obligations. The question would also be raised during amending the Convention whether other types of displacement in addition to the traditional conception included in the Convention and climate change-induced displacement should be included, given ethical debates around whether it is correct for only certain displaced persons to have access to protection. This could have the tendency to snowball and become unwieldy. Finally, it is questionable about whether the correct place for dealing with climate change-induced migration is within refugee protection mechanisms. The very label of refugee suggests that populations are fleeing from their own government, whereas in many cases the populations which are moving due to the impacts of climate change have no desire to leave and, if climate change is indeed a root cause of such movements, the reasons for their displacement have actually been caused by developed states which have contributed more heavily to climate change. Fieldwork in the small Pacific states of Tuvalu and Kiribati in particular has shown that populations do not support the use of refugee terminology and the connotations of victimhood which they perceive it entails (McAdam & Loughry 2009).

The second proposal, the creation of Guiding Principles akin to the Guiding Principles on Internally Displaced Persons, also has flaws, although on this occasion mainly concerning its utility. The Guiding Principles are a non-legally binding document, which does not place any legal requirements on states. Furthermore, it would require a lot of political will to see this process through, with the likelihood that the process would not result in legislation, or would result in legislation which then cannot be enforced. Although this process would not necessarily be harmful (as amendment of the Refugee Convention would be) it would probably also not bring great benefit to climate migrants, whilst at the same time requiring a great deal of political will to achieve it. There have been moves made in this direction in the context of disaster-induced cross-border displacement by the Nansen Initiative, with its “state-led, bottom-up consultative process intended to build consensus on the development of a protection agenda addressing the needs of people displaced across international borders by natural disasters, including the effects of climate change” (Nansen Initiative 2013: 1). This is an international consultative process and is not creating instruments of international law, however could lead to further developments, especially if the Initiative realises their goals of building consensus on key principles and creating “an international agenda for the protection of persons displaced across borders in the context of natural disasters” (Nansen Initiative 2013:5).

The third and final proposition, the creation of a Convention specifically addressing climate change-induced migration (Docherty & Giannini 2009), addresses some of these problems, in that a legally-binding document such as a convention would place requirements on states and could be used to protect climate migrants, should this be necessary. However, this would require even more political will and capital than the creation of Guiding Principles. For this reason it is extremely unlikely that this can be achieved or that, if it were created, enough State Parties would then choose to ratify the Convention for it to come into force. This proposition has also been criticised for its potential lack of utility: there is a risk that such a convention could lead to broad, universalised statements, which are then unable to respond to diverse migration and displacement scenarios (McAdam 2011).


The most prominent attempt which has been made to govern climate change-induced migration is contained in the Cancun Agreement of the UNFCCC. It is in Paragraph 14(f) of this agreement that “climate change induced displacement, migration and planned relocation” entered the text of an international agreement for the first time (UNFCCC 2010:14(f)), with states committing to undertake measures to “enhance understanding, coordination and cooperation” in this area. As with many other environmental agreements, the concept of common but differentiated responsibilities and capabilities is also included in this paragraph, recognising that the contributions towards these measures will vary by state.

Due to paragraph 14(f), the UNFCCC process is being hailed by many as an opportunity to create governance mechanisms for climate change-induced migration and integrate it with more general climate change governance at the international level. However, here the causality hurdle is particularly high. It is already difficult to establish whether movement has been caused because of changes in the environment or other drivers (or most likely a combination of different push and pull factors). By considering the issue through the lens of climate change legislation, there is also another level of causality- that is attributing the environmental changes taking place to climate change- which has to be fulfilled.

Paragraph 14(f) must be viewed with a certain degree of caution. Whilst recognising this as an important step, it should also be recognised that the Cancun Agreement is not meant to protect people who have migrated or been forced to migrate because of climate change, but is rather part of the international apparatus designed to promote cooperation regarding adaptation to climate change in general (McAdam 2011:20). In 14(f), states agree to undertake measures to “enhance understanding, coordination and cooperation” in this area, which may entail important steps such as supporting more research but is highly unlikely to involve any actions to directly assist migrants. Whether the issue will be expanded upon in further UNFCCC negotiations and any agreement concluded in 2015 remains to be seen.

Concluding remarks

There are many ways in which the governance of climate change-induced migration could play out, and many different areas of international politics in which developments could take place. One thing which we can say with some certainty is that the attention paid to this area will continue to increase. Whilst this attention is unlikely to translate into specific governance processes, such as the development of a specific convention to address climate change-induced migration, other pre-existing governance processes are touching on the area and may continue to do so.


Sarah L. Nash
Research Group Climate Change and Security
University of Hamburg