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African woman in the countryside with goats.
© Environmental Migration Portal | Knowledge Platform on People on the Move in a Changing Climate

Towards a climate migration governance: the new challenge of the 21st century

Author: Silvia Girardi (2018)

Silvia Girardi holds a master's degree in Human Rights and Multi-level Governance from the University of Padova. She is currently a Universal Civil Service volunteer in Tanzania. This In Focus article is excerpt from her master thesis discussed, in July 2018, under the supervision of prof. Lorenzo Mechi. 


The acknowledgement of human mobility due to climate change is a recent achievement.
Since 1990, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), one of the main actors in the climate change regime, has been supporting that “The largest impacts on humanity of climate change may be on human settlement […]”. Despite this IPCC view, the scientific community did not significantly deal with the effects of climate change on human settlements, until recently. Indeed, it is only in 2008 that international human rights bodies began to assess and quantify the relation between climate change and human rights.
However, three main challenges still remain unsolved: (a) the category of people who move due to climate change is not clearly defined in the literature, (b) the lack of an international legal protection framework for this category, and (c) several States seem to be unwilling to take any responsibility.”
This brief article on the climate change–migration nexus will try to assess the complexity of the phenomenon, giving a general overview on the relation between climate change and human rights, focusing on the most recent achievements in climate migration governance.

Something about climate change

According to scientists, greenhouse gasses (GHGs) emissions coming from human activities are the main cause of climate change. Since the Industrial Revolution, great quantities of GHGs have been liberated in the atmosphere increasing the global average temperature. Nowadays, the threat of the climate change impact is growing and our Planet is facing ever-increasing challenges; sudden onset disasters such as cyclones and hurricanes, and slow onset events, like glacial retreat or desertification, are commonplace.  The last report of the IPCC (2018) restated the gravity of climate change and its effects on the ecosystem. According to the report, if the current level of GHG emissions is maintained, global average temperature will exceed 1.5° by 2030, provoking extreme events, undermining the ecosystem as well as human well-being. The costs and resources requested to States in order to maintain the temperature to 1.5° will probably increase, but this would lead to a reduction of ocean temperature and acidity, together with a decrease of risks on the ecosystem’s services and functions. However, Parties to COP 24 have not recognized the IPCC conclusions during the last Conference.

On climate change and human mobility

Environment together with economic, social, cultural and demographic factors could represent a driver of human mobility.
This consideration was raised for the first time during the 80s, later on in 1993 Norman Myers, a famous environmentalist, predicted an increase in human mobility due to environmental changes, forecasting an amount of 250 million of climate migrants in 2007. Shortly after, a debate emerged among scholars because of the development of this phenomenon: alarmists sustained that environmental changes are direct drives of migration, on the other hand, sceptics affirmed that the environment together with other elements may provoke human mobility. Climate change is considered as part of environmental factors.
Nowadays, three main challenges are affecting the climate change–migration nexus:

  • climate migrants do not have a clear conceptualization in literature,

  • they are not under a clear international legal protection framework and

  • most States are unwilling to take responsibility for climate change and consequently use resources to protect such persons.

Regarding the first issue, it is important to take in consideration the difficulty for scientists to recognize climate change as the unique cause of a natural event, together with the identification of the relation between climate change and migration. First, climate change does not trigger directly human mobility, but some effects do that; thus, identifying the causality link between a climate change effect and human mobility is challenging. Considering also that, the dynamism of a climate change phenomenon prevents from collecting clear data on people on the move and forecasting extreme or slow onset events.
Nevertheless, since the 90s there have been few attempts to define climate migrants. Essam El-Hinnawi tried to define the term environmental refugees, which was inserted in a UNEP report in 1985; in the following years other scholars attempted to find a proper description. In 2007, the International Organization for Migration proposed a definition of environmental migrants as “[…] 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”. The definition does not refer to climate change directly, but it entails different types of migration, thus it may be considered as a basis for further conceptualization. Overall, a common ground among scholars on a clear definition of people constrained to move due to climate change has not been reached yet.  
At international level, a legal protection of climate migrants is still missing. Alternative shelter tools are founded at national and regional level: the Kampala Convention, which commits States to protect and support displaced people due to climate change, and the Draft Articles on the Protection of Persons in the Event of Disasters, which encourages States to give humanitarian assistance to people in context of disaster, including climate change events. A further alternative may be represented by temporary and subsidiary protection measures that are developing in the European Union today.
Many states have decided to include environmental rights in their national constitutions; a right to a decent environment is present in regional instruments such as the African Charter of Human and Peoples’ Rights, and the Additional Protocol to the American Convention on Human Rights. Nevertheless, the inclusion of such right in International Human Rights Law is still under discussion; the element of transboundary is one of the main challenges, since it brings out the issue of states’ liability. Furthermore, an acknowledgement of such right would interfere in a field, environmental policies, that has been always under the states’ sovereignty, and finally, since environment is a changing phenomenon, the required standard for a right to a healthy environment would change rapidly overtime .
Since 2008, international human rights bodies have put attention on the relation between human rights and climate change. The Human Rights Council stated “[…] that climate change poses an immediate and far-reaching threat to people and communities around the world and has implications for the full enjoyment of human rights”. One year after, the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) published an analytical study on the matter; here different topics have been assessed: the first part of the document is devoted to the negative implication of climate change on specific human rights, together with the analysis of its impact also on vulnerable groups such as women, children and indigenous communities.


Climate change affects
several human rights, such as right to housing, health, water and food. The most affected are “[…] women, children, older persons, indigenous peoples, minorities, migrants, rural workers, persons with disabilities and the poor”. For example, the OHCHR Key Messages on Human Rights and Climate Change sustains that the impact of climate change may undermine the right to an adequate housing, stated in the Article 11 of the ICESCR, through flooding, erosion and drought. Such phenomena influence in turn the right to food and water, causing malnutrition and hunger, jeopardizing mostly populations that are highly dependent on natural resources. Overall, climate change impact may have a direct and sudden effect on human rights, or a gradual and slow one.
The analytical study continues supporting that since most of the people that move due to climate change remain displaced internally, they are entitled to the respect of all human rights by the State. In case a person decides to cross international borders, it has “[…] general human rights guarantees in a receiving State […].
Defining climate change impact as a potential violation of human rights is challenging for three main reasons: 1) the difficulty to separate the production of gas emissions from climate change impact and its effects on human rights; 2) the difficulty in proofing that an environmental change that provoked a violation of human rights is linked to the global warming, and 3) since climate change effect may last for a long time, it may provoke violations also after the event occurred.
Following the OHCHR conclusions, different actors of the international climate change regime have done other official declarations on the influence of climate change on humans and their rights. In 2010 the Report of the sixteenth Conference of the Parties stated that “[…] the adverse effects of climate change have a range of direct and indirect implications for the effective enjoyment of human rights and that the effects of climate change will be felt most acutely by those segments of the population that are already vulnerable owing to geography, gender, age, indigenous or minority status, or disability”. Moreover, Parties to the Conference agreed to insert in the Cancun Agreements a sub paragraph that calls upon states to take “[m]easures to enhance understanding, coordination and cooperation with regard to climate change induced displacement, migration and planned relocation, where appropriate, at the national, regional and international levels […].
Following COP 21 a Task Force on Displacement has been established in order to deal with the growing number of displaced people due to climate change effects.
In 2018 the Human Rights Council reiterated that “climate change poses an existential threat for some countries, and […] also that climate change has already had an adverse impact on the full and effective enjoyment of human rights‎ enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and other international human rights instruments […]”.
Such document presents an overview of the main considerations developed recently on a climate migration governance. Firstly, it restated that climate change events have a stronger impact on vulnerable groups; however, women are not supposed to be considered only victims since they can contribute to enhance the adaptation process to the climate change effects, ensuring a gender approach in climate policies. Furthermore, the document sustains that often developing countries face climate change events lacking resources, thus “[…] climate change is a common concern of humankind and that parties should, when taking action to address climate change, respect, promote and consider their respective obligations on human rights […]. It stresses also legal gaps in the protection of migrants and displaced people due to climate change events and commits states to promote, protect and respect all human rights in the context of adverse effects of climate change. Finally, the report “[c]alls upon all States to adopt a comprehensive, integrated and gender-responsive approach to climate change adaptation and mitigation policies […]” and “to continue and enhance international cooperation and assistance, in particular in financing, the transfer of technology and capacity-building, for mitigation and adaptation measures to assist developing countries […]”.


Climate change is a great challenge of the 21st century and its adverse effects are increasing nowadays; an international recognition of the climate change—human mobility nexus is growing, international organizations and actors of the climate change regime have started to speak out and discussing on potential legal tools and solutions for climate migrants.
The Human Rights Council, its special procedures mechanisms, and the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights have tried to bring attention on human rights and climate change through a series of resolutions, reports, panels and activities since 2008. The first direct reference to human rights in the context of the United Nations Framework Conference on Climate Change was made in 2010, at the sixteenth Conference of the Parties, with Decision 1/CP.16; it recognizes the impact of climate change on the enjoyment of human rights, requesting states to ensure their respect in formulating climate policies. During the same Conference, the UNFCCC adopted the Cancun Adaptation Framework, which calls upon Parties to understand and cooperate on the growing issue of climate migration. In 2015 the Paris Agreement requested the establishment of a Task Force on Displacement with the aim to develop recommendations to deal with climate induced migration.
Recently, in December 2018 states parties to the UNFCCC adopted in COP Decision 10/CP.24 the Recommendations from the report of the Executive Committee of the Warsaw International Mechanism for Loss and Damage associated with Climate Change Impacts on integrated approaches to averting, minimizing and addressing displacement related to the adverse impacts of climate change. Such recommendations represent an important step forward in the recognition of a global governance of climate migration; first of all they call upon to consider all forms of human mobility in the context of climate change during the process of formulation of laws and policies. Also, the respect of all human rights obligations has to be taken into account in this process. Furthermore, states should favour the interconnection between a global climate policy and a global migration policy. Secondly, the report recognizes the importance of disaster national policies in addressing climate change impact, in particular in case of climate displacement. The documents also requires a collaborative action among stakeholders in order to facilitate a regular international migration pathway. Finally, both UNFCCC and the United Nations system  are called upon to respond adequately to climate migration challenges.
Still, the lack of a clear conceptualization and shelter instruments for climate migrants, together with states’ unwillingness to take responsibility remain the three main issues, which international actors have to deal with now. There is still much to be done, the climate change is tangible by now, and also the terrible consequences on the life of migrants. We do not need empty words, but concrete actions, hoping that states will convert such recommendations and decisions in practical commitment, before the time runs out.

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