Climate Change and Migration

Manfred Nowak speaks at the Diplomatic Academy on migration and climate change

Manfred Nowak speaks at the Diplomatic Academy on migration and climate change

by Lisa Butzenlechner

Shifting climate, moving people: framing migration due to climate

Although climate change (CC) is sometimes considered a scientific problem distant from everyday concerns, it has a significant impact on human life. In fact, we experience the sweeping consequences of rapid economic development and its negative externalities of the rising concentration of greenhouse gases (GHG) in the atmosphere in our daily life as well as on international level. As a consequence of CC, climate patterns are shifting to the point that they even force people to leave their homelands, and therefore this issue should also be examined from the perspective of international law, human rights and domestic security. This crucial and complex topic of CC-based migration was explored at a panel discussion at the Diplomatic Academy on 22 October.

Qin Dahe, co-chair of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) said, “Our assessment of the science finds that the atmosphere and ocean have warmed, the amount of snow and ice has diminished, the global mean sea level has risen and that concentrations of greenhouse gases have increased”. The IPCC is an international body for the assessment of CC and was established by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) in 1988 to “provide the world with a clear scientific view on the current state of knowledge in CC,” as defined on their web page. This year’s IPCC report was presented at the end of September and summarizes in more than 2000 pages the current state of scientific knowledge on CC. One of most important findings is that it is 95 percent certain that human activity is the main cause of CC.

The increasing concentration of GHGs in the atmosphere provokes crucial changes that impact life on earth. Rising temperatures do not necessarily mean warmer winters, but shifting climate conditions mean that the melting of glaciers, as well as natural disasters like floods or droughts, are likely to increase.

According to the IPCC report, in the last two decades, the annual sea level rises around three millimeters per year, which is a serious threat to low-lying countries. Kiribati, for example, is a group of islands in the Pacific, which was the homeland of the world’s first “climate refugee.” He requested asylum in New Zealand in October 2013 and raised the issue to broader discussions in global media. According to an estimate by Greenpeace in 2007 and the UN High Commissioner for Refugees in 2002, roughly 20 million people are currently migrating due to the environmental impact on living conditions.

The discussion held at the Diplomatic Academy Vienna (DA) on 22 October examined these increasing migration flows from different perspectives and explored different solutions. Manfred Nowak from the Ludwig Boltzmann Institute for Human Rights, Helga Kromp-Kolb from the Institute of Meteorology Institute of the University of Natural Resources and Life Sciences Vienna, and Walter Feichtinger from the National Defence Academy Vienna were at the podium.

The effects of CC vary, and they provoke migration on different scales, according to Manfred Nowak, and can be delineated into three different types. Firstly, natural disasters like floods or hurricanes provoke local migration in the form of internally displaced persons (IDPs). Secondly, shifting climate conditions like desertification influence the vegetation and livelihoods. Ultimately, the rising sea level envelops and destroys living space. While the first type provokes only temporary, local migration, the second two make it impossible for migrants to return to their homelands and therefore need permanent solutions.

Another reason for migration is that competition for scarce resources often leads to conflict, unstable societies and even war, in particular, countries of the global south. It can be argued that the Darfur conflict is the world’s first climate war, as the UN Security Council statement in 2011 assigns it as a key factor in the conflict. Climate change is therefore a multiplier, triggering conflicts in the global south, and affects not only the region itself, but also the domestic security issues in wealthier countries, which Feichtinger articulated in the discussion.

What is problematic is that climate refugees are currently not protected under international law. According to the Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees (CRSR) of 1951, a refugee is someone who owes “a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion.” According to Nowak, this narrow definition is not applicable to climate refugees. He states that under current law, protection can only be provided either as subsidiary or temporary protection.

According to the discussion at the DA, just a few countries like Finland and Sweden currently offer protection to environmental migrants. Although Nowak argues that in international environmental law, the “principle of polluter pays” should be applied to environmental issues. This principle of means that the industrialized counties have to assume the obligation of their polluting activities, because they are mainly responsible for the anthropogenic or human-caused effects of CC. According to the IPCC report 2013, carbon dioxide concentrations in the atmosphere have increased by 40 percent since pre-industrial times and therefore caused major changes in the climate. These changes in our environment are just the last link of the chain. To prevent these effects, one has to look at the causes. As there is almost no longer any doubt that CC is anthropogenically caused, according to the IPCC, the reduction of GHG emissions is imperative.

Unfortunately, on an international level, there has not been much progress in finding a common policy since the COP3 in Kyoto, Japan. Since 1995, it is the goal of the Conference of the Parties (COP) to find solutions at their annual meetings, but it’s difficult to find a consensus concerning this issue due to the diverse interests of the participating states. While developing countries are most affected and lack the capacity to implement expensive adaptation measures, it is up to the industrialized countries responsible for the largest share of GHG emissions to make concessions. According to Kromp-Kolb, this dearth of progress should be substituted by active policies on a local or regional scale.

The EU, but also smaller countries, should lead the way and pioneer new policies that find local solutions on a technical, but also a political and economic level to reduce GHG output, as well as adapt to the consequences on human life, which implies coping with increasing migration flows. Environmental awareness is high in most countries in Europe, and this should be used to implement progressive policies. Therefore, the conference closed with the following words to raise hope to the climate change issue: “The scope of action is Europe, the scope of orientation is the world.”

The discussion “Klimawandel & Migration: Herausforderungen an die Realpolitik” held on 22 October at the Diplomatic Academy

The discussion “Klimawandel & Migration: Herausforderungen an die Realpolitik” held on 22 October at the Diplomatic Academy

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