Climate Change and the Rise of the Environmental Migrant

James Drummond

Canada has come under much scrutiny in recent weeks for its lack of commitment to climate change initiatives. Prime Minister Stephen Harper skipped out on annual climate change talks, opting instead for a face-to-face meeting with United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon. And just last week, a scathing report was released criticizing Canada for having no plan to meet emission reduction targets.

In Canada, the climate change debate is predominantly focused on how it affects our environment, infrastructure, and economy. We worry about our lakes, forests, and wildlife, and severe weather events that are taking place with increased frequency.

Outside of Canada, the conversation around climate change is largely focused on impacted populations. The International Organization for Migration estimates that by 2050, 25 million to 1 billion people will be forced to migrate due to climate events (200 million being the most widely accepted prediction). These individuals will be forced to relocate due to rising sea levels, droughts, and the loss of arable land, among other natural disasters. Compared to the 1980s, the first decade of the millennium saw episodes of severe weather more than double — and the cost of the resulting damage increased from $121 million to $717 million.

For decades, the international community has attempted to move the plight of environmental migrants onto the agenda of policy-makers. Yet it remains stuck in the policy formation stage, as actors generally fail to agree on how to categorize these people. As far back as 1985, researchers attempted to call attention to these displaced people by labeling them ‘environmental refugees.’ In 1990, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change became the first official international body to recognize the group, labelling them ‘environmentally-induced migrants.’

Fast-forward to the early to mid-2000s, when academics and NGOs began to produce an increasing amount of literature on climate change. Using the term ‘climate refugees,’ these non-state actors tried aggressively to push states to respond to the swelling number of people migrating due to climate change. The issue finally emerged in official climate change talks in 2007, when the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) invited these non-state actors into the Conferences of Parties (COP). This later resulted in an official Broad Adoption Framework that included a small sub paragraph on environmental migrants.

But the real story is how the terminology evolved. During the conference, the term ‘climate refugees’ was rejected by the US delegation, who argued that it would invoke prescriptive actions under the Geneva Convention. The term ‘environmental migrant’, that which was finally adopted, was in a significant way a direct attempt to depoliticize the issue and remove any responsibility to act. Compared to a ‘refugee’ — someone who has suffered at the hands of persecution and is entitled to asylum — ‘migrant’ has considerable less teeth in the realm of international law and politics. As a result, a several decades-long fight to help these displaced peoples has resulted in no help, no policy, and no real prospects.

And so we are back to where we began – with no agreement on how to help the millions of people displaced due to weather events, and no policy prescriptions visible on the horizon. In Canada, the only help for these people may be for government to address its own climate change initiatives in view of attempting to limit the number or effect of severe weather events in the future. If climate change is not halted, islands in the South Pacific will be flooded, deltas such as the Sunderbans will be rendered useless for agriculture, and millions around the world will be left without shelter in the wake of tsunamis, typhoons, and hurricanes.

We read stories that Canada’s government is not acting to mitigate climate change and we react, fearing for our country and our future. Yet we need to consider that there is a whole world of futures affected. Canada needs to be serious about climate change policy – if not for us, then for those beyond our borders.

James Drummond is a second year Master of Public Policy student at the School of Public Policy and Governance, and is studying at Sciences Po in Paris for the fall semester. His policy interests lie in international political economy, institutions, immigration, and social policy. James spent the last summer as a co-op student with the Ontario Public Service at the Ministry of Labour, where he worked on health and safety policy issues. 

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