A worn row boat sits on parched, cracked land with mountains and a sunset in the background
Report, Climate change, energy & environment, Migration & borders, Harney Program, Reach Alliance, Munk School

Climate and Migration at COP26

Earlier this year and just two weeks before the latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Report was published, the rain started. Since 2017, more than 700,000 Rohingya refugees have settled in Bangladesh in Cox’s Bazar, a town extremely vulnerable to the impacts of a changing climate. When nearly 12 inches of rain fell on refugee settlements over the course of just 24 hours, at least six Rohingya, including three children, died in landslides while another 200,000 refugees were stranded due to the unprecedented and dramatic climate event.

The undeniable truth is that the climate crisis is a migration crisis. What this initial example shows us is that while climate change exacerbates typical drivers of migration and destabilizes institutions which might otherwise be able to assist people who move, refugees and migrants are among those who will be earliest and hardest hit by an increasingly erratic environment. 

On the whole, in response to fast acting and increasingly common natural disasters, widespread and unpredictable flooding, tsunamis, earthquakes, landslides, drought, rising sea-levels and long-term shifts in agricultural viability, more and more people have begun to move. The World Bank projects that 143 million people will be displaced due to climate change by 2050; we should remember that this statistic only considers movement in Latin America, Sub-Saharan Africa, and South Asia. In fact, displacements due to extreme weather in North America are increasingly common. Wildfires on the west coast have displaced thousands in recent years; coastal communities in the south of the United States are migrating inland; and just this week, in western Canada, highways and homes are underwater due to mammoth flooding. While those internally displaced are harder to track, we know that in 2020 alone, 30 million people were displaced due to such dramatic climate events.

In this increasingly extreme context, this month leaders from more than 190 countries, and thousands of negotiators, researchers and participants attended the 26th United Nations Climate Change Conference of the Parties (COP26). The intention behind COP26 is for global leaders to meet and review national and collective progress over the last six years since the signing of the Paris Agreement. The aim of current international cooperation on climate is to limit rising global temperatures to 1.5°C, and hopefully prevent the worst of the apocalyptic scenarios that an increase to 2°C or higher could engender.. More than 100,000 protestors marched in the streets of Glasgow which hosted the two-week event. These demonstrators drew attention to the lack of innovative and comprehensive solutions that plague negotiations, as well as the non-binding nature of climate talks’ outcomes. Across the globe, activists – particularly young ones – protested at more than 300 rallies from London to Melbourne. In particular, Indigenous activists and speakers from the Global South decried nihilism in the face of oncoming disaster: as Samoan environmentalist Brianna Fruean noted, “Pacific youth have rallied behind the cry ‘We are not drowning, we are fighting’. This is our warrior cry to the world. We are not drowning, we are fighting.”

The International Organization for Migration observes that in the last decade, climate negotiators and global leaders have started to truly grapple with the reality of the climate migration crisis in their systemic review of environmental degradation and rising global temperatures.

In particular, human mobility has been linked with climate outcomes in the work of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change and various annual COP meetings. They are also institutionalized in, for example, the Warsaw International Mechanism for Loss and Damage associated with Climate Change Impacts (WIM).

In fact, loss and damage is a particularly contested issue for climate negotiators. As one adviser noted, “the term ‘loss and damage’ is a euphemism for terms we’re not allowed to use, which are ‘liability and compensation.’” While a lack of climate financing has impeded climate adaptive and mitigative projects across the world, many representatives from the Global South have focused on what is owed to countries least responsible for climate change and yet most impacted. Calls for “climate justice” push leaders beyond models of charity when they address loss and damage which has displaced people and rendered their homes and traditional territories inhabitable. While only a small piece of the loss and damage discussion, climate migration is clearly driven by the actions of the wealthiest nations and their inhabitants: recent scholarship suggests that the Global North is responsible for up to 92% of excess global carbon emissions driving climate change.

Simultaneously, climate migration appears as a flashpoint in larger political and cultural conversations. The ways in which certain leaders refer to climate migrants captures the dual anxieties of increased immigration at hostile borders and apocalyptic climate scenarios. Just last month, UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson was commenting on the importance of COP26 when he alluded to the fall of the Roman Empire “as a result of uncontrolled immigration.” Johnson went on to note, “the empire could no longer control its borders, people came in from the east, all over the place…the point of that is to say it can happen again.” Similarly, Nancy Pelosi responded to a question concerning the climate impact of the United States military by tying together climate induced migration with increasing security threats at the American border.

Johnson and Pelosi are emblematic of an increasing trend in which national leaders from wealthy countries in the Global North frame the climate migration crisis as a threat rather than an unjust tragedy. This securitization of climate migration as an issue in climate negotiations is certainly an intriguing development in the discourse on climate-driven displacement, but ultimately it is completely inadequate. Reparative frameworks can be achieved, in particular by a new generation of climate activists who are already utilizing a rhetoric of justice in their commentary on the events of COP26. We must imagine a world in which both the right to move and the right to stay are upheld in climate negotiation contexts. It is an urgent task, and one we are certainly ready for.