How the New IPCC Report Addresses Migration and Human Rights

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By: Dr. Matthew Scott, Senior researcher and Thematic Lead for the Thematic Area Human Rights and the Environment 

In its first Assessment Report, published in 1990, the IPCC recognised that:

The gravest effects of climate change may be those on human migration as millions are displaced by shoreline erosion, coastal flooding, and severe drought. Many areas to which they flee are likely to have insufficient health and other support services to accommodate the new arrivals. Epidemics may sweep through refugee camps and settlements, spilling over into surrounding communities. In addition, resettlement often causes psychological and social strains, and this may affect the health and welfare of displaced populations.[1]

Although not the first to recognise a connection between human mobility[2] and climate change, the report helped raise awareness of the issue and supported calls for increased policy attention at international, regional, and national levels.

Last week, the IPCC released its sixth assessment report on Impacts, Adaptation and Vulnerability. Migration, displacement, and planned relocation in the context of disasters and climate change feature prominently in the report. Migration is mentioned nearly 2,000 times, and displacement is mentioned more than 400 times.

Planned relocation is only mentioned 64 times, owing at least in part to the relatively low volume of research that has focused on this issue. Importantly, although the report focuses primarily on migration, displacement, and planned relocation, it also recognises how people adversely affected by climate change may not move, either by choice or because of vulnerability and a lack of agency.

Reflecting how closely human mobility is connected to other human impacts of climate change, the phenomenon is discussed throughout the report in chapters focusing on cities, settlements and key infrastructure (Chapter 6), health, wellbeing and the changing structure of communities (Chapter 7), poverty, livelihoods and sustainable development (Chapter 8), regional impacts (Chapters 9-15), and key risks across sectors and regions (Chapter 16).

This blog post is based primarily on the Summary for Policymakers (SPM) and the Technical Summary (TS), which together provide a detailed overview of the 3,675 page report. In what follows, I answer the question ‘how does the latest IPCC report address climate change, migration and human rights?’ I also provide links to further resources.

Observed and Projected Impacts and Risks

The SPM confirms with high confidence that:

climate and weather extremes are increasingly driving displacement in all regions.

This conclusion is well illustrated by the work of the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre (IDMC), which collates and visualizes statistics of displacement around the world.

Looking more deeply, Chapter 7 of the full IPCC report includes a typology of climate-related migration.

The typology identifies a variety of forms of internal movement, but notes that international migration is ‘Less common than internal migration; most often occurs between contiguous countries within the same region; often undertaken for purpose of earning wages to remit home.’ This conclusion reflects a longstanding consensus amongst academics and policymakers. A helpful resource for learning more about displacement and migration across international borders is the Platform on Disaster Displacement

Factors contributing to migration and displacement include the immediate impacts of hazard events like cyclones and floods, as well as more indirect drivers, such as ‘rural income losses during prolonged droughts’. The report communicates clearly how human mobility does not result solely from the adverse impacts of climate change, but rather reflects the interaction of environmental conditions with multiple social factors, confirming that

the impacts of climatic drivers on migration are highly context-specific and interact with social, political, geopolitical and economic drivers.

These insights were first consolidated in the Foresight Report on migration and global environmental change in 2011. The IPCC report highlights how policy and planning decisions across multiple sectors can affect both whether people move, as well as how such movement impacts health, wellbeing and socioeconomic outcomes.

The mental health impacts of displacement and migration, particularly on ‘children and adolescents, particularly girls, as well as people with existing mental, physical and medical challenges’ are highlighted.

Disaster- and climate-related displacement is concentrated in Asia and Africa.

People living in the Caribbean and the South Pacific are disproportionately affected relative to the small population sizes in these regions. Further information about internal displacement in the context of disasters and climate change in Asia and the Pacific can be found in RWI’s regional thematic study, which examines the human rights dimensions of the phenomenon.

In 2021, a Climate Mobility Africa Research Network was established by researchers from across Africa and beyond with the goal of supporting the advancement of evidence-based law and policy responses to climate mobility in Africa.

Notably, the IPCC report projects an increase of 200% in human displacement across Africa for 1.6oC of warning, and an increase of 600% for 2.6oC degrees of warming. Considering the fact that the IPCC’s best estimate is that global average temperatures will increase by 3°C with a likely range of 2.5°C to 4°C, far more attention should be paid to the phenomenon than is currently the case.

However, noting the multiple factors that contribute to human mobility as well as uncertainties concerning emissions pathways, the report recognizes that it is difficult to project migration patterns. Nevertheless, the report also notes that

under all global warming levels, some regions that are presently densely populated will become unsafe or uninhabitable with movement from these regions occurring autonomously or through planned relocation.

Planned relocation is discussed in chapters relating to North America (concerning Indigenous Peoples in coastal Alaska) and the Pacific (concerning villages in the Solomon Islands and Fiji). The report notes that

[p]lanned relocation will be increasingly required as climate change undermines livelihoods, safety and overall habitability, especially for coastal areas and small islands.

However, the report highlights a longstanding concern about the way planned relocations are conducted:

Previous disaster- and development-related relocation has been expensive, contentious, posed multiple challenges for governments and amplified existing, and generated new vulnerabilities for the people involved.

Interestingly, the IPCC report expressly calls for the adoption of a human rights-based approach to planned relocation:

Planned relocation will be increasingly required as climate change undermines habitability, especially for coastal areas (medium confidence). Full participation of those affected, ensuring human rights-based approaches, preserving cultural, emotional and spiritual bonds to place, and dedicated governance structures and associated funding are associated with improved outcomes (high confidence). Improving the feasibility of planned relocation and resettlement is a high priority for managing climate risks (high confidence).

A detailed study of planned relocation initiatives around the world can be found here. Although less attention is paid to planned relocation in the IPCC report, there is significant and growing interest in the topic. Indeed, in 2021, Columbia University hosted a four day virtual conference on the phenomenon, and links to the recorded panel discussions are available here.

Adaptation Measures and Enabling Eonditions

Human mobility considerations should be integrated into climate change adaptation initiatives. The IPCC report notes, with high confidence, that

Increasing adaptive capacities minimises the negative impacts of climate-related displacement and involuntary migration for migrants and sending and receiving areas.

The report expresses medium confidence that pursuing achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals may ‘reduce future risk of climate-related involuntary displacement and immobility’ and implementation of the Global Compact on Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration and similar policies ‘are potential components of climate-resilient development pathways that can improve migration as adaptation.’ However,

[p]revailing development pathways are not advancing climate resilient development… With progressive climate change, enabling conditions will diminish, and opportunities for successfully transitioning systems for both mitigation and adaptation will become more limited.

A Human Rights-Based Approach to Human Mobility in the Context of Disasters and Climate Change

The report references human rights 73 times and expressly recognizes that adoption of human rights-based approaches is seen as one factor that supports an enabling environment to adaptation. However, only one entry specifically recognises connections between human rights, migration and climate change. In Chapter 3 on Oceans and Coastal Ecosystems and their Services, the impact of climate change on marine ecosystem services is noted to

exacerbate existing inequalities already experienced by some communities, including Indigenous Peoples, Pacific Island countries and territories, and marginalised peoples, like migrants and women in fisheries and mariculture. These inequities increase the risk to their fundamental human rights by disrupting livelihoods and food security, while leading to loss of social, economic, and cultural rights.

However, most of the references to human rights do not focus on human mobility, but instead concern wider issues such as the rights of Indigenous Peoples, adaptation in cities, the impacts of climate change on human health, and human rights-based approaches to issues like food systems, social justice, and building climate-resilient peace.

Addressing Displacement Out of a Human Rights Perspective

The Raoul Wallenberg Institute of Human Rights and Humanitarian Law works with human rights-based approaches to climate- and disaster-related human mobility through research, education, and communications initiatives.

Through this work we have consolidated international standards and guidelines, supported governments and civil society actors through facilitated learning exchanges, and gathered empirical insights into the role of law and policy in protecting people from displacement risk.

Integrating human rights-based approaches from local up to international levels, and promoting the sharing of expertise, knowledge, and good practices between and across levels of governance brings the systematicity of international standards and guidelines into dialogue with the complexity of local realities.

IPCC reports do not prescribe policy responses to climate change, but the recognition of the importance of adopting a human rights-based approach to adaptation provides one further reason for actors at all levels follow the call reflected in the Preamble to the Paris Agreement that:

… Parties should, when taking action to address climate change, respect, promote and consider their respective obligations on human rights, the right to health, the rights of indigenous peoples, local communities, migrants, children, persons with disabilities and people in vulnerable situations and the right to development, as well as gender equality, empowerment of women and intergenerational equity.

[1] https://www.ipcc.ch/site/assets/uploads/2018/05/ipcc_90_92_assessments_far_wg_II_spm.pdf (section 5.0.10)

[2] Human mobility is a term referring to migration, forced displacement, and planned relocation. These terms are further defined in the Agenda for the Protection of Cross-Border Displaced Persons in the Context of Disasters and Climate Change – https://disasterdisplacement.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/08/EN_Protection_Agenda_Volume_I_-low_res.pdf

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