Environmental advocates warn of a looming migration crisis as a result of climate change. They are urging negotiators drafting a climate change agreement to include provisions aimed at preventing mass migration by helping vulnerable communities adapt to the new climate reality.
“Polar bears live on sea ice. With the warming of the earth’s atmosphere, their habitat is melting. Unable to hunt in the open water, polar bears are dying-sometimes drowning as they search for ice floes that have disappeared.”
A video of polar bears teetering on top of floating icebergs is both shocking and moving.
Special Advisor to the Director of International Protection at the UN refugee agency, Jose Riera, said the polar bear has become the most emblematic image of climate change.
“That is often invoked as perhaps the strongest image of the impact of climate change. We were completely struck, however, that the impact on people and how that impact would play out was in some ways missing from the discussions,” he said.
The UNHCR assists 46.3 million refugees, stateless people, returnees, and internally displaced. Many of these people already are concentrated in climate change hot spots around the world. Riera said climate-related migration and displacement will pose huge challenges in the years ahead.
Just 10 months remain before world leaders sign a climate change agreement in Paris. The UNHCR official said little time is left for addressing the crucial issues raised by the specter of millions of climate migrants forced to flee their homes.
“We hope that the parties will recognize that climate change is indeed a driver of human mobility and will likely increase the displacement of populations unless concrete measures are taken," noted Riera. "The second big picture message is to encourage States to take measures to prevent and mitigate displacement in the context of climate change, including through adaptation strategies.”
The Internal Displacement Monitoring Center tracks the number of people who are displaced by natural disasters. Director of the Center, Alfredo Zamudio, said the trends are not good.
“Our evidence shows that since 1970 until 2013, the risk to be affected for internal displacement has doubled, " said Zamudio. "In 2013 almost 22 million people were displaced in at least 119 countries, almost three times as many people as displaced the same year by conflict and violence.”
Since 2008, when the center began monitoring displacement, 160 million people have been displaced in 161 countries. The highest risks are in Asia where countries are regularly exposed to typhoons, floods, and earthquakes.
Scientists agree the risk of displacement will increase in the coming decades as sea levels rise and global warming increases the frequency and intensity of extreme weather events.
Bernd Hemingway, director of the Department of Migration Management for the International Organization for Migration, does not share the view that migration is necessarily bad. If managed well, he says migration can be positive and can hold out hope to populations. He says migration is an important adaptation strategy if supported by policy action.
“In cases of natural disasters, there are no other choices than moving out of harms way to save lives. In slow onset events, migration may help individuals and communities to become more resilient by diversifying livelihood, ensuring access to key health and sanitation services and infrastructures and by contributing to development and adaptation in the places of origin through, for example, remittances,” said Hemingway.
Environmental advocates agree the climate change agenda must give more prominence to the looming migration crisis. They say measures that would allow people to remain in their homes and not be forced to flee should be explored. They say planned relocations should be a measure of last resort when all other adaptation strategies have failed.