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A Convention for Persons Displaced by Climate Change

Posted on 20 April 2011 by David Hodgkinson

A short piece for the general audience of RTR radio, Perth, Australia.
(listen to the original audio podcast)

There are many reasons why climate change is also a legal issue. One reason is because climate change is expected to cause much displacement, which refers to population migration caused by the effects of climate change, which include rising sea levels, heavier floods, more frequent and severe storms, drought and desertification.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the World Bank and many other organisations warn that the effects of climate change will cause large-scale population movements. Climate displacement presents an urgent problem for the international community.

The existence and scope of such displacement are often established by reference to the likely numbers of displaced people. The most cited estimate is 200 million climate change migrants by 2050 or one person in every forty-five.

There has been no coordinated response by governments to address human displacement, whether domestic or international, temporary or permanent, due to climate change. Given the nature and magnitude of the problem which climate change displacement presents, ad hoc measures based on existing domestic regimes are likely to lead to inconsistency, confusion and conflict. We believe the international community has an obvious interest in resolving the problem of human displacement in an orderly and coordinated fashion before climate change displacement becomes a problem.

We propose a multilateral Convention to address climate change displacement – an issue which is global in its causes, scope and consequences. The Convention would provide a general framework for assistance to climate change displaced persons and would address gaps in current human rights, refugee and humanitarian law protection.

The Convention would largely operate prospectively; assistance to refugees would be based on an assessment of whether their environment was likely to become uninhabitable due to events consistent with anthropogenic climate change such that resettlement measures and assistance were necessary.  In other words, we view displacement as a form of adaptation that creates particular vulnerabilities requiring protection as well as assistance through international cooperation. Our Convention contemplates the provision of pre-emptive resettlement to those most at risk in terms of the impacts of climate change.

It has been suggested that Australia should take the lead in international efforts to develop a framework for responding to climate change displacement. The broader region in which Australia is situated accounts for 60% of the world’s population; it is also a region that will be significantly affected by the effects of climate change.

And, as has been noted, planning for a future of mass displacement due to climate change gives us the opportunity – before millions of people are on the move throughout the world because of climate change – … to develop frameworks and institutions that might not only be politically realistic, but also based on principles that promote human rights and dignity.

An extended version of this post with considerably more detail and background information can be found at Shaping Tomorrow's World, a website dedicated to providing information and a platform for civil discussion about the problems facing our societies.

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Comments 51 to 72 out of 72:

  1. Sweet @ 50 Three factors contributed to the Texas wildfires 1. Heavy rains from Hurricane Alex last summer caused a huge increase in biomass (plant blooming). 2. The winter of 2010-2011 was extremely cold and caused a massive die-off of plant life. 3. Texas then entered the spring of 2011 in a drought situation with March being the driest March in state history. Those 3 factors created a tinderbox situation that is fueling the fires. High winds and hot weather are exacerbating the situation. I suppose you could take those 3 factors and link them to AGW in some way and make a statement that these fires were caused by AGW. But, that is far different from using science to prove it. We can have a scientific discussion about this if you desire and are capable. This ain't handwaving and I'm no troll. This thread has meandered a bit between climate displacement and environmental displacement and the line between the two is a bit fuzzy. I believe that area-wise the current fires are greater in size than anything recorded. That alone can increase the effect impact to humans, however it must be considered too that the increasing population and building of homes in areas historically prone to wildfires have factored into financial losses. It is no different than building more and grander homes on beaches prone to being hit by hurricanes, or increasing human populations in areas prone to flooding like the Indus River in Pakistan.
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  2. Harry S#51: "Texas then entered the spring of 2011 in a drought situation " Records show this most recent Texas drought started in October 2010. So its not quite so cut and dry, so to speak.
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  3. Muon @ 52 I'm not sure of your point. It takes a while of little or no rain (basically below average) for a region to enter a drought state. Please clarify.
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  4. michael sweet @50, as I've probably made clear, I don't like the "refugees" terminology because, no matter how well defined and understood in academia, in normal use it is likely and has been misunderstood to indicate a much narrower group of people than Myers intended. This leads to people making unwarranted assertions about the impact of AGW, ie, that there will be 50 million people displaced by Global Warming by 2010 in good faith, whereas the actual prediction and figures support there being over 50 million displaced or migrated due to environmental degradation in 2010, including that caused by specific development projects. Nor do I consider the numbers I have quoted as in any way rigorous. Even the reports they come from do not consider them rigorous. What they are is indicative, and proof that those who just dismiss the idea of 50 million environmentally displaced people have made only laughable attempts to quantify the issue. So, I am quite happy for you to quote the figures I and Albatross turned up, you should always do so with the appropriate caveates. On a side note, a common meme is that Myers methodology was just to add up the populations of the effected areas. As the "effected areas" include China, India, Egypt, Bangladesh, and Pakistan (amongst many others), the population of the effected areas is over 2 billion people. Obviously the slander against Myers is simply ridiculous.
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  5. Adelady @49, I disagree on two counts. There are a very large number of displaced people in Somalia, but most of those have been displaced for some time due to conflict in Somalia so are not environmentally displaced. Also, in the case of drought it is very rare that all water stocks are exhausted, and aid agencies often supplement water supplies to a substantial extent. It is therefore very unlikely that all, or even most of the effected people will abandon their homes and lands. You will notice the source I linked quoted 52,000 as of 30 March. The number displaced has probably grown since then, but not 3000% percent.
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  6. HarryS #53: Clarifying: At #51, you suggested that three 'weather events' explain the severity of the current drought. I'm not so sure it's that easy. Point 1: Here's the rainfall total for Alex: That wasn't enough over Texas to do as you suggest. Point 3: The current drought began in October, not in the spring as your model stated. Recent drought history for the southern US shows significant areas of D4 'exceptional' in 2000, 2006-2007, 2009 and now 2010. Sure, there's no smoking gun to show that the latest exceptional drought is directly due to AGW; it is, however, yet another set of extreme events that fit right into the pattern. Seems like 'exceptional' isn't so unusual any more. Perhaps they need a D5 category - I suggest 'Biblical.' I suppose it could all be coincidence. But that's not much of a scientific argument.
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  7. Some attempt to quantify the number of Climate Change displaced (or migrating) people, ie, those displaced or migrating for environmental reasons that would not have been displaced or migrated were it not for climate change. The simplest and crudest way to make such an estimate is to eliminate population growth from the equation. World population is growing at just over 1% per year, with growth in even the fastest growing regions barely exceeding 2% a year. We can optimistically estimate population growth in environmentally degrading regions as being at 3% per annum, or 55.8% over 15 years, 142.7% over 30 years, and 408.2% over 55 years. With 25 million environmentally displaced in 1995, that would lead to an expectation of 39 million environmentally displaced by 2010; of 61 million environmentally displaced by 225; and of 127 million environmentally displaced by 2050. This compares to Myers predictions of 50, 100 and 200 million environmentally displaced for each of those years. That means he is predicting 28% more environmentally displaced in 2010 than can be accounted for by population growth alone, with 64% more in 2025, and 57% more in 2050. From the figures provided in posts above the 2010 prediction seems reasonably accurate, with the number or environmentally displaced people (including environmental migrants) being somewhere between 30 million and 80 million. That means that it is highly probable that a significant number of people have already been displaced by climate change. It is very probable that that number will grow in the future.
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  8. Muon @ 56 I wasn't referencing soley a drought. I was referencing the 3 events (heavy rain - plant growth, cold winter - plant die-off, drought - drying conditions) that led to the fires. It is worth investigating if any or all of the three are related to AGW, but no one should yet make claims that they are. And, certainly these wildfires can't be construed to represent evidence of AGW.
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  9. Tom @ 57 Where are you getting your data from? Please reference.
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  10. Harry Seaward @59, the number of environmental refugees has been extensively referenced in previous posts. The population data comes from wikipedia and other sources for the 1% per annum global growth. Regional growth is determined from this chart: 1.02^10 = 1.219, and 1.025^10 = 1.28 , or a 21.9% and 28% growth over 10 years respectively. That compares with the 26.1% growth over 10 years in Africa, or 26.8% for Nigeria. I determined population growth from 1995 by taking 1.03^(Year-1995). That should safely overestimate growth rates, and hence underestimate the growth in environmentally displaced people that cannot be accounted for by population growth.
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  11. Thanks for your reply, Tom Curtis. That is an impressive bit of data analysis and compilation there! Can someone differentiate between climate refugees and environmental refugees? Also, assuming the numbers Tom C. has graciously provided are correct, what percentage of those can be attributed to AGW?
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  12. Harry Seaward @61, I gather that the terms "environmental refugees" and "climate refugees" are not differentiated in the literature, which I believe is bad practice. Of the 36 million environmentally displaced persons due to sudden onset catastrophes in 2008, 20 million where displaced by climatological effects, and of course the unknown number displaced by slow onset catastrophes (droughts, soil salinity) are primarily are all displaced by climatological effects. That suggests at least 5 million more displaced because of climatological effects than would have been displaced without climate change. As an upper limit, as many as 14 million more people may have been displaced as a result of climate change in 2008 than would other wise been displaced. However those figures are just guesses based on approximate ratios only. Nobody, SFAIK, has published anything like a secure estimate. The number displaced that would not have been displaced without climate change is likely to have been much larger in 2010. I do not have even the insecure figures for 2010 that I have for 2008, but the total number effected by natural disasters is comparable (208 million in 2010 compared to 214 million in 2008), and the largest disaster in terms of number effected was a flood in 2010 (134 million effected) while the largest disaster in 2008 was an earthquake, also in China (15 million displaced). Therefore a much higher proportion of those displaced in 2010 were displaced by climatological effects, and consequently more of those displaced are likely to have been impacted by global warming. (The additional data for 2010 is from the Brookings Institution/ London School of Economics report on environmental displacement in 2010, which give figures for those effected, but unfortunately, not for those displaced.) To summarize, the information we have strongly suggests that people are being displaced in large number by the effects of climate change already; but they are not secure enough to quantify how large an effect that is with any sort of accuracy.
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  13. Harry, When I checked the NCDC Climate Monitoring Page I do not see mention of extraordinary cold in Texas last winter. Muoncounter at 56 provided data to show your claim of extra rain from Hurricane Alex is false. This leaves the drought which has been long predicted by climate scientists for this area of the USA. The NCDC mentions the drought a lot. You have not linked any sources to support your claim that rain and cold contributed to the Texas wildfires. Can you provide links to support your assertion of a greater cause than the drought? Since scientists have predicted AGW caused drought for Texas and the primary cause of the wildfires is drought, it seems to me that AGW is the prime suspect in the cause of the fires. As you point out, area wise these fires are historic in size, and they are not out yet. We have to wait to see what the final toll is. Often evidence is not 100% linked to the cause. We need to look at the most likely explainations and not expect absolute proof. As the list of items becomes longer and longer that must be explained it becomes more and more certain that AGW is linked to these occurances. There is no proof that the last three years of flooding on the Red River in North Dakota is caused by AGW, but how likely is two consecutive 100 year floods after a 50 year flood? This has to be assessed with the 1:1000 year floods in Pakistan and 1:1000 year heat in Russia in mind. It has become too frequent for normal chance. There has not yet been enough time for scientists to peer review analysis showing last years (or this years) problems are linked to AGW, but that does not mean they are not linked. We will have to wait for the analysis to be published.
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  14. If discussion of drought in Texas is allowable in this thread, then it should be put into historical perspective against those earlier civilisations from the region that were displaced by drought, for example, the Ancient Pueblo People and the Mayans, and the relevance of the 300 year drought, known as the Great Drought that began around 1150. What differentiates any recent changes in precipitation patterns to such earlier changes?
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  15. Muon @ 56 and Sweet @ 61 Our information on the weather and rainfall disagree. We agree on the drought. Please review the following info and tell me if you still disagree. Winter Weather: From the NY Times on Texas weather from the winter of 2011 "Though a February snowstorm is not unusual in North Texas, this one followed an ice storm on Tuesday and three successive days of frigid temperatures. As a result, the ground was cold when the snow hit, and there was still ice on many roads, according to state traffic officials and forecasters with the National Weather Service. “Our temperatures rarely stay this cold for this long,” said Bill Bunting, the meteorologist in charge at the National Weather Service office in Fort Worth." Rainfall Totals: From the NOAA website for Lubbock, TX "Another way to put the rain into perspective is to look at the percent compared to normal. The below map shows that most of Oklahoma and Texas saw well above normal during the two week span from late June through early July 2010. Much of the South Plains and Rolling Plains received an astounding 400 to 800% or more of normal. The exception was across the southwest Texas Panhandle and extreme northwest South Plains where totals were near or just slightly above average for the two week period."
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  16. Everyone, I think that we should defer the last word to the experts regarding the Texas drought and wildfires. This is what Dr. Nielsen Gammon (Texas state climatologist and eminent climate scientist) and Dr. Hayhoe (climate scientist) have to say. Personally, I am far more concerned about the tens of millions of environmental refugees around the world than these fires.
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    Moderator Response: [muoncounter] Take the drought discussion to the extreme weather thread.
  17. Coming to this late. You might be interested in articles in Oct 2008 issue of Forced Migration Review focusing on climate change. For example, 'The numbers game' by Oli Brown - online at OliBrown-article Full pdf and contents listing online at FMR31-climate-change best wishes Marion (co-editor, Forced Migration Review)
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  18. I have added a comment on the Texas situation on the Extreme Weather thread.
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  19. This is seriously not a trolling question. Are the people in the American South (194 dead and many more homeless)from the storms that rolled through in late April considered climate refugees?
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  20. Harry. Deaths count as casualties, not as refugees. Homelessness might be a precipitating event which makes people become refugees. But they're not really 'refugees' until they're on the move to new areas. I'm not really certain how people who are "internally displaced" for any reason, war/ famine/ persecution/ climate, get moved onto the refugee category.
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  21. I'd say "yes" if they are forced to re-locate. They would have to be. They live in a climate that favors the formation of tornadoes. In the same way, people who have been forced away from New Orleans by hurricane destruction are also climate refugees. Perhaps, in the interest of arguing more directly, you mean "are they climate change refugees?"
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  22. The city of Kivalina in Alaska is facing huge relocation costs due to global warming. To offset these costs they have gone to court to sue major petroleum and power companies which substantially contribute to global warming. I have often said that the 'Waterloo' for global warming 'skepticism' will be in the legal arena because rules of evidence do not allow bogus skeptic arguments. This NYT article describes a recent case related to the Kivalina suit which illustrates this. Basically, one of the power utilities Kivalina is suing argued that their insurance company was also liable for any damages and should therefor defend them from the suit. The insurance company said no way and the utility took them to court. The court has now ruled that the insurance company is not liable because the insurance contracts require them to cover "accidents" whereas "the utility was intentionally emitting carbon dioxide and knew that it contributed to global warming" and "the natural and probable consequence of that intentional act is not an accident under Virginia law". No equivocation. CO2 emissions cause global warming. The kind of arguments we see from global warming 'skeptics' aren't even admissible in court. Thus, we can expect to see alot more rulings like this which accept the mainstream science as established reality as litigation over global warming impacts increases.
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