Comment: Loss and damage won’t go far enough for climate migrants

By Steve Trent

While the pledge of loss and damage funds at the UN climate conference represents a small victory for developing countries, the outcomes of Doha are symptomatic of the lack of the political leadership and ambition that has been shown on climate change.

Too many opportunities have passed when we have failed to create a path from recognising the causes and costs of climate change to delivering the funds and the action to solve these.

Developing world infrastructure is often incapable of coping with extreme weather events. (Source: UN/Tim McKulka)

These collective failures on climate change mitigation and adaptation are resulting in more and more people being pushed into poverty.

Declining incomes and opportunities and stressed or over-utilised and increasingly fragile natural resources are leading to critical impacts on food security, nutrition, health and well-being – the fundamental tenets of shared international human rights commitments.

In response to Doha EJF has launched a new report, A Nation under Threat, which examines the impacts of environmental change on human rights and migration in Bangladesh, one of the most climate vulnerable countries in the world.

It documents the significant damage to vital infrastructure, widespread devastation to housing, reduced access to fresh water for drinking, sanitation and irrigation, and rising poverty and hunger.

It documents how flooding and storms, and the gradual decline in environmental security, have become major driving factors displacing people from their homes in rural south-west Bangladesh to rapidly growing urban slums.

This kind of forced migration has now become a global human rights issue. Last year weather-related disasters, mainly floods and storms, displaced 13.8 million people worldwide.

For three consecutive years (2008, 2009 and 2010), weather-related disasters like floods and storms displaced more people than wars. These are the new refugees, “climate refugees” driven from their homes by environmental insecurity.

Unlike refugees fleeing conflict or persecution, however, climate refugees have neither the recognition nor protections of refugees fleeing conflict under international legal definitions. The term “climate refugee” is neither defined nor recognized by international law.

As a result, millions continue to suffer an increasingly brutal daily struggle while glacial political debates on terminology – whether to call these people climate refugees or environmentally-displaced persons – play out, when what we should be focusing on is how we can protect the rights of vulnerable people.

Humanitarian crises like the tragic situation in East Africa demonstrate that reactive approaches to environmental disasters are likely to be neither the best option nor a sustainable solution; it is staggering that EJF has worked with people in their twenties who were born in Kenya’s Dadaab camps as refugees.

Hurricane Sandy showed how even the most powerful country in the world can struggle to cope with the effects of climate change. (Flickr/SnapnPiks)

Even among the wealthiest nations the capacity to deal with these situations can be absent. When Hurricane Sandy struck the best prepared, wealthiest, most powerful nation on earth (the USA) it rendered 40,000 people homeless in New York City alone.

We clearly need to plan early and pre-empt crises. We need to build resilience in those areas which will experience the worst impacts of climate change and have limited capacity to adapt. We need to take preventative measures to protect the stability of fragile states, like Somalia, which are extremely climate vulnerable.

We need to develop synergies between economic, environmental, social and human rights frameworks, goals and strategies to mitigate the potentially disastrous and growing impacts of climate change.

Although the negotiations have resulted in a formal acknowledgement from the USA and other developed nations that there will be a bill to pay for the havoc that will come from climate change, I am cautious about how useful compensation will be in protecting the rights of people living on the frontlines of environmental change.

Our leaders must acknowledge that climate change is a human rights issue: that it has become one of the major challenges to the basic human rights to life, food, health, water, housing and self-determination. We need leadership and action, now.

Steve Trent is the Executive Director of the Environmental Justice Foundation (EJF). EJF is a UK-based NGO working internationally to protect the environment and defend human rights.

EJF’s report, A Nation under Threat: The impacts of climate change on human rights and forced migration in Bangladesh was launched, with the support of actor Ashley Jensen and Members of the European Parliament Jean Lambert and Ska Keller. For more information, visit

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