COP21: Why the Paris talks must tackle climate-forced migration

Burying our heads in the sand by refusing to confront reality is not a viable option – we need to discuss planned migration linked to global warming

Makeshift tents positioned precariously on the sodden ground as the awaits cyclone relief in 2011 (Credit: Transparency International/ Alice Harrisson)

Makeshift tents positioned precariously on the sodden ground as the awaits cyclone relief in 2011 (Credit: Transparency International/ Alice Harrisson)

By Saleemul Huq

With the crisis of refugees arriving in to Europe from Syria and other countries in Asia and Africa the topic of climate change, displacement and migration assumes a high level of attention.

Much of the debate is characterised by prejudice rather than evidence.

We should accept the obvious truism that humans have been moving for millennia for a variety of reasons that predate the problem of human induced climate change.

It is also true that one of the many disparate factors driving such movements have been push-factors of environmental degradation where people are currently living and render them unable to stay where they are.

Many of these environmental degradation push-factors, but not all, are climate related (such as hurricanes, floods and droughts) and these are likely to be exacerbated due to human induced climate change.

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There is also increasing evidence that such climate change related exacerbations are already happening (and will certainly get worse over the next few decades to come).

Hence we need to start to think collectively as a global community how we will anticipate and deal with this exacerbation of existing trends in future.

We should make a distinction between forced displacement (which is a bad thing to be avoided) and planned migration (which is a good thing if done properly).

I would argue that we are now entering the second era of adaptation which is essentially about planned migration as a second order adaptation when we reach the limits of adaptation in-situ (which is the current form of adaptation in the near term).

There are probably in the order of hundreds of millions of people living in low-lying atoll islands (like Kiribati and Tuvalu), low lying coastal deltas (like Bangladesh, Vietnam and Egypt) and mid-continental drylands (like central Asia and Kenya and Somalia in Africa) who will not be able to continue to practice their traditional livelihoods over the next few decades.

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Hence the strategy meeds to be adaptation in-situ in the near term combined with investing in educating and skilling up the next generation so that they are able to get better paid jobs elsewhere.

These adults of tomorrow will then be able to move and bring their elders to join them at their own volition and at their own pace. This is sometimes called facilitated or enabled or planned migration as adaptation.

The first order planned migration needs to be done within national borders (as most people would prefer to stay in their own country) but in some cases there will also have to be cross-border international solutions as well.

Look at my own country Bangladesh, where the government has prepared a climate change strategy and action plan which includes planned migration as a solution to tackle forced displacement from climate change impacts.

In Bangladesh the rural-to-urban migration has already made the capital Dhaka the fastest growing mega-city in the world with fifteen million people and which cannot absorb another ten million who will inevitably be moving from the low lying coastal areas over the next two decades.

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The strategy, which is still in an early stage of thinking, is to combine tackling climate change impacts with education of children and youth and with investments in urban infrastructure in cities far from the coats but not Dhaka.

People need to be facilitated and encouraged, not coerced, to move to these other cities by the creation of jobs, schools and other facilities in those cities.

How does this fit in with the upcoming COP21 talks?

We have a draft negotiating text for the proposed Paris Agreement in which there is a separate article on Loss and Damage under which Option1 is six paragraphs of text proposed by all the developing countries collectively.

One of these paragraphs calls for a separate and new mechanism (or similar body) on the issue of Displacement and Migration due to climate change.

The alternative Option 2 inserted by Switzerland is to refuse to even recognise, let alone negotiate constructively, by deleting the entire article!

It is not clear if other Annex 1 Parties such as the European Union support such an extreme position of coming to a negotiations in Paris with a refusal to negotiate.

This will certainly be a highly sensitive issue in Paris and it is to be hoped that cooler heads will prevail and there will indeed be serious negotiations to find common ground for a way forward.

Burying our heads in the sand by refusing to confront reality is not a viable option.

Saleemul Huq is a director at the International Centre for Climate Change and Development at the Independent University, Bangladesh

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