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Environment Magazine September/October 2008


November-December 2008

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Commentary - Climate Refugees: Cause for a New Agreement?

With their proposed Protocol for the Recognition, Protection, and Resettlement of Climate Refugees, Frank Biermann and Ingrid Boas1 make a bold and provocative suggestion, one of a number of political responses that are being floated as the world moves toward designing a new post-2012 architecture for managing climate change. Putatively a new protocol under the supervision of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, its goal would be to enable nation-states to manage proactively the resettlement of people who may face displacement due to climate change.

I see three significant flaws with the proposed protocol: the category of “climate refugee” is essentially underdetermined; it adopts a rather static view of climate-society relationships; and it is open to charges of carrying a neocolonial ideology, which guarantees it will meet political resistance.

For the protocol to be operational, it is necessary to clearly define who does and does not fall under the designation of “climate refugee.” The term implies a monocausality about the reasons for migration that just does not exist in reality. The decision to migrate is always a result of multiple interactions related to economic, political, environmental, and social factors.2 Even in the case of Pacific Island states such as Tuvalu, sea-level rise is rarely the decisive factor behind observed population movements,3 and Santa Clara University professors Michael Kevane and Leslie Gray have recently shown that the widely claimed climate-induced refugees in Darfur are nothing of the sort.4 One is also reminded of Nobel Laureate Amartya Sen’s claim that there has never been serious famine—nor associated migrations—in a country with a democratic government and a free press.5

Biermann and Boas side-step the problem of assigning the climate refugee category to individuals by proposing that entire communities or population groups are so designated by the protocol’s executive committee. They suggest such designations should ideally be a preemptive move years or even decades before the prospective critical change in climate or sea level occurs. This is certainly one way of inflating the numbers of those to be considered climate refugees—numbers which have been critiqued by many.6 This international committee thus could determine the fate of millions. Not only must these committee members discern, amid the enduringly fuzzy science, which habitats climate change will make unviable and by what approximate year this will occur, they also will have the even more problematic task of determining which areas “are deemed as being too difficult to protect [through adaptation] in the long-term.” Adaptation is not a technical process to be determined or imposed by some distant UN committee; it is a social dynamic of change in which multiple values and power relations are at work.7

A second concern regards the relationship between climate and society implied by the proposed operation of the protocol. For example, Biermann and Boas explicitly state that once categorized as climate refugees, population groups must be treated as “permanent immigrants to the regions or countries that accept them
. . . [they] cannot return to their homes.” This implies a frozen view of reality—once an area becomes uninhabitable it always will remain uninhabitable. Yet we know from accounts of earlier migrations in climatically stressed regions such as the Sahel in the 1970s and 1980s that migration is often a temporary response to environmental stresses.8 We also know that habitability is deeply contingent—think cities such as Phoenix or Amsterdam. The imposition of irreversibility and permanency as a condition of categorization places too great a burden on being able to distinguish between human-related climate change (and sea-level rise), which is difficult to reverse, and natural, annual, or decadal climate variability, which by definition is reversible. This challenge to scientific knowledge is especially acute for all rainfall-related stresses since for most tropical regions, we continue to have little idea about the stability of local rainfall signals of anthropogenic warming.9 Migrations linked to storms, drought, and famine are particularly subject to this ambiguity—an ambiguity far more intractable than Biermann and Boas allow for in their optimistic claim about the “broad predictability of climate change impacts.”

My third concern runs deeper still and engages with the new geopolitics of climate change. Establishing a protocol that would be supervised by an international executive committee would open up a new front in the emerging debate about green neocolonialism. New moves to establish international payments to tropical nations for preserving swathes of rainforest are also subject to this same critique of global environmental protection being used as an extension of the hegemony of international financial and political interests.10 In whose interests therefore is the new refugee discourse (and protocol) being developed? A recent report from the Norwegian Refugee Council alerts us to the dangers: “A fundamental critique is found in the context of North-South discourse where ‘environmental security’ is seen as a colonisation of the environmental problems, suggesting that the underdeveloped South poses a physical threat to the prosperous North . . . th[is] security discourse can serve to make new areas relevant for military considerations and promote repressive tendencies.”11

Furthermore, Biermann and Boas’s protocol adopts a paternalistic and centralizing approach to climate-related migration and resettlement. It is a long way removed from the participatory citizen-based dialogues between community, government, and stakeholders currently under way in countries such as the United Kingdom, where compensation for property and livelihood loss due to the encroaching sea is a live issue.12 A refugee regime as suggested here may only be viable in authoritative and centralized societies where the voices of citizens are rarely heard.

I remain unconvinced about the need or viability of such a protocol. Climate and development are embedded evolutionary processes, and both have dynamics that should not be artificially reduced to simple cause and effect, least of all if so doing opens the way for powerful vested interests to control personal and community development. The consequences of climate change and variability for human well-being, development, and migration are best handled within existing and evolving development and adaptation discourses and practices.

Mike Hulme
School of Environmental Sciences
University of East Anglia, Norwich, UK

1. F. Biermann and I. Boas, “Protecting Climate Refugees: The Case for a Global Protocol,” Environment 50, no. 6 (November/December 2008): 8–16.
2. See for example R. Black, “Environmental Refugees: Myth or Reality?” UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) Working Paper No. 34 (Falmer, UK, 2001).
3. See J. Connell, “Losing Ground? Tuvalu, the Greenhouse Effect and the Garbage Can,” Asia-Pacific View Point 44 (2003): 89–107. Connell argues that economic aspirations and greater social mobility are inextricably bound up in the reasons for migration.
4. M. Kevane and L. Gray, “Darfur: Rainfall and Conflict,” Environmental Research Letters 3 (2008): doi:10.1088/1748-9326/3/3/034006.
5. A. Sen, “The Political Economy of Hunger,” in I. Serageldin and P. Landell-Mills, eds., Overcoming Global Hunger, Environmentally Sustainable Development Proceedings Series No. 3 (Washington, DC: World Bank, 1994), 88.
6. For example: “One should be cautious when dealing with the estimations of numbers of ‘climate refugees’ since there is not one common definition and the names and numbers are coloured by different discourse and agendas (such as the environmentalists, security, protection, etc).” V. O. Kolmannskog, Future Floods of Refugees: A Comment on Climate Change, Conflict and Forced Migration (Oslo: Norwegian Refugee Council, 2008). 10. The estimate of 150–200 million environmental refugees (from N. Myers and J. Kent, Environmental Exodus: An Emergent Crisis in the Global Arena (Washington, DC: Climate Institute, 1995), 149) remains an untested and unverifiable number, as Biermann and Boas accept.
7. See discussion in M. Hulme et al., “Limits and Barriers to Adaptation: Four Propositions,” Tyndall Centre Briefing Note No. 20 (Norwich, UK: Tyndall Centre, 2007), 7.
8. See, for example, M. Mortimore and W. M. Adams, Working the Sahel: Environment and Society in Northern Nigeria (London: Routledge, 1999), 226.
9. For example, see the table in J. H. Christensen and B. Hewtison, eds., “Regional Climate Projections,” in Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), Climate Change 2007: The Physical Science Basis, Working Group I Contribution to the Fourth Assessment Report of the IPCC (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2007), 847–940. This shows that for many tropical and subtropical regions, great ambiguity remains about what the long-term anthropogenic change in rainfall will be.
10. See the article, and subsequent responses, B. Jagdeo, “Why the West Should Put Money in the Trees,” BBC News Online, 8 September 2008.
11. V. O. Kolmannskog, note 6, pages 9–10. See also S. Dalby, “Environmental Change and Human Security,” Isuma—Canadian Journal of Policy Research 3, no. 2 (2002): 71–79.
12. See, for example, J. Milligan and T. O’Riordan, “Governance for Sustainable Coastal Futures,” Coastal Management Journal 35 (2007): 499–509.

In his response to our proposal for a Protocol on the Recognition, Protection, and Resettlement of Climate Refugees to the UN climate convention,1 Mike Hulme raises some key criticisms. Yet none has convinced us that our proposition is flawed. More importantly, Hulme offers no constructive alternative to resolve the predicted climate refugee crisis.

We agree with Hulme that it will be difficult to determine with utmost scientific precision whether people become refugees because of climatic change or other reasons. Yet we disagree that this must stop us from taking action. Lack of unequivocal scientific certainty should not delay the establishment of strong international institutions to protect the poorest victims of climate change. Instead, governments and international organizations must rely on political processes and compromise to resolve questions that science cannot fully answer. In our plan, the status of climate refugees will therefore not be decided by scientists but in negotiations between industrialized countries and those developing countries that are affected by climate change.

We concur with Hulme that the will of the affected populations must be central in any legal regime. Yet in his case for local participation, Hulme underestimates, and misrepresents, the functioning of the international political process. In our proposal, every procedure under the climate refugee protocol, and every decision of its executive committee and meeting of the parties, will have to be initiated by the affected countries, from the Maldives to Bangladesh. Decisions will be based on extensive hearings and deliberations, including scientific advice and, of course, the preferences of the affected communities. Every action taken under the protocol would require a double-weighted majority of countries—that is, a simple majority of the donor countries and the developing countries. In such a procedure, all actions will have to be approved by the majority of the developing nations that have ratified the protocol—we see little danger of paternalism here. In addition, every decision will require the consent of the majority of donor countries—which makes the fears of inflated numbers that Hulme has suggested largely unfounded. Such procedures are well established in the practice of international environmental governance. We see no reason why they should not form a basis for a multilateral agreement on the protection of climate refugees.

In addition, Hulme’s critique misses the point that our proposal focuses on the millions of people in the developing world who are threatened most by climate change. There is no doubt that highly industrialized societies can sustain even large population centers in unfavorable surroundings, such as Phoenix or Amsterdam (both mentioned by Hulme)—yet these two cities are not realistic models for poor communities in Bangladesh. Hulme refers to the orderly procedures in the United Kingdom “where compensation for property and livelihood loss due to the encroaching sea is a live issue”; yet again, this is hardly a model that Bangladesh or other poorer, affected countries are likely to follow without the international help that Hulme seems to propose to deny them.

Also, Hulme’s argument that migration might be temporary and adaptation still possible neglects the thrust of our proposal. All actions taken under the climate refugee protocol will be the last resort for regions where temporary migration can no longer be assumed, and where adaptation programs are certain to fail, for practical or economic reasons. Here, permanent relocation—for instance, from coastal regions to higher land—will be the only remaining option. Our plan is designed to organize global support programs to make these processes durable, effective, and fair.

Hulme’s third point refers to the “geopolitics of climate change” and equates our proposal with “green neocolonialism.” This, in our view, is both inaccurate and ironic. Our plan targets the protection of millions of poor people in the developing world from whom a changing climate will exact a terrible toll: they will have to give up their villages and land. These people have hardly contributed to the problem of global warming, yet they are likely to suffer the most. The legal, moral, and political responsibility for such victims of climate change is what is at stake. Hulme’s critique is part—intentionally or unintentionally—of an emerging discourse in the industrialized countries that denies responsibility, rejects global assistance, and essentially localizes what is a global crisis largely brought about by wealthy nations in Europe and North America. If current predictions hold, global warming may devastate large parts of the developing world, driving millions of people out of their homes. Some members of the political elite in wealthier countries wish to evade international responsibility—and the emerging discourse against a strong international program to protect climate refugees is part of this debate. Hulme argues that instead of new initiatives and strengthened global collaboration to help future climate refugees, we should place our hopes in “existing development and adaptation . . . practices.” Yet current institutions do not offer much support for the poorer victims of climate change in the developing world. New approaches, discourses, and political initiatives are urgently needed. We look forward to continuing to engage with Mike Hulme and others in a constructive dialogue on what these might look like.

Frank Biermann and Ingrid Boas
Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam
The Netherlands

1. See F. Biermann and I. Boas, “Protecting Climate Refugees: The Case for a Global Protocol,” Environment 50, no. 6 (November/December 2008): 8–16.

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