Getting pro-active on climate change and population displacement

A cyberseminar organized by the Population-Environment Research Network in November 2011, brought together academics and practitioners from around the world to discuss the topic of population displacement. Each expert offered a research study they had been participating in to advance the knowledge surrounding population displacement and climate change. The cyberseminar addressed how communities can better prepare for population displacement and resettlement associated with climate change and large climate mitigation and adaptation projects.

Population displacement resulting from climate change is already a significant concern for developing countries. Grim forecasts from various organizations suggest that as many as 1 billion humans could be displaced from climate change impacts by 2050. Groups like the Population-Environment Research Network are dedicated to gathering the world’s top thinkers on how to alleviate these concerns.

The cyberseminar addressed two types of future resettlement: one stems from direct climate impacts, the other is resettlement owing to large scale mitigation and adaptation projects that are intended to alleviate climate change risks such as coastal defences. This PDF presentation is an informative slide show on climate change and coastal defences.

The topic of resettlement often elicits ambivalence about how many people could be relocated and the potential ensuing conflicts. The cyberseminar explored why it is critical to think about this topic to improve outcomes for resettled communities, particularly concerning planning and capacity building. Participants also discussed adaptive responses that have been used in regions suffering from climate change such as investments in existing infrastructure to improve resilience against disasters.

Questions presented included:

  • Under what circumstances could displacement and resettlement due to direct climate impacts be necessary?
  • Which countries or regions (or types of regions) are most likely to require resettlement?
  • The study of displacement and resettlement has been fragmented among different agencies (e.g. refugee agencies, disaster response agencies, and development agencies) and corresponding research communities. Given the likelihood displacements will increase with climate change, how do we foster truly interdisciplinary research that borrows from all branches?

ACT will study climate change adaptation and population displacement as its seventh session in 2013. The time is right for Canada to prepare for this new reality at all levels of government in order to capitalize opportunities and offset impending challenges.

article written by ACT researcher Timothy Shah


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  1. Jennifer Doherty says:

    Hello, This is such an excellent article,

    So if an island nation is submerged beneath the ocean, does it maintain its membership in the United Nations? Who is responsible for the citizens? Do they travel on its passport? Who claims and enforces offshore mineral and fishing rights in waters around a submerged nation? International law currently has no answers to such questions.

    United Nations Ambassador Phillip Muller of the Marshall Islands said there is no sense of urgency to find not only those answers, but also to address the causes of climate change, which many believe to be responsible for rising ocean levels.

    “Even if we reach a legal agreement sometime soon, which I don’t think we will, the major players are not in the process,” Muller said.

    Those players, the participants said, include industrial nations such as the United States and China that emit the most carbon dioxide and other so-called greenhouse gases. Many climate scientists say those gases are responsible for global warming. Mary-Elena Carr of Columbia University’s Earth Institute said what is now an annual sea level rise of a few millimeters will increase dramatically by the year 2100. “The biggest challenge is to preserve their nationality without a territory,” said Bogumil Terminski from the University of Geneva. International legal experts are discovering climate change law, and the Pacific island nation of Tuvalu is a case in point: The Polynesian archipelago is doomed to disappear beneath the ocean. Now lawyers are asking what sort of rights citizens have when their homeland no longer exists.
    t present, however, there appear to be at least three possibilities that could advance the international debate about ‘climate refugee’ protections and fill existing gaps in international law.

    The first option is to revise the 1951 Convention on the Status of Refugees to include climate (or environmental) refugees and to offer legal protections similar to those for refugees fleeing political persecution. A second, more ambitious option is to negotiate a completely new convention, one that would try to guarantee specific rights and protections to climate or environmental ‘refugees`.

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