Paris Climate Deal: It's Time to Get Real

This Friday, President Obama and other world leaders will be meeting in New York to sign the historic UN climate change accord reached in Paris last November. In order for the climate agreement to go into force in 2020, 55 countries representing 55 percent of global emissions will need to sign and ratify it. With 130 countries standing ready with pens poised – including the world’s two largest emitters, the U.S., and China – there is much cause for celebration.

It’s time to get real about whether we’re doing enough to prepare and adapt our communities, sources of income, and ways of life to a warmer, more disaster-prone, and insecure world.  

But with numerous scientific studies showing that climate change is happening faster than anticipated, and more still questioning whether the commitments under the Paris agreement will get us where we need to be in order to avoid “dangerous interference with the climate system,” it’s time to get real about whether we’re doing enough to prepare and adapt our communities, sources of income, and ways of life to a warmer, more disaster-prone, and insecure world.  

One area where this is especially true is the need to prepare for the impacts of climate change on human displacement and migration. Experts have long predicted that one of the most significant impacts of climate change will be on human mobility, with projections ranging from 50 to 200 million vulnerable people on the move by 2050 due to the adverse effects of climate change. In Bangladesh alone, rapid sea level rise from accelerated melting of the West Antarctic ice sheet – the subject of a new, peer-reviewed report by climate change guru James Hansen – could displace 34 million in the next several decades.

The good news is that the Paris outcome recognizes the need to address climate-related displacement by calling for the establishment of a “Climate Displacement Task Force” to draw up recommendations on measures “to avert, minimize and address displacement related to the adverse effects of climate change.” The creation of the task force is an important step forward that builds upon previous government commitments to cooperate to address the issue and creates a new venue under the UN to collect and share knowledge on exactly how and where climate change effects -- including more extreme weather, loss of natural resource-dependent livelihoods, and sea level rise -- will uproot vulnerable communities, and to devise recommendations to governments on what to do about it. The creation of the task force also adds to positive momentum outside of the UN climate negotiations to get countries to act on a bi-lateral and regional basis to better manage climate-driven population movements, thanks to the Norwegian- and Swiss-led Nansen Initiative. However, given the complex links between climate change and population movements that the task force will need to unravel, the highly-politicized process in which it sits, as well as yet unanswered questions regarding its composition, authority, and accountability, we’ll need to tamper our expectations.

More importantly, the creation of the task force shouldn’t lull us into ignoring the enormous opportunities that currently exist at the national and local level to prevent and minimize climate displacement. This will require a more practical approach that shifts the focus from responding to displacement (à la refugee-like arrangements) to addressing climate displacement risk. It is only by focusing on climate change-related risk as a starting point that national and local governments will be able to gain a sufficient understanding to take advantage of opportunities to implement more effective displacement prevention measures.

Until national and local governments realistically ask themselves whether they’re putting vulnerable communities in harm’s way, even the best climate change scenarios will increasingly uproot and upend the lives of millions of people.

Climate displacement risk looks not only at hazard risk (i.e., how exposed a country, region or community is to floods, storms, droughts, sea level rise or other adverse climate impacts) but also the pre-existing vulnerabilities of the communities living in these areas, and their capacity to withstand and recover when disaster strikes (in other words, relative levels of resilience). It is only through an improved understanding of climate displacement risk as a factor of hazard risk, vulnerability, and resilience that governments and communities themselves can identify laws and policies to minimize those risks. Avoiding displacement will also need to be informed by non-climate-related factors that increase the likelihood that someone who loses their home or source of income due to a flood, storm, or other climate-related event will be able to return home and recover, including levels of poverty, discrimination or disenfranchisement, or lack of secure housing and land rights. National and local governments will then need to integrate climate displacement risk into relevant laws, regulations, and policies especially as relate to disaster risk reduction, land use planning, natural resource management, and climate change adaptation.

Yes, the signing of the Paris Agreement and the establishment of the Climate Displacement Task Force represent hard-won progress. But unfortunately, it only takes us part of the way. Until national and local governments realistically ask themselves whether they’re putting vulnerable communities in harm’s way, even the best climate change scenarios will increasingly uproot and upend the lives of millions of people.