Confronting the Link Between Climate Change and Migration

This piece originally appeared in the Hill.

When world leaders gather in Morocco and Poland over the next few weeks to tackle two of the largest challenges facing the world today — forced migration and climate change, respectively — the United States government will not be among them. Yet, thousands of refugees and migrants fleeing violence in Central America will still be making their way to the U.S. border, while tens of thousands of Californians displaced by historic wildfires will remain stuck in motel rooms, trailers, or on the street.

The nations that are attending the Inter-governmental Conference on Migration in Morocco and the UN climate change negotiations in Poland clearly understand what the current U.S. administration does not (or doesn’t want to): Meeting the challenges of international migration and climate change is not a zero-sum game. Refusing to join cooperative efforts to find joint solutions does not make your own problems better, but worse.

Evidence that these two challenges have started to intersect means far larger crises could lay ahead. Unless, of course, we prove brave enough to face up to these challenges and plan for better outcomes. The encouraging news is that the link between climate change and large-scale migration has finally begun to draw the attention of most governments around the world and will be addressed at both meetings this month despite the lack of U.S. support.

The Global Compact for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration, which will be adopted by governments in Morocco is the first-ever, inter-governmentally negotiated agreement to cover international migration in all its dimensions.

Today, there are more than 258 million migrants around the world living outside their country of birth, meaning one in every 30 people is a migrant. This figure is expected to grow for numerous reasons including population growth, increasing connectivity, trade, rising inequality, demographic imbalances and climate change.

Migration provides immense opportunity and benefits — for migrants themselves, their families and communities back home, and for the communities that host them. When poorly managed, however, migration can create significant challenges. Migrants fleeing desperate situations at home— and without safe, legal pathways to do so — are at greater risk of exploitation and abuse, or worse yet, loss of life.

Although non-legally binding, the compact recognizes that a cooperative approach is needed to optimize the overall benefits of migration, while addressing its risks and challenges for individuals and communities in countries of origin, transit, and destination.

Significantly, the compact includes measures to address the root causes of unsafe, disorderly, and irregular migration, including disasters, environmental degradation, and other factors linked to climate change. It also lays out measures for enhancing regular migration pathways for climate-vulnerable communities who increasingly may find themselves with no choice but to go abroad. This is important since such persons are not protected under the 1951 Refugee Convention or its Protocol, which do not recognize “climate refugees.”

Meanwhile, government leaders attending the annual climate negotiations in Katowice, Poland, will be asked to review progress on the 2016 Paris Agreement.

On the agenda is the report of a special task force on climate displacement established under the Paris Agreement which includes recommendations for minimizing and addressing climate change impacts on forced migration. The task force’s recommendations are notable in their breadth, including the number of best practices and policies already available to governments to address climate migration in a smart, reasonable way. This includes reducing disaster risk in coastal areas, building the resilience of climate-vulnerable communities among impoverished rural populations, and supporting educational scholarships and work opportunities abroad for individuals from those countries that are being impacted most by global warmings, such as low-lying island nations.

It is true that both the Global Migration Compact and the Paris Agreement are imperfect in many ways. Depending on where you’re standing, you might find them not ambitious enough, or short on details of how to get us to the goal line. But they are, nonetheless, a way forward.