Senate Climate Change Task Force: Climate Change and Refugees

Refugees International President Eric Schwartz delivered remarks at a Senate Climate Change Task Force session on Climate Change and Refugees on May 7, 2019. The Task Force organizes a unique panel of experts each week to brief and strategize with U.S. Senators directly on their work in areas intersecting with climate change.

Remarks as prepared:

Thank you for the opportunity to join you today. I may have first encountered this policy challenge some thirty years ago, working for Representative Stephen Solarz, chair of the House Committee on Asian Affairs, which had jurisdiction over small island states in the Pacific, and I’ve certainly dealt with it as UN Deputy Envoy for Tsunami Recovery, at the White House and at the Department of State.

Refugees International established its Climate Displacement Program some ten years ago, after one of my predecessors as president, Ken Bacon, had spent time in Darfur and witnessed rising tensions between farmers and pastoralists, with increasingly scarce sources of water and grazing land.

From Haiti and Zimbabwe to Burma, to Ethiopia, Somalia, Puerto Rico and beyond, our fact-finding missions inform policy recommendations on the need to build resilience, and we have pressed governments and international organization to prevent, reduce, and accommodate climate related displacement.

Let me begin with context: there are now about 70 million people around the world displaced due to conflict, persecution, and violations of human rights, with about 40 million who are internally displaced and about 25 million who are refugees—outside their countries of origin. In addition, and on average, as many as 25 million people have been displaced by disasters borne by natural hazards. And there is no question that the displacement of many of these tens of millions of forced migrants has been exacerbated by the impacts of climate change.

“there is no question that the displacement of many of these tens of millions of forced migrants has been exacerbated by the impacts of climate change.”

As reflected in the analysis of the UN Inter-Governmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and many others, climate induced displacement results from more frequent and severe weather events and changes in rainfall and temperatures implicating agriculture, coastal erosion, saltwater inundation, the rise of sea level,  desertification, and competition for resources.

According to the IPCC, increases in global temperature have already had a statistically significant effect on migration, particularly from agriculture-dependent countries, and, without significant mitigation efforts, the numbers of people exposed to climate-related risks and susceptible to poverty would increase by several hundred million over the next 30 years. The World Bank estimates that by that time, an additional 140 million would migrate internally, and there would also be substantial increases of movements between borders.  

Humanitarian organizations like Refugees International are playing at least three roles. First, our reporting and advocacy on impacts underscores the importance of much greater efforts to mitigate climate change.

Second, we press governments and international organizations to promote prevention and resilience with respect to quick onset natural hazards, to ensure that those hazards do not become disasters. A storm surge can result in a disaster with large scale loss of life, or it can be just an annoyance if proper measures are in place. Early warning systems, strong building codes, public education, safe access areas for emergencies, and insurance for homes and businesses are all key tools of disaster risk reduction, the building of resilience, and adaptation.

“Right now, there is no legal mechanism to address the needs of so-called climate refugees, and return to countries of origin will not be the answer for many of those displaced by climate change.”

And the third, we are engaged in the emerging discussion about migration resulting from slower onset change—drought, food insecurity, coastal erosion—and ways that governments may have to accommodate increased migration. Right now, there is no legal mechanism to address the needs of so-called climate refugees, and return to countries of origin will not be the answer for many of those displaced by climate change.

There are several international efforts to attempt to come to grips with the challenges of climate-induced displacement.

There is the Sendai Framework on Disaster Risk Reduction, a 15-year agreement adopted by UN member states in 2015, in which governments commit to greater investments in efforts to address prevention and build resilience.

There is the Nansen Initiative, launched in 2012, by the Swiss and Norwegian governments and focused on displaced persons in the context of disasters and climate change, and there is a product of that initiative, an Agenda for the Protection of such persons, an agenda endorsed by more than 100 governments. And following adoption of this Protection Agenda, a group of governments supported the creation of the Platform on Disaster Displacement (PDD) to implement the Agenda.

There are a range of fora established under the leadership of the Conference of the Parties (COP) to the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), which seek to promote common understandings and action relating to the impact of climate change on displacement.

And, finally, there is considerable reference to climate related issues in the Global Compact for Safe, Regular, and Orderly Migration, adopted by a large majority of UN member states in December 2018. That document provides commitments specifically aimed at addressing disasters, climate change, and environmental degradation, and contains extensive reference to enhancing the well-being of migrants in situations of vulnerability.

So what can the Congress do?

First, Congress can encourage greater U.S. and international investments in prevention, Several years ago, a report of the Global Facility for Disaster Reduction and Recover and the Overseas Development Institute reported that, over a 20 year period, less than one-half of one percent of international aid had gone to disaster risk reduction. The situation has improved in recent years, but investments are still not adequate. In addition, Congress should encourage inclusion of climate displacement in national plans and policies relating to climate adaptation.   

Second, while I would not at this point be prepared to endorse a legislative expansion of the Refugee Convention and Protocol to include those displaced by climate change, Congress should create a humanitarian admissions program that would enable the U.S. government to provide resettlement opportunities for a limited number of persons whose circumstance might not meet the refugee definition but who have been subjected to forced displacement—without any capacity to return home—due to climate change, natural hazards, or other calamities.

Third, here at home, Members of Congress should look at the capacities of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which most recently demonstrated serious and significant inadequacies in the context of the Puerto Rico disaster response. In short, FEMA was not well-equipped to deal with the immediate and longer terms of vulnerable communities impacted by that disaster, and current FEMA processes and procedures risk exacerbating inequalities rather than addressing those who have the greatest need.

And finally, Members of Congress can play an important oversight role by requesting reports from the administration on this set of critical issues, to include numbers forced to migrate, both in the United States and around the world, percentages of aid focused on disaster risk reduction, and opportunities for refuge and resettlement for those for whom return to their countries of origin will not be possible.

Thank you again, and I look forward to our discussion.