Briefing: Migration and displacement at the climate change negotiations

Brieifing: Migration and displacement at the climate change negotiations

Alex Randall

Alex is programme manager at the Climate and Migration Coalition


Screen Shot 2016-01-19 at 15.40.09Why are migration and displacement part the climate talks? 

Climate change has the power to re-shape patterns of migration and displacement across the world. For this reason migration and displacement have been part of the international climate change negotiations for a number of years.

Screen Shot 2016-01-19 at 15.41.05What does the agreement actually say about migration and displacement? 

The outcome of the Paris negotiations creates a “task force” whose job will be to “develop recommendations for integrated approaches to avert, minimize and address displacement related to the adverse impacts of climate change”


Are the climate talks the best place to agree on human movement?

There has always been some debate about whether the international climate negotiations are the best place to address migration and displacement linked to climate change. While there is clearly a role for the international climate process, it is worth looking at some of the limitations. This helps us understand the potential, and some of pitfalls the new Task Force might face.

Screen Shot 2016-01-19 at 15.42.29Migration and displacement linked to climate change are primarily internal 

People tend to move within their own countries. This means that the people affected mostly remain the responsibility of their existing country. If people are not expected to cross borders in huge numbers, why is an international process the best place to address this issue? If and when people do cross borders as a result of climate change, they often move to a neighboring country. This suggests that a series of bilateral or regional agreements might be better than a forum that brings together every country.

Screen Shot 2016-01-18 at 18.04.31It’s difficult to distinguish people who have moved because of climate change 

People usually move for multiple reasons. It is difficult to distinguish a groups of people who have moved solely because of climate change. Someone’s displacement or decision to migrate often has other factors. This raises the question of whether climate negotiations are the best place to address the issue.

Screen Shot 2016-01-19 at 15.42.38The international climate process has not been quick in reaching agreements 

The most recent talks represented the 21st year of the negotiations. There is still a lot of work ahead agreeing further detail. Some have argued that given the urgency of displacement linked to climate change, the climate negotiations might create unacceptable delays.

What these points demonstrate is not that migration and displacement should never have been part of the climate negotiations. But rather that there are certain ways in which the climate negotiations can address the issue, but that the process also has important limitations. This means that the existence of an agreement and the creation of the Task Force does not mean that other processes and international negotiations looking at climate-linked displacement can be abandoned.

Key resource

Climate, migration, neoliberalism

The lecture sketches out a history of neoliberalism, and then looks at how the culmination of this political thinking is reflected in the policies that are being created to address climate change and migration.

What does it mean?

There is an important discussion about the success or failure of the outcome of the Paris talks. Did the negotiations make history, or tie us into unacceptable levels of warming? This is an important discussion, but not one we can do justice to here. The role of this briefing is to look very specifically at what the outcome of the Paris negotiations means for migration and displacement linked to climate change. And whether it represents a leap forward or not.

The good

Screen Shot 2016-01-19 at 15.41.35

Before there was nothing

 Before the conclusion of the Paris negotiations, there was no climate change agreement. Now there is one. And the agreement contains wording specifically about displacement linked to climate change. This must be seen as positive. A global climate agreement mentioning displacement didn’t exist in November 2015. Now it does.

Screen Shot 2016-01-19 at 15.41.45Working together 

The world’s governments are now committed to a future of positive action on climate change. Specifically, they are also committed to action to minimize displacement from the impacts of climate change. Further, they are committed to working together and cooperating on the issue.

Screen Shot 2016-01-19 at 15.42.46It could have been ignored 

It would have been easy for states to argue that the climate negotiations were not the appropriate place to deal with migration and displacement. One possible outcome from Paris could have been a global deal on climate change that didn’t mention displacement. The fact that displacement made it into the final agreement is positive.

Screen Shot 2016-01-19 at 15.42.03Eventually, consensus emerged 

At some point even states that didn’t want the agreement to mention migration or displacement changed their position and compromised. Again, this must be seen as positive. In the run up to the final negotiations the wording on migration was deleted from the deal by states that clearly wanted to make sure it wasn’t part of the final agreement. In spite of their reservations, those states have decided to compromise. Although we will never know the detail of the diplomacy that ensured this, it demonstrates that eventually all states saw the benefit of working together on the issue, rather than completely ignoring it.

Screen Shot 2016-01-19 at 15.42.12Vulnerable countries and NGOs have been listened to 

The inclusion of wording on migration and displacement was always something championed by the states most likely to be affected. The inclusion of displacement in the agreement demonstrates the growing strength of these nations on the global diplomatic stage.

Screen Shot 2016-01-19 at 16.12.44Experts have been listened to 

The case for including migration and displacement has been comprehensively made repeatedly by experts in accademica. Several governments have commissioned reports building the case, as have international agencies. The idea that climate change will have an impact on migration, and the idea that the climate talks are a good place to address this, enjoy broad academic support. In this sense, the creation of the Task Force represents states agreeing to be lead by clear and compelling evidence.

Key resource

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Climate, migration, neoliberalism

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The questions

It would be wrong to present the following points as ‘negatives’. Rather, they are unanswered questions about the future of human movement in the climate negotiations.

Screen Shot 2016-01-19 at 15.43.31Who decides? 

The agreement creates a Task Force whose role it will be to work on this issue. From the text, we know very little about who the Task Force will be comprised of. Because the climate negotiations are between states, the Task Force will clearly be made up by people in an official capacity representing a state. However, almost every country on earth is part of the climate negotiations. We don’t yet know how many states will make up the Task Force. Or whether groups of states will put forward someone to represent them collectively. Crucially we don’t yet know what the balance will be between vulnerable countries and high emitting countries, or between likely sending or receiving countries.

Screen Shot 2016-01-19 at 15.41.14How will it operate, and how will it be accountable? 

The actual text of the agreement specifies almost nothing about how the Task Force will operate. We don’t for example know how often it will meet, how it will report or what processes will be established to allow public scrutiny of its activities.

Screen Shot 2016-01-19 at 15.42.38How long will it take? 

Many people are already being forced to move by climate change impacts. This makes the timelines set about by the Task Force of huge importance. One key criticism of the entire international climate process is that it has taken far too long to agree on anything. It is therefore reasonable to ask what kind of timeline the task force on displacement will be operating under. Clearly time is needed to produce considered recommendation and reach agreement on them. However, a process that lasts another decade (or longer) before any concrete action would be a problem.

Screen Shot 2016-01-19 at 15.41.23What is a task force? 

After the agreement was reached there was some discussion about what a task force actually is. Within the climate negotiations there are subtle but important differences implied by the names that groups are given. In earlier drafts of the agreement the body dealing with migration and displacement was called a ‘facility’. It was felt by some that a task force was something of a downgrade. However, arguably the open questions about timing, membership and accountability are more important than the implications of its designation as a task force rather than some other entity.

Screen Shot 2016-01-19 at 15.41.55Recommendations, but then what? 

Although the climate negotiations have created various mechanism and task forces in the past, this is the first time a task force has been created out of such a comprehensive international agreement. The Task Force has been given a remit to create recommendations. It isn’t yet clear how these recommendations might be implemented, or what weight they carry. To some extent this is uncharted territory.

Screen Shot 2016-01-19 at 15.42.19Is there any money? 

The Task Force has been given a remit to come up with recommendations that must address displacement linked to climate change. We must assume that these recommendations will cost something to implement. It is usually the case that preventing displacement is cheaper than coping with protracted displacement situations. It may also be the case that allowing people to move early, rather than waiting for them to be displaced might be “cost effective” (as well as more humane and dignified). However, disaster risk reduction and planned relocation often entail high upfront costs. It is not yet clear how the recommendations of the Task Force will be financed.

Screen Shot 2016-01-19 at 15.42.56If there is finance, where will it come from? 

The question of costs raises several other issues. One possibility is that the Task Force’s recommendations can be used to mobilise finance from some of the existing adaptation funding programmes. This would undoubtedly be positive, however using adaptation funding to help people move may well prove controversial. The Task Force may also produce recommendations that involve using private and individual finance to help prevent displacement or secure livelihoods – for example the use of insurance schemes.

Screen Shot 2016-01-19 at 15.43.40Is there are role for civil society? 

Although the the climate negotiations are primarily made up of states, there has often been a strong role for civil society. In the past this has not been without controversy. At the Copenhagen negotiations the NGOs were famously removed from the talks in the final days. However, an amount of engagement and even protest is often accepted during the negotiations. What remains unclear about the displacement Task Force is how civil society groups will be involved or consulted. It is highly likely that NGOs will have some role in the Task Force, given the established culture of the negotiations. However, we don’t yet know whether this role will be one that carries a great deal of influence. Involvement presents a key question for civil society groups: if their role can genuinely shape the work of the Task Force then there is every reason to be involved. If their influence is limited – or nonexistent – then their presence could provide a veneer of accessibility and accountability.

Screen Shot 2016-01-19 at 16.12.44Is there a role for academia? 

Again, the culture of the climate negotiations has been one of openness to accademia. There have been official channels through which academic knowledge has been able to influence and shape the negotiations. From this we can be reasonably optimistic that there will be some role for academics as part of the Task Force.

Cog_meshHow does it mesh with other international processes? 

2015 saw a series of important international negotiations that relate to migration and climate change. The conclusions of these talks have opened up a number of possibilities for addressing issues around migration and displacement. It’s not yet clear how the new Sustainable Development Goals relate to migration linked to climate change. The new Sendai Framework sets out how states are going to cooperate on reducing disaster risk over the next 15 years. The Nansen Initiative concluded by producing a new Protection Agenda for people displaced across borders by disasters. The new Task Force enters an already crowded stage of international processes that might be able to address some aspect of climate linked migration. Even before the creation of the Task Force it wasn’t clear how the existing international processes related to each other. During 2016 it will hopefully become clear how all these processes – including the new Task Force – can reinforce eachother’s work.


As the nature and operation of the Task Force becomes more clear it will be easier to begin making more specific and concrete recommendations. However, even with the information we have it is possible to suggest some guiding principles.

Screen Shot 2015-10-23 at 13.01.34A strong role for the most vulnerable countries 

It seems reasonable to predict that some of the most vulnerable countries will have a seat at the table when it comes to the Task Force. However, states are always vying for influence in such processes. It is vital that the states whose populations are most at risk of displacement carry the most influence within the Task Force.

Screen Shot 2015-10-23 at 13.01.41A strong role for civil society

The Task Force will be state lead, however the should still be a strong role for civil society. This role should be one of genuine influence rather than merely providing the perception of consultation. The civil society groups involved should be ones that work directly with people who are at risk of displacement, or who have built up significant expertise in the field. When defining the balance of groups, preference should be given to groups from, or operating in, the most vulnerable countries.

Screen Shot 2015-10-23 at 13.01.48A voice for people who move 

The interests of people who are displaced – or risk being displaced – must lead the work of the Task Force. A variety of different actors are likely to attempt to influence the work of the Task Force – as is the case with any important international process. And the Task Force must be open hearing a variety of views. However, the Task Force’s primary role is to produce recommendations that address displacement linked to climate change. The interests of people most at risk – rather than other vested interests – must shape those recommendations.

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