Climate-Induced Migration

Credit: Christian R. Meurer /

Climate-Induced Migration

Narratives about people moving because of climate change increasingly feature in popular discourse. Stories are often punctuated with anecdotes, estimates, and dramatic images. To foster protection-sensitive action on human movements, deep engagement with the evidence and applicable frameworks is fundamental. 

Climate change has contributed to melting ice sheets, rising sea levels, and desertification. It has led to more frequent and stronger weather-related extremes such as storms, floods, droughts, and wildfires. Scientists demonstrate why these effects will persist, intensify and create new risks. Threats to people’s lives, physical and mental health, food and economic security are, however, unevenly distributed and exacerbate existing vulnerabilities and inequalities. Generally, countries with fewer resources and people in precarious situations bear a disproportionate burden. 

Some people may move as a strategy to cope with the harm they face. While available choices and decisions on movement are affected by climate change, it does not on its own cause human movement. Political and socio-economic factors and personal circumstances and characteristics also affect decisions. Human movement in the context of climate change is always multi-causal.

Displacement, migration, and planned relocation are commonly used to describe the types of movements that occur. Displacement refers to predominantly forced movement, whereas migration is predominantly voluntary. Planned relocation can be forced or voluntary, depending on the circumstances. Outside relatively clearer extremes, disaggregating human movement within the forced-voluntary continuum is steeped in complexity. Understanding individual predicaments and the preponderance of choice is essential. There are also people who are trapped in place unable to move out of harm’s way, while the voluntarily immobile aspire to stay despite adverse changes to their environment, livelihoods, and living conditions.

Distinguishing between types of movements and appreciating their nature and geography is important for considering applicable legal and policy frameworks to protect people. Most displacement, migration, and planned relocation occur within countries, not across international borders. When cross-border movements take place, people move largely within their own regions. 

Over the past decade, governmental, UN, and non-governmental efforts have enriched empirical evidence, fostered commitments, developed guidance and advanced policy frameworks. These include: (1) decisions of State Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change; (2) the Nansen Conference and the Nansen Principles; (3) the Nansen Initiative, the Platform on Disaster Displacement and the Migrants in Countries in Crisis Initiative, all state-led processes; (4) intergovernmental and expert collaboration to develop guidance on planned relocation; and (5) platforms and guidance on disaster risk reduction.

The Nansen Initiative’s Protection Agenda articulated a cohesive framework to help people: (1) to stay in place by reducing their vulnerability and building their resilience; (2) to move out of harm’s way; and (3) who are displaced across international borders. The 1998 Guiding Principles, the 2009 Kampala Convention, 2015-2030 Sendai Framework, the Guidance on Planned Relocation, and human rights law are just some of the instruments that provide relevant normative guidance to support these objectives within countries. For movements across borders, understanding the specific potential of international, regional, and domestic legal and policy instruments to support entry and/or stay can inform advocacy and operational efforts. While international and regional refugee and human rights law may offer protection to some people, State practice suggests that migration frameworks and mechanisms have been a principal tool. In this respect, the Global Compact on Safe, Orderly, and Regular Migration includes commitments to address the challenges of climate change-related human movement. 

In its Climate-Induced Migration Initiative, CMS seeks to explore the connection between climate change and migration, provide analysis of international efforts to address climate-induced migration, and share policy ideas that address the challenges of communities most affected by environmental degradation.