Planning for Climate Change and Human Mobility: The US Return to the Paris Accord on Climate Change

Susan Martin
Donald G. Herzberg Professor of International Migration Emerita
Georgetown University


Jonas Bergmann
Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research

Credit: Rachman Reilli / Unsplash

Planning for Climate Change and Human Mobility: The US Return to the Paris Accord on Climate Change

In the context of the US return to the Paris Accord on Climate Change, President Joseph Biden issued an executive order (EO) requiring a multi-agency report on climate change and its impact on human mobility (White House, 2021). The report is to focus on forced migration, internal displacement, and planned relocation. Among the issues the EO stipulates will be addressed are the international security implications of climate-related movement; options and mechanisms to protect and, if necessary, resettle individuals displaced by climate change; proposals for the use of US foreign assistance to reduce the negative impacts of climate change; and opportunities to work collaboratively with others to respond to these movements. The order is a welcome step towards providing greater protection in the face of escalating impacts of climate change. It could also become a blueprint for other countries.

The environment is but one of the drivers that prompt people to move, sometimes operating on its own but more often through other mechanisms, particularly loss of means of survival affected by environmental disruption. Nevertheless, as the Fifth Assessment report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) concludes, climate change poses profound consequences for human mobility (IPCC 2014). In the short-term, the IPCC projects that extreme weather events are the most direct way that climate change will lead to migration, but in the longer-term, significant movements will result from slow-onset processes such as sea level rise, coastal erosion, warming, water stress, and loss of agricultural productivity (IPCC, 2014; Rigaud et al. 2018; Xu et al., 2020; Zickgraf, 2021). 

Most experts believe that mobility in the context of climate change will be primarily internal (except for low-lying small island States without higher elevations) or immediate cross border into neighboring countries (McLeman et al., 2016; Boas et al., 2019). Such migration may be particularly challenging for receiving communities and countries with few resources, legal structures, or institutional capacity to respond to the needs of the migrants and host populations. Geographical proximity may also mean that destination areas face some of the same environmental challenges as areas of migration origin (e.g. drought, desertification) and may offer little respite or even exacerbate conditions in destinations. Some long-distance movements are inevitable, however, given the scope of migration today; the countries of North America, Europe and Oceania, as well as regional economic powers within the Global South, will no doubt experience increased migration due at least in part due to environmental drivers, amplified by a changing climate. 

The Biden administration’s re-entry to the Paris climate accord represents an important step forward for countries committed to collectively meeting the targets of the Paris agreement to keep warming below the guardrail of 2℃ and enable more people to adapt to its effects. Concrete climate and development action can significantly reduce the scale of climate migration (Rigaud et. al 2018) but must be accompanied with good policies and well-conceived responses that ensure that movements are safe for all concerned. Although other governments, state and municipal authorities, corporations and civil society have continued to negotiate and act on climate change mitigation and adaptation within the context of the Paris Accords, progress will be halting and uneven without active US engagement. In reference to migration, displacement, and planned relocation, the United States plays a particularly important role. The United States is the world’s largest donor in absolute numbers to the international agencies responsible for these issues (Brookings, 2017) and is home to the largest number of international migrants (UNDESA, 2019). 

There are a number of actions that the United States, in collaboration with other States, can take now that will further the protection of climate change migrants, displaced persons, and those who relocate. First, and most important, is to uphold obligations to reduce emissions. Beyond that, the United States should put the mobility issues into proper context and increase awareness of these issues amongst the public. Many people are unaware that it is the developing world, not wealthy countries, that will be hardest hit by climate change and potential movements associated with it (Masson-Delmotte 2018), or that most of the movement is likely to be internal (Rigaud et al, 2018). The mistaken fears of wealthy countries that climate mobility will inexorably result in mass migration into their own countries should not drive decisions to harden borders (Baldwin, 2014; Geddes, 2015; McLeman, 2019). Nor should the issue be addressed solely from a national security perspective. Rather, the focus should be on climate change mitigation efforts that will reduce emissions and development efforts that will enable poorer countries to help their citizens adapt to climate change (Rigaud et al, 2018). Strong and unequivocal statements by leaders that are based on science and evidence can go a long way in allaying concerns and reducing hyperbole on this issue.

Second, acknowledge that migration as a response to environment changes, including the impact of climate change, is not necessarily negative. It is true that displacement often entails challenging consequences for affected people (Cazabat, 2020; Gray et al., 2014; IDMC, 2020), but when serious climate disasters unfold in areas without early warning and protection systems, moving out of harm’s way can be the most sensible course among many dire options (Task Force on Displacement, 2018). The focus ought to be on avoiding risks associated with displacement and the risk of remaining displaced (Guadagno and Yonetani, forthcoming) and strengthening institutions, laws and the capacity for early warning and anticipatory actions.  There is also need for risk monitoring and timely public dissemination of early warning to decision makers. In addition, resilient infrastructure, including shelter, and social protection systems can help protect people’s lives and livelihoods post-disaster, and in the face of slow-onset factors, whether they remain in place or move elsewhere. 

Under many circumstances, migration can be an effective adaptation strategy for people who cannot remain close to home (Adger et al., 2018; McLeman, 2016; Melde et al., 2017; Vinke et al., 2020; Warner and Afifi 2014). When movements occur in a safe and orderly way—whether internal or cross border—the impacts can be positive. Rural households can diversify their incomes and reduce their reliance on rain-fed agriculture, for example. Although many people will move on their own, others will require assistance to relocate or will otherwise be trapped in dangerous situations. Planned relocation programs (also known as managed retreat) can be problematic, however, when relocation sites present few opportunities for those who are relocated and/or when host populations are hostile to the newcomers (Arnall, 2019; Hino et al., 2017; Piggott-McKellar et al., 2019; Sherbinin et al., 2011; Wilmsen 2015). When planned well, however, such programs can provide new homes and livelihoods. Essential to success is the involvement of communities of origin and destination in all decisions—whether a community should indeed move; if so, where, when, how and with what type of assistance; how best to consult with those who are to move as well as the residents of the destination communities; and implementing programs to ensure that both the host community and the relocated benefit from the relocation (Brookings Institution et al. 2015; Ferris and Weerasinghe, 2020). Best practices in protecting and assisting people in the context of planned relocation need to be shared widely to prevent problems encountered in the past (Georgetown University et al, 2016). 

Third, with regard to cross-border movements, there is need for systematic assessment of the adequacies of protection mechanisms and/or existing immigration policies in responding to climate change-induced movements. For example, temporary protection is often cited as one pathway to protect people who cannot return home because of an acute natural hazard, such as an earthquake or cyclone. As a temporary measure, however, beneficiaries may not necessarily qualify for lawful permanent resident status or be eligible for other forms of long-term protectionPathways to a more durable status need to be incorporated into any temporary protection program from the outset if beneficiaries may be unable to return. At the same time, assistance should be available for those who could return with some help to reintegrate.

 Another serious gap is the absence in many countries of legal pathways for those who anticipate worsening conditions in their home countries and hope to relocate before the situation deteriorates further at home and their lives are endangered. Standards to determine when to enforce a non-refoulement standard on return is a further gap (see, for example, the decision by the UN Human Rights Committee in the case of Teitiota vs New Zealand (2020).  Improving temporary protection and admissions pathways and establishing clearer guidance on return would be useful to the many countries grappling with how to respond to the protection needs of those affected by climate change.

In issuing the Executive Order, President Biden emphasized the need for collaborative efforts to address the interconnections between climate change and migration. Supporting and strengthening the existing global mechanisms for collaboration will help ensure that all States are able to fulfill their duties to protect and assist those who are most affected by climate change (Aleinikoff, 2020). US leadership could help ensure the adoption of policies that do indeed protect people’s rights and provide them opportunities to remain at home, if they choose, and move in a safe and orderly way if migration is a better option for them. Among the existing initiatives that support international collaboration are:

  • Platform on Disaster Displacement, the successor to the Nansen Initiative’s Plan of Action for the protection of cross border migrants (Nansen Initiative, 2015); 
  • Task Force on Displacement of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, which was created under the Paris Accord (UNFCC, 2015; Task Force on Displacement, 2018); 
  • Migrants in Countries in Crisis Initiative that the United States co-chaired in response to conflicts and natural disasters that required mass evacuations (MICIC Initiative, 2016); 
  • UN High Level Panel on Internal Displacement, which will be presenting recommendations for ensuring that those who are displaced within their own countries receive appropriate help from the international community; and 
  • Knowledge Partnership on Migration and Development’s (KNOMAD) Thematic Working Group on Environmental Change and Migration, which is identifying data and research gaps and new methodologies that will improve the evidence base for decision-making (Weerasinghe 2021)

Full participation in global forums, processes, and initiatives could enhance a system of regional and global governance that would, in turn, strengthen national, regional and global responses. In addition, both the International Organization for Migration (IOM) and the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) have been developing plans for current and future engagement on environmentally-driven migration. Innovative planning is also taking place at the regional level and spelled out in agreements such as the Global Compact for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration (UNGA, 2018). 

The US Executive Order is a welcome step towards improving prevention, preparation, response, and recovery in the context of climate change and other environmental drivers of mobility. It is also a useful reminder for other States to carry out their own systematic planning process for addressing these important issues.


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Author Names

Susan Martin and Jonas Bergmann

Date of Publication June 1, 2021