Conceptualizing Climate Change-Related Movement

By McAdam, Jane | Proceedings of the Annual Meeting-American Society of International Law, Annual 2012 | Go to article overview

Conceptualizing Climate Change-Related Movement

McAdam, Jane, Proceedings of the Annual Meeting-American Society of International Law


In the media and in policy debates, there has been a considerable, and understandable, degree of alarmism about the havoc that climate change may wreak on human society, to the extent that it may cause waves of "climate refugees" and result in the disappearance of certain small island states. This has generated a natural impulse to "do something", which in a number of quarters has translated into calls for a new "climate refugee" treaty.

Aside from the lack of political appetite to create a new international protection treaty, which should not be underestimated, I argue that treaty proposals are premised on certain assumptions about climate change and human movement that are not borne out in the empirical studies that are starting to emerge. The purpose of my remarks is to highlight some of the thinking we need to do, as international lawyers, when contributing to the development of appropriate legal and policy strategies in this area. Certainly, climate change is already having an impact on people's ability to remain in their homes in certain parts of the world. But rather than jumping to the traditional tools of international law in responding to this, I want to provoke thinking about what a human rights approach would really look like in this context. How do we ensure that what works in theory actually works in practice?


First, one of the biggest shortcomings of much of the scholarship being generated on "climate migration" is a tendency to treat climate-related movement as a single phenomenon that can be addressed in a universal way. But a one-size-fits-all approach will not adequately respond to the variety of movement types encapsulated within the "climate migration" framework. Many different kinds of scenarios are captured within this rubric, and it is only through examining them separately, with attention to their distinctive and common features, that any meaningful policy or normative frameworks can be developed. For instance, whereas a sudden disaster, such as a cyclone, may precipitate very fast flight, it may only be temporary, and assistance in the form of humanitarian disaster relief may be a sufficient response. By contrast, climate change impacts that take place over a much longer period, through erosion, salinity, and so on, may ultimately necessitate permanent relocation elsewhere, or may be able to be withstood through early intervention of adaptation measures.

Second, there is considerable evidence to show that most climate-related movement will be internal rather than cross-border in nature. This is particularly so in the case of disasters, but is also borne out for longer-term migration as well. For example, in Bangladesh, where people are often displaced multiple times, their poor socio-economic circumstances generally preclude them from undertaking cross-border journeys. Temporary and circular migration is a more common longer-term survival strategy. (1) Similarly, in Kiribati and Tuvalu, people living on the outer islands will initially move internally to the main atoll, not directly overseas. Since those displaced internally remain citizens of their country and therefore entitled to the protections that flow from that status, they will likely be treated as a domestic concern and not within the purview of international attention.


Third, it is inherently fraught to speak of "climate change" as the "cause" of human movement, even though its impacts may exacerbate existing socio-economic or environmental vulnerabilities. Rather, climate change will have an incremental impact, overlaying preexisting pressures--overcrowding, unemployment, and environmental and development concerns. The nature of movement will therefore vary greatly depending upon a range of variables which may interact in different ways at different times. Furthermore, consistent with patterns of refugee movement, the poorest or most vulnerable may not have any choice but to stay put, because they may not have the economic ability, social networks, health, or skills to move. …

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