Global Warming-Induced Migration: An International Convention Needed

14 Jul, 2017    ·   5326

John Schabedoth analyses the implications of global warming-induced migration for international relations and argues that a binding international convention will be needed

In recent years, reports on the first global warming-induced migration into New Zealand have accumulated. Two of the most prominent cases involved concerned nationals of the island states of Kiribati and Tuvalu applying for refugee status in New Zealand in response to the repercussions of global warming. 

The numbers of people who have to relocate due to the effects of global warming will rise significantly in the coming decades. At present, there is no satisfactory internationally-binding framework that deals with climate-induced migration. 

Given the urgency and imminence of this issue, there is a need for an international convention that regulates and provides for proper treatment of people displaced due to global warming and funding for the same. In doing so, responsibilities of countries who contributed to global warming need to be taken into account adequately.

International refugee law does not define a 'global warming-displaced' person. In this article, the term will refer to people who are forced to relocate within or outside their home countries due to the consequences of global warming in order to fulfil their basic needs. The causal link between the consequences of global warming and displacement serves to distinguish global warming-displaced persons from purely “economically-driven” migrants, the latter of which many states do not want. 

The consequences of global warming - droughts, floods, rising sea levels, extreme weather events and the ensuing soil salinity and salinisation of drinking water, soil erosions, etc. - deprive people of their livelihoods. According to the 2014 UN climate change report, sea levels will rise by one meter by 2100 if greenhouse gas emissions are not radically reduced.

This will not only affect islands but also densely populated delta areas like the Ganges-Brahmaputra Delta in Bangladesh, the Nile Delta in Egypt and the Mekong Delta in Vietnam. In Bangladesh for instance, 25 million people will need to be resettled in the next 30 years. 

Rich industrialised countries bear the primary responsibility for global warming-related migration. According to the World Resources Institute, since they began maintaining recording in 1850, 76 per cent of carbon dioxide emissions were caused by the industrialised northern countries. However, the effects of climate change will hit primarily and hardest those countries that have contributed far less to the acceleration of global warming.

In Western countries, their intake of refugees and funding of refugee aid in other countries has in most cases been regarded as an altruistic measure. Even though some former or ongoing Western policy measures might have contributed heavily to humanitarian crises in other countries, the Western countries saw the intake of refugees or its funding in other states as an "act of mercy," which is subject solely to their own political assessment.

This belief is not sustainable with regard to global warming-displaced migration. Global warming-displaced persons and countries most affected by global warming can and will legitimately have a demanding attitude towards the main accelerators of global warming.

Global warming is a cause of migration that is slowly developing and long-foreseeable compared to other events that drove people to leave their country. Therefore, dealing with global warming-displaced persons can be considered carefully.

An inclusion of global warming into the definition of a refugee in the UN Convention relating to the Status of Refugees is insufficient. This convention was approved in 1951 against the background of mass expulsions in the aftermath of World War II. These mass expulsions had already taken place. The Convention was therefore intended to secure certain basic rights for the refugees in their host countries. There are no provisions on further intake of refugees. The principle of non-refoulement, which is regulated in the 1951 Refugee Convention, is not fitting for global warming-displaced persons. This principle forbids countries from returning refugees to their countries of origin if their lives or freedom are endangered there because of discriminatory persecution. Global warming-induced migrants are not threatened by persecution in their country of origin. In fact their country of origin may not able to adequately combat the effects of climate change.

An international regulation of global warming-displaced migration in the form of a new convention is needed. Such a framework should include a definition of global warming-displaced migration that includes internally-displaced persons, as a separation in the context of global warming appears artificial. The convention should regulate the rights of global warming-displaced migrants in relation to host countries. Additionally, the countries could agree on contingents of migrant intake.

However, the main objective of the agreement should be a fair distribution of migration costs. Most forced migrants prefer resettlement within their own country or region, so long as decent living conditions are guaranteed. Developed states responsible for accelerating global warming should support those countries financially and logistically. The solution could be a fund in which the states contribute pro rata to their greenhouse gas production. This is in the own interest of the industrialised states as well: it prevents controversial domestic political debates about immigration. In the end, it is also less expensive to pay for an appropriate migration aid abroad than taking in global warming refugees in large numbers.

The countries which accelerated global warming are primarily responsible for its consequences. They will not be able to avoid paying for the costs of global warming-displaced migration in an extent that highly exceeds the sums that are currently spent on refugee aid. If one wants to prevent a humanitarian disaster, by far larger than the recent refugee crises in Europe and elsewhere, it would be useful to act on making arrangements for the impending global warming-induced migration.