The debate on providing protection to possibly several million "climate refugees" displaced by the vagaries of nature is heating up.
Bangladesh, which may lose up to one-fifth of its surface area if sea levels rise by one metre, called for provisions in the immigration polices of industrial countries to accept "climate refugees" at the recent UN climate change talks in Bonn, Germany.
In the final days of the conference, the issue crept into the proposed negotiating text between industrialised and developing countries on how to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. The text, which will be debated over the next few months ahead of December's big climate meeting in Copenhagen, Denmark, now includes a provision to provide "means to protect people displaced by the impacts of climate change".
The mention in the proposed text, which will form the basis of the final climate deal, marks the start of debate on "climate refugees" in the "formal" talks, pointed out Saleemul Huq, head of the climate change group at the London-based International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED).
Until now discussion had been around whether protection and support for "climate refugees" needed a separate regime or should be part of the global climate deal, explained Huq.
The final global accord to be agreed in Copenhagen becomes effective after 2012, when the first phase of the Kyoto Protocol, a treaty set up under the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) to cut greenhouse gas emissions, lapses.
The debate around "climate refugees" is controversial because of the sheer numbers of people likely to be affected. As the impact of climate change intensifies, estimates of the number of people displaced by natural disasters or rising sea levels have varied from 50 million in 2010, to hundreds of millions or even one billion by 2050.
Global meetings have been marked by emotional appeals by island states, such as the Maldives and Tuvalu, who could become largely uninhabitable by a one metre sea level rise.
The Maldives, a group of islands in the Indian Ocean, has played a leading role in trying to create awareness of the issues for the past two decades.
|Political responses to this emerging problem do not yet exist - it is much too controversial, and the academic discourse has just started|
In March 2008 the UN Human Rights Council agreed to conduct a study on the affects of climate change on human rights, especially livelihoods. The Maldives hopes the findings will inform the global negotiation process. There is a general consensus that greenhouse gas emissions are contributing to global warming, but none on how, or by how much, to reduce them.
This week the Global Governance Project - a joint research programme of 12 European research institutions including the Vrije Universiteit (VU University) Amsterdam, the London School of Economics and Political Science, and the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research launched a web-based forum on "climate refugees" to keep the debate running.
"Political responses to this emerging problem do not yet exist - it is much too controversial, and the academic discourse has just started," said Frank Biermann, head of the Department of Environmental Policy Analysis at the VU University's Institute for Environmental Studies.
The new initiative, the Climate Refugee Policy Forum, will act "as a web-based clearinghouse, open for everyone, for up-to-date information on climate refugees and climate-related migration, including academic studies, policy papers, conference announcements, and links to key organisations active in the field," he explained.
Chances in Copenhagen
Huq and Biermann say the debate is "still in its early stages".
Explained Huq: "The needs of the people likely to be displaced by the impact of climate change in the future is regarded as the 'second order adaptation'", when vulnerable countries are mostly concentrating their efforts on fighting for resources and funds to help them adapt to the immediate unfolding impact such as increasing droughts.
Biermann feels the debate will pick up momentum after Copenhagen. He has called for a new legal instrument specifically tailored to the needs of climate refugees — a Protocol on the Recognition, Protection, and Resettlement of Climate Refugees under the UNFCCC, supported by a separate funding mechanism, the Climate Refugee Protection and Resettlement Fund.