COP21: A downpayment on disaster?

Anote Tong, president of the small Pacific island nation of Kiribati, is something of a celebrity at the climate change talks taking place in Paris. Kiribati is quite literally on the frontline of climate change. Rising sea levels have already engulfed large areas of the island. Nearly a quarter of the country’s population has had to move, and a majority of the remaining residents will almost certainly be forced to move in the coming decades.

“What we need is a boost from the international community to lift us out of the water,” Tong who cringes at the term ‘climate refugee’, told delegates. He is advocating for “migration with dignity”, and for the people of his country to have options about when and how they will move.

Rather than waiting for the situation on low-lying islands like Kiribati to become critical, Tong and other leaders of similar states are pushing for the final agreement that emerges from Paris to include measures that would facilitate migration as an adaptation to climate change threats – from gradually rising seas to swift and catastrophic storms – and build capacity to cope with natural disasters and displacement. It is an approach that will need significant financial support from the international community and many of the discussions currently taking place in Paris centre around how that support will be delivered.

See also: COP21: Is migration the elephant in the room? 

It also requires a fundamental shift in humanitarian funding from the usual reactive approaches to ones that anticipate future disasters and displacement. Representatives of humanitarian organisations attending COP21 worry that the draft agreement does not reflect this. At the moment, the only reference to displacement in the text is under the heading of “loss and damages”: an after-the-fact approach aimed at providing compensation to nations affected by climate-related disasters that result in forced migration.

Getting ahead of the curve

A number of delegates view the reactive model as inadequate, with one representative from the German Red Cross stating he was “very concerned” not to see disaster risk reduction addressed at all in the latest draft agreement.

Humanitarian organisations like the Red Cross have led the charge at COP21 for more proactive financing measures. The International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) is developing a new forecast-based financing mechanism that calculates the probability of climate-related disaster risk, then weighs the cost of anticipatory adaptation measures against the social and humanitarian costs of inaction. Funds are released once forecast levels are passed, but are also available between disaster cycles to help communities build resilience.

IFRC piloted this approach for the first time in Uganda last month. After forecasting significant flood risk, the Uganda Red Cross distributed nearly 5,000 preparedness items, such as water purification tablets, jerry cans and soap, which helped prevent a disease outbreak and decreased the cost of a humanitarian response after flooding occurred. IFRC hopes to pilot 15 other forecast-based financing programmes later this year, building off the momentum generated at COP21. 

Participants at COP21 have also highlighted several existing frameworks that might be used to address human mobility in the face of climate change. Legal approaches like the Sendai Framework, adopted earlier this year, include monetary support and loans from international financial institutions to bolster disaster risk reduction – one way of reducing the likelihood of forced displacement. Meanwhile, the Nansen Initiative has outlined a protection agenda for people displaced across borders by climate change and disasters. It was recently endorsed by 110 states. 

The best of both worlds

Professor Walter Kaelin, the envoy of the chairmanship for the Nansen Initiative, said that access to funding could be a key outcome of COP21 if financing mechanisms integrated the existing loss and damages framework with new adaptation-based approaches. “We need to not get caught up in a battle of either/or and embrace both,” Kaelin told IRIN.

Multilateral financing mechanisms are also being discussed at COP21. A G7 Initiative on Climate Risk Insurance, known as InsuResilience and adopted in June, aims to provide 400 million people with insurance coverage against the impacts of climate change in vulnerable and developing countries by 2020. 

Additionally, the Green Climate Fund (GCF), established by the UNFCCC, this week announced several new national contributions that move it closer towards a goal of mobilising $100 billion per year in funding by 2020. The GCF aims to scale up investments in resilience and sustainable development, particularly in least-developed countries and small island developing states. Although none of the initial eight projects to receive funding from the GCF deal directly with displacement, many aim at building communities’ capacities to adapt to changing environmental conditions that threaten livelihoods and can drive migration.

What deal will be struck?

Moving into week two of the negotiations in Paris, it remains to be seen whether human mobility will be addressed in the final agreement itself, or if financing for adaptation and resilience will occur primarily through outside initiatives.

Delegates acknowledge that although a global deal to limit greenhouse gas emissions would do the most to mitigate further climate change-related displacement, migration is an undeniable component of adapting to a changing planet.

Koko Warner of United Nations University views COP21 as a unique opportunity to address migration, but predicted that the most likely outcome relating to displacement will be an ambitious mechanism for loss and damages.  

While discussions continue about developed nations assuming more responsibility, in part by contributing to new financing mechanisms, voices from countries most affected by climate change like that of Kiribati’s President Tong retain the moral high ground. “I keep hearing that it’s about the poor,” he told journalists. “It’s not really about the poor, it’s about the rich.”

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View our special coverage COP21: A turning point?