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Planned Relocations in the Context of Climate Change: The Time to Get Ready is Now

An aerial view shows the Maldives capital Male (REUTERS/Reinhard Krause).

From the very first report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, there has been a recognition that one of the effects of climate change will be on the mobility of people. As sea levels rise, coasts and riverbanks erode and storms increase in intensity, people will move. In 2010, the Conference of Parties to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change formally recognized mobility as a form of adaptation to climate change with reference to migration, displacement and planned relocations. While migration and displacement have both received a fair amount of attention, until very recently there has been little academic or policy work done on the issue of planned relocations in the context of climate change.

Vulnerable Communities

When a habitat becomes uninhabitable or, in the worst case, physically disappears, communities will have to be relocated. This is presently happening in Alaska where small indigenous communities can no longer remain in their traditional habitats because of the effects of climate change. Other cases could include:

  • People who need to be relocated from areas prone to sudden-onset natural hazards which are increasing in severity and intensity as a result of climate change (e.g. flood-prone areas, coastal areas);
  • People who need to be relocated because their livelihoods are threatened by slow-onset effects of climate change (e.g. increasing drought frequency, salinization of water resulting from sea level rise) and who need to find permanent homes;
  • People who need to be relocated because their country or parts of their country face destruction from the effects of climate change (e.g. small island states facing sea level rise but also riverbank erosion)

Questions for Policymakers

In a joint initiative, the Brookings-LSE Project on Internal Displacement, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and Georgetown University’s Institute for the Study of International Migration convened a meeting in mid-March 2014 in Sanremo, Italy with representatives of governments, international organizations and academic experts to begin talking about planned relocations in the context of climate change. What are the conditions that might trigger such a need? What are the responsibilities of governments – who would be in charge of making such decisions – to ensure that people are moved in dignity and not impoverished? While there are a few historical examples of whole communities being relocated (particularly in the Pacific), these have not been positive experiences. The closest experiences to draw on are involuntary resettlement projects carried out in the context of large development projects, such as dams, where the experience with resettlement has by and large been negative. In spite of important safeguard policies by the World Bank, most of those who are moved because of a development project, are left worse off.

There are particular issues related to determining when people have to be moved because their area has become uninhabitable due to the effects of climate change. Who determines when an area is uninhabitable? And on what basis? And how is a determination made that an area is uninhabitable because of climate change – rather than for example, normal climatic variations or the intersection of natural hazards and human interaction, such as deforestation? These are difficult issues. As the Foresight report and most researchers working in the area, point out, climate change is likely to be an accelerator of other trends, but there are always other drivers of migration. The Peninsula Principles spell out a helpful set of guidance for ‘climate migrants’ but do not tackle the difficult issue of determining when climate change forces people to leave or how to differentiate those who are displaced by the effects of climate change and other environmental/economic reasons.

Time to Plan Relocations?

In fact, there is an undercurrent of resistance to considering issues of planned relocations now out of a concern that by doing so, it takes pressure off of national and international actors to implement mitigation measures which would make it possible for people to remain in their communities. But just as planning for response to an industrial accident doesn’t make an industrial accident more likely, so too planning for relocations should not make them more likely. Rather if they are needed at some point in the future, they will be carried out in a way that respects human rights and that builds on the lessons learned of other resettlement experiences. It is also likely that the slow-onset effects of climate change will lead many to voluntarily migrate in anticipation that conditions will worsen. Those who are left behind – and who will need government assistance to relocate – thus may be particularly vulnerable.

The Sanremo meeting concluded that planned relocation should only be implemented when no other means of adaptation are available to enable people to remain in their original settlements. If climate change does make more areas uninhabitable and people need to be moved, then governments have a responsibility to start thinking about that possibility and to begin planning. In particular national systems – likely to include legislation, coordination arrangements, allocation of specific responsibilities and funding – need to be put into place. These steps do not happen overnight. Painful as it is, it’s good to begin thinking about these issues now. 

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