How will people be displaced by climate change?

By Megan Rowling

Published in World Economic Forum in February 2015

The days when newspapers ran headlines about the hundreds of millions of climate change refugees who’d be knocking on the doors of rich countries in the coming decades are long gone. Experts in environmental migration are not exactly mourning the loss.

In the past few years, as researchers have deepened their understanding of how climatic stresses are pushing people to move, they have stopped making predictions about the numbers and started talking about the complexity of the phenomenon.

Recently we ran a story about how impoverished villagers on the mud flats of Pakistan’s south coast are being forced to move inland a few kilometres due to a combination of sea-level rise, storm surges, flooding and land erosion – a far cry from the early spectre of mass migration across borders.

But this is the reality of the incremental changes occurring in many places, particularly across vulnerable regions of Asia and Africa, as environments become less hospitable and people consider their options as it gets harder to make ends meet.

Then there are those temporarily forced from their homes by the impacts of extreme weather, such as the floods in southern Africa this month or Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines in 2013.

According to human rights lawyer Walter Kälin, in the past six years some 160 million people have been displaced by sudden-onset disasters, 90 percent of them linked to weather events. But were they caused by climate change?

“No one can really say to what extent displacement disasters are climate-related compared with weather-related,” cautioned Kälin, an envoy for the Nansen Initiative, which is helping states figure out how to protect those displaced across borders by natural disasters.

Even when it comes to people who move because of droughts or encroaching seas, “you still shouldn’t forget about the human factor”, Kälin told an online seminar on the issue of climate change and displacement this week.

“You have to look at all the causes, and not jump to the conclusion that climate change increases displacement,” he added.

That’s not to say that experts don’t think it will. The problem is they’re still unsure about how it will happen, and what to do about it, given that poverty, conflict, ill-health and other stresses are often part of the puzzle.

Slow Steps

Nonetheless, efforts are underway to put together the jigsaw and find solutions.

The Nansen Initiative, for example, has been consulting governments on a regional basis, and plans to convene a global conference in October where states may adopt guidelines to protect people displaced internationally by disasters.

But, as University of Oxford professor Roger Zetter pointed out, “many would now throw up their hands in horror” at proposals made a few years ago for a new global convention on climate change refugees – which he described as “extremely problematic”.

And Foreign Policy magazine documents the so-far unsuccessful attempts by a Kiribati man and his lawyer to win him legal recognition as a climate change refugee in New Zealand.

So, with little prospect of national or international law coming to the rescue of those afflicted, what hope for help?

Humanitarian officials speaking at the seminar talked about the need for urgent assistance. “People want answers now,” said José Riera, an international protection specialist with the U.N. refugee agency (UNHCR).

But the emergency aid system is already overburdened, and will not be able to meet the likely need for “billions and billions” of dollars to deal with the problem of climate-related displacement over time, he emphasised.

Strong arguments are being made for at least some of that money to come from the slowly growing global climate finance pot.

They run like this: Much climate-related displacement so far is happening inside poor countries, but their governments just don’t have the resources to deal with the problem. And the historical responsibility lies with industrialised parts of the world most blamed for climate change.

That in effect turns what might have been considered an apolitical humanitarian response to worsening drought in the Sahel region of West Africa, for example, into “a challenge of restorative justice to polluting countries”, Zetter noted.

That could open the door to objections from donor governments wary of being made to provide compensation – and to tussles over the thorny questions about cause and effect which remain tricky to answer.

“It is a huge, political global challenge,” warned Zetter.

This article is published in collaboration with Thomson Reuters Foundation Publication does not imply endorsement of views by the World Economic Forum.


Environmental sustainability and agriculture can go hand in hand

By Michael Mack

Published in World Economic Forum in October 2012

To feed 9 billion people by 2050, we will have to feed 80 million more people every single year until then. How can we deliver this level of food security to the world without exhausting the planet’s natural resources?

This tension between food production and nature has only recently started to bring business, governments and NGOs together in more productive ways than ever before.  What historically has been combative is now becoming collaborative. I saw this firsthand at one of the world’s most respected environmental conservation events, the IUCN Global Leaders Dialogue in Korea last month. I may have surprised some listeners when I shared my view that sustainable intensification of agriculture should be about shrinking the size of the farm, making it more productive, getting more out of the resources and inputs we use, and growing more from less.

This is nowhere more true than in Africa, where investment in agriculture knowledge and technology can play a transformational role in reducing poverty. As President Kikwete of Tanzania pointed out at the African Green Revolution Foundation Forum a few weeks ago, business can be a catalyst for productivity and sustainability.  I believe that whole-heartedly, but I also know that business can’t do it alone.  Business can be a partner in achieving Africa’s agricultural aspirations, but we will need to work closely with governments, farmers, civil society and others to succeed.

One new initiative, Grow Africa, is helping facilitate that approach. This African-led, globally-supported platform was established to help develop public-private partnerships to attract investment in support of national agriculture strategies. Convened by the African Union, NEPAD and the World Economic Forum’s New Vision for Agriculture initiative, Grow Africa is helping to match investors with Africa’s own priorities for agricultural growth through a transparent, multi-stakeholder platform.

Because of this fresh approach to collaboration, Africa has now become one ofSyngenta’s strategic growth regions.  Our aim is to develop a $1 billion business by 2022, with some 700 employees—many of whom will be field advisors trained in agronomy—to bring innovative and sustainable methods to more than five million African farmers, enabling them to increase their productivity by 50% or more. This will benefit farmers and the environment, while also providing a sustainable business model.

Business, governments and NGOs working together can become one of the most important factors in scaling up good farming practices in Africa to meet food securityplus  nature conservation goals.  The greater the productivity of the world’s farms, the greater our chance of sustainably feeding 9 billion people.

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