A Convention for Persons Displaced by Climate Change

A short piece for the general audience of RTR radio, Perth, Australia.
(listen to the original audio podcast)

There are many reasons why climate change is also a legal issue. One reason is because climate change is expected to cause much displacement, which refers to population migration caused by the effects of climate change, which include rising sea levels, heavier floods, more frequent and severe storms, drought and desertification.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the World Bank and many other organisations warn that the effects of climate change will cause large-scale population movements. Climate displacement presents an urgent problem for the international community.

The existence and scope of such displacement are often established by reference to the likely numbers of displaced people. The most cited estimate is 200 million climate change migrants by 2050 or one person in every forty-five.

There has been no coordinated response by governments to address human displacement, whether domestic or international, temporary or permanent, due to climate change. Given the nature and magnitude of the problem which climate change displacement presents, ad hoc measures based on existing domestic regimes are likely to lead to inconsistency, confusion and conflict. We believe the international community has an obvious interest in resolving the problem of human displacement in an orderly and coordinated fashion before climate change displacement becomes a problem.

We propose a multilateral Convention to address climate change displacement – an issue which is global in its causes, scope and consequences. The Convention would provide a general framework for assistance to climate change displaced persons and would address gaps in current human rights, refugee and humanitarian law protection.

The Convention would largely operate prospectively; assistance to refugees would be based on an assessment of whether their environment was likely to become uninhabitable due to events consistent with anthropogenic climate change such that resettlement measures and assistance were necessary.  In other words, we view displacement as a form of adaptation that creates particular vulnerabilities requiring protection as well as assistance through international cooperation. Our Convention contemplates the provision of pre-emptive resettlement to those most at risk in terms of the impacts of climate change.

It has been suggested that Australia should take the lead in international efforts to develop a framework for responding to climate change displacement. The broader region in which Australia is situated accounts for 60% of the world’s population; it is also a region that will be significantly affected by the effects of climate change.

And, as has been noted, planning for a future of mass displacement due to climate change gives us the opportunity – before millions of people are on the move throughout the world because of climate change – … to develop frameworks and institutions that might not only be politically realistic, but also based on principles that promote human rights and dignity.

An extended version of this post with considerably more detail and background information can be found at Shaping Tomorrow's World, a website dedicated to providing information and a platform for civil discussion about the problems facing our societies.

Posted by David Hodgkinson on Wednesday, 20 April, 2011

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