Climate Refugees

Executive Summary

CLIMATE-INDUCED DISPLACEMENT describes the phenomenon whereby individuals and communities are forcibly displaced (within or beyond their nation-state boundaries) by short- and long-term natural disasters that are precipitated or exacerbated by the climate crisis. Short-term disasters consist of typhoons, hurricanes, wildfires, and tsunamis, while long-term natural disasters include desertification, deforestation, rising temperatures, and rising sea levels, among others.

Across international humanitarian law, human rights law, refugee law, and other bodies of law, protections for climate-induced displaced persons forced to cross international borders are limited, piecemeal, and not legally binding. International migration following short-term disasters is only occasionally protected under humanitarian visas and state-specific measures, such as with the United States’ Temporary Protected Status designation, though such protections are often provisional and not legally binding. Likewise, international migration following long-term disasters is not covered unless the provision of support by the local government (or governments) is denied on the basis of race, religion, membership of a particular social group, or political leaning.

At the same time, the nature of climate-induced migration is changing altogether. For example, the severity and duration of natural disasters are increasing to the point where peoples’ homelands are no longer habitable, and resettlement may need to be permanent.

In order to aid efforts to develop an international refugee protection regime that includes protections for “climate refugees”—either in the form of a new convention or a revision to the existing 1951 Convention and Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees (Refugee Convention)—this report targets a key condition for refugee status: “persecution.” Presently, the refugee paradigm hinges on the actor of persecution originating from the territory where the displacement is occurring. As the climate crisis intensifies, however, the paradigm gets complicated, as the drivers of the climate crisis—including methane released from landfills, natural gas and petroleum industries, agriculture and livestock, and deforestation—are not necessarily where one’s safety or well-being are most threatened due to the effects of the climate crisis. Thus, required is a new understanding of “persecution” that could account for the severe nature of the climate crisis and climate-induced displacement, and serve as the basis for a normative framing of “climate refugee” protection.

This report advances a new deterritorialized understanding of “persecution” under the climate crisis, which accounts for the ability of one to survive and avail themselves of a sufficient degree of protection within their country of origin. It does so while recognizing that the “actors” of persecution and the respective climate crisis impacts are fundamentally indeterminable. While the climate crisis is a result of a number of factors, this report focuses on the “persecution” that is built into our global dependence on petroleum, coal, natural gas, and other fossil fuels, and the global investment patterns behind this dependence. In short: “petro-persecution.”

This report makes these recommendations:

  1. Either creating a new refugee convention, the Convention Relating to the Status of Climate Refugees, or amending the 1951 Refugee Convention. Regardless of the pathway forward, the agreement must satisfy two major requirements: (a) it must qualify individuals and communities that cannot avail themselves of government relief from the effects of the climate crisis as those who are “persecuted” and thus allowed to formally make a claim for asylum in a country of their choosing; and (b) it must do so without the need to identify a specific polluter or industrial process as the source of such “persecution.”
  2. Linking scientific research on habitability and climate-induced displacement under the Warsaw International Mechanism for Loss and Damage with national resettlement plans.
  3. Strengthening the links between the Warsaw International Mechanism and the Task Force on Displacement by identifying climate-induced displacement as loss and damages and thus serve as a basis for liability and/or compensation. 4. Establishing two international insurance pools: (a) one to compensate nations for damages from climate crisis-induced short- and long-term natural disasters (including climate-induced displacement); and (b) one to compensate host nations that resettle climate refugees, with higher premiums for nations with greater historical responsibility for emissions and the destruction of carbon sinks.