Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Calls for More Attention on Human Mobility

By Professor Dr.  Oliver C. Ruppel*

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) was established by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) in 1988. It is the ultimate role of the IPCC to assess on a comprehensive, objective, open and transparent basis the scientific, technical and socio-economic information relevant to understanding the scientific basis of risk of human-induced climate change, its potential impacts and options for adaptation and mitigation.

The IPCC recently launched its 5th Assessment Report (AR5) on Climate Change[1], with the contribution by Working Group I on The Physical Science Base in 2013, the contribution by Working Group II on Impacts, Adaptation and Vulnerability in 2014, just as the contribution by Working Group III on Mitigation of Climate Change. In its report, the IPCC has again most rigorously reviewed and assessed the most recent scientific, technical and socioeconomic information produced worldwide relevant to the understanding of climate change.

The report is of great relevance with regard to aspects of human mobility and contains a solid base for further debate on this important topic. It is pointed out that climate change poses risks to human and natural systems and that climate change has the potential to impose additional pressures on the various aspects of human security, including environmental migration[2].

From Adger, N.W. and J. Pulhin, 2014, Human Security, in: IPCC, 2014, Climate Change 2014: Impacts, Adaptation, and Vulnerability

Synthesis of evidence on the impacts of climate change on elements of human security and the interactions between livelihoods, conflict, culture, and migration. Interventions and policies indicated by difference between initial conditions (solid black) and outcome of intervention (white circles). Some interventions (blue arrows) show net increase human security while others (red arrows) lead to net decrease in human security.[3]

One of the key messages of the AR5 on the relationship between climate change and migration is that displacement and migration are subject to various complex social, political, cultural, economic and environmental factors and that due to the presence of the multitude of interacting climatic and non-climatic drivers, it is difficult to demonstrate and assess the exact causal chains and links between migration and climate change (just as between migration and environmental degradation in general) with a specific degree of confidence. Nonetheless, AR5 has identified migration as an emergent risk with the potential to become a key risk[4] and it is made very clear that that there is no question that “human security will be progressively threatened as the climate changes” and that “climate change is an important factor in threats to human security through (…) increasing migration that people would rather have avoided”.[5] Notwithstanding the fact that there is no certainty as to what exactly climate change will mean for migration patterns, there seems to be consensus that climate change will over time lead to human population movements.

Climate change potentially affects migration flows through the intensification of natural disasters, increased warming and drought, sea-level rise, which makes coastal areas and some island states increasingly uninhabitable, and competition over natural resources, leading to conflict and displacement.[6] An increase in movements of persons can bring about benefits, particularly under the aspect of migration as a measure of adaptation, but it also bears an increase of various risks such as increased human vulnerability and the disruption of social networks.

Migration and displacement are of particular concern in Africa, Asia, Australia, North America, Central and South America, the Polar Regions and on Small Islands as emerges from the assessments of the respective regional chapters in the IPCC Report on Impacts, Adaptation and Vulnerabilities. Particularly for small island states, climate change induced sea level rise bears the risk of temporary and eventually permanent displacement. Sovereignty may be affected and cultural values compromised, which is particularly relevant with regard to loss of land and displacement on small islands and coastal communities.[7] Projections of specific positive or negative outcomes are not yet available. However, taken together, the studies on potential changes in migration patterns due to future climate changes indicate that “climate change will bear significant consequences for migration flows at particular times and places, creating risks as well as benefits for migrants and for sending and receiving regions and states.”[8]

For small islands[9], it has been observed with regard to observed impacts of climate change on relocation and migration, that evidence of human migration as a response to climate change is scarce and that “[t]o date there is no unequivocal evidence that reveals migration from islands is being driven by anthropogenic climate change.”[10] There is some evidence that environmental change has affected land use and land rights, in turn driving human migration. In order to better assess the potential impact of climate change on human mobility as a response to climate change, robust methods to identify and measure the effects on migration and resettlement are required.[11]

With regard to future aspects, however, it has been stated that a potential for human movement as a response to climate change exists. With sea-level rise posing one of the most widely recognized climate change threats to low-lying coastal areas on islands[12] the issue of population movements is frequently cited as outcome of sea-level rise, salinization and land loss on islands and it has been suggested that under some extreme scenarios such as exceptionally high inundation, island communities may need to consider relocating in the future. The loss of livelihoods, coastal settlements and infrastructure in small islands has been identified as a key risk with climatic drivers including the drying trend, extreme precipitation, damaging cyclones, ocean acidification and sea-level rise. In this regard, significant adaptation potential exists, but requires additional external resources and technologies.[13] With a view to avoiding maladaptation, studies on off-island resettlement and migration suggest that early proactive planning should be taken into consideration, as resettlement of entire communities might prove to be socially, culturally and economically disruptive.

When it comes to climate-induced migration and displacement, financial barriers are challenges not only facing small islands; just as legal barriers pertaining for example to the question of admission or continued stay of migrants and displaced persons with an environmental component in their decision to migrate to a foreign territory, i.e. the applicability of international refugee law. Rising sea levels and the plight of disappearing Small Island Developing States (SIDS) causes people to face loss of territory and statelessness.[14]

Despite the fact that human mobility is complex and multi-causal in nature, it has to be emphasized that many of the interacting social, demographic and economic drivers of observed migration are sensitive to climate change impacts.[15] One major finding of the IPCC’s 5th Assessment Report is that the higher the increase in warming, the higher the risk[16] and it is projected with medium evidence but high agreement, that climate change over the 21st century increases the displacement of people and that the risk of displacement increases “when populations that lack the resources for planned migration experience higher exposure to extreme weather events, in both rural and urban areas, particularly in developing countries with low income. Expanding opportunities for mobility can reduce vulnerability for such populations. Changes in migration patterns can be responses to both extreme weather events and longer-term climate variability and change, and migration can also be an effective adaptation strategy.”[17]

With this in mind, it is of utmost importance to create and utilize opportunity space for smart decisions and policies aiming to minimize risks, strengthen resilience and to ultimately address the underlying causes of vulnerability that result in migration and displacement.

*  Prof. Dr. Oliver C. Ruppel is the Coordinating Lead Author for the Chapter on Africa and a Co-Author of the Summary for Policymakers, Working Group II, AR5 (SPM 2014) in the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). He is the Director of the Development and Rule of Law Programme (DROP) and Professor of Law at the Faculty of Law of the University of Stellenbosch (South Africa). Until 2010 he held one of the worldwide 14 academic chairs of the World Trade Organisation (WTO), Geneva, Switzerland, which he established at the University of Namibia, Windhoek, where he had previously also served as the Director of the national Human Rights and Documentation Centre.

[1]               Report available from http://www.ipcc.ch/report/ar5/, last accessed 28 May 2014.

[2]               The IPCC has environmental migration as follows: “Human migration involves movement over a significant distance and duration. Environmental migration refers to human migration where environmental risks or environmental change plays a significant role in influencing the migration decision and destination. Migration may involve distinct categories such as direct, involuntary, and temporary displacement due to weather-related disasters; voluntary relocation as settlements and economies become less viable; or planned resettlement encouraged by government actions or incentives. All migration decisions are multi-causal, and hence it is not meaningful to describe any migrant flow as being solely for environmental reasons.”

[3]               The source of this figure is Adger, N.W. and J. Pulhin, 2014, Human Security, in: IPCC, 2014, Climate Change 2014: Impacts, Adaptation, and Vulnerability, Contribution of Working Group II to the Fifth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change [Field, C.B., V.R. Barros, D.J. Dokken, K.J. Mach, M.D. Mastrandrea, T.E. Bilir, M. Chatterjee, K.L. Ebi, Y.O. Estrada, R.C. Genova, B. Girma, E.S. Kissel, A.N. Levy, S. MacCracken, P.R. Mastrandrea, and L.L. White (eds.)]. World Meteorological Organization, Geneva, Switzerland, Figure 12-3.

[4]               See Oppenheimer, M., M. Campos and R. Warren, 2014, Emergent Risks and Key Vulnerabilities, in: IPCC, 2014, Climate Change 2014: Impacts, Adaptation, and Vulnerability, Contribution of Working Group II to the Fifth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change [Field, C.B., V.R. Barros, D.J. Dokken, K.J. Mach, M.D. Mastrandrea, T.E. Bilir, M. Chatterjee, K.L. Ebi, Y.O. Estrada, R.C. Genova, B. Girma, E.S. Kissel, A.N. Levy, S. MacCracken, P.R. Mastrandrea, and L.L. White (eds.)]. World Meteorological Organization, Geneva, Switzerland, 19.4.2.1.

[5]               See Adger, N.W. and J. Pulhin, 2014, Human Security, in: IPCC, 2014, Climate Change 2014: Impacts, Adaptation, and Vulnerability, Contribution of Working Group II to the Fifth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change [Field, C.B., V.R. Barros, D.J. Dokken, K.J. Mach, M.D. Mastrandrea, T.E. Bilir, M. Chatterjee, K.L. Ebi, Y.O. Estrada, R.C. Genova, B. Girma, E.S. Kissel, A.N. Levy, S. MacCracken, P.R. Mastrandrea, and L.L. White (eds.)]. World Meteorological Organization, Geneva, Switzerland, Executive Summary.

[6]               See Hewitson, B. and Janetos, A.C., 2014, Regional Context, Adger, N.W. and J. Pulhin, 2014, Human Security, in: IPCC, 2014, Climate Change 2014: Impacts, Adaptation, and Vulnerability, Contribution of Working Group II to the Fifth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change [Field, C.B., V.R. Barros, D.J. Dokken, K.J. Mach, M.D. Mastrandrea, T.E. Bilir, M. Chatterjee, K.L. Ebi, Y.O. Estrada, R.C. Genova, B. Girma, E.S. Kissel, A.N. Levy, S. MacCracken, P.R. Mastrandrea, and L.L. White (eds.)]. World Meteorological Organization, Geneva, Switzerland, 21.4.2 with further references.

[7]               See Adger, N.W. and J. Pulhin, 2014, Human Security, in: IPCC, 2014, Climate Change 2014: Impacts, Adaptation, and Vulnerability, Contribution of Working Group II to the Fifth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change [Field, C.B., V.R. Barros, D.J. Dokken, K.J. Mach, M.D. Mastrandrea, T.E. Bilir, M. Chatterjee, K.L. Ebi, Y.O. Estrada, R.C. Genova, B. Girma, E.S. Kissel, A.N. Levy, S. MacCracken, P.R. Mastrandrea, and L.L. White (eds.)]. World Meteorological Organization, Geneva, Switzerland, 12.3 and 12.4.

[8]               See Oppenheimer, M., M. Campos and R. Warren, 2014, Emergent Risks and Key Vulnerabilities, in: IPCC, 2014, Climate Change 2014: Impacts, Adaptation, and Vulnerability, Contribution of Working Group II to the Fifth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change [Field, C.B., V.R. Barros, D.J. Dokken, K.J. Mach, M.D. Mastrandrea, T.E. Bilir, M. Chatterjee, K.L. Ebi, Y.O. Estrada, R.C. Genova, B. Girma, E.S. Kissel, A.N. Levy, S. MacCracken, P.R. Mastrandrea, and L.L. White (eds.)]. World Meteorological Organization, Geneva, Switzerland, 19.4.2.1.

[9]               See Nurse, L. and McLean, R., 2014, Small Islands, in: IPCC, 2014, Climate Change 2014: Impacts, Adaptation, and Vulnerability, Contribution of Working Group II to the Fifth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change [Field, C.B., V.R. Barros, D.J. Dokken, K.J. Mach, M.D. Mastrandrea, T.E. Bilir, M. Chatterjee, K.L. Ebi, Y.O. Estrada, R.C. Genova, B. Girma, E.S. Kissel, A.N. Levy, S. MacCracken, P.R. Mastrandrea, and L.L. White (eds.)]. World Meteorological Organization, Geneva, Switzerland.

[10]             See Nurse, L. and McLean, R., 2014, Small Islands, in: IPCC, 2014, Climate Change 2014: Impacts, Adaptation, and Vulnerability, Contribution of Working Group II to the Fifth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change [Field, C.B., V.R. Barros, D.J. Dokken, K.J. Mach, M.D. Mastrandrea, T.E. Bilir, M. Chatterjee, K.L. Ebi, Y.O. Estrada, R.C. Genova, B. Girma, E.S. Kissel, A.N. Levy, S. MacCracken, P.R. Mastrandrea, and L.L. White (eds.)]. World Meteorological Organization, Geneva, Switzerland, 29.3.3.3; Evidence for increased mobility or increased displacement is provided by Ballua et al., 2011 [Ballua, V., M. Bouinc, P. Siméonid, W.C. Crawford, S. Calmante, J. Boréf, T. Kanasg, and B. Pelletiera, Comparing the role of absolute sea-level rise and vertical tectonic motions in coastal flooding, Torres Islands (Vanuatu). Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 108(32), 13019-13022] providing a contemporary example of whole village displacement associated with inundation, both from sea level rise and tectonic movement on Torres Islands. Oliver-Smith, 2011, [Oliver-Smith, A., 2011: Sea level rise, local vulnerability and involuntary migration. In: Migration and climate change.  [Piguet, E., A. Pécoud, and P.D. Guchteneire (eds.)]. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, pp. 160- 185] reflects on the case of a population considering resettlement on Bougainville to the main island due to coastal erosion, land loss, saltwater inundation and food insecurity; Evidence for decreased mobility or lower migration is provided by Mortreux and Barnett, 2009 [Mortreux, C. and J. Barnett, 2009: Climate change, migration and adaptation in Funafuti, Tuvalu. Global Environmental Change, 19(1), 105-112] for the case of Tuvalu: On the island of Funafuti, surveyed residents emphasize place attachment as reasons for not migrating, and do not cite climate change as a reason to migrate.

[11]             See Nurse, L. and McLean, R., 2014, Small Islands, in: IPCC, 2014, Climate Change 2014: Impacts, Adaptation, and Vulnerability, Contribution of Working Group II to the Fifth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change [Field, C.B., V.R. Barros, D.J. Dokken, K.J. Mach, M.D. Mastrandrea, T.E. Bilir, M. Chatterjee, K.L. Ebi, Y.O. Estrada, R.C. Genova, B. Girma, E.S. Kissel, A.N. Levy, S. MacCracken, P.R. Mastrandrea, and L.L. White (eds.)]. World Meteorological Organization, Geneva, Switzerland, 29.3.3.3.

[12]             See Nurse, L. and McLean, R., 2014, Small Islands, in: IPCC, 2014, Climate Change 2014: Impacts, Adaptation, and Vulnerability, Contribution of Working Group II to the Fifth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change [Field, C.B., V.R. Barros, D.J. Dokken, K.J. Mach, M.D. Mastrandrea, T.E. Bilir, M. Chatterjee, K.L. Ebi, Y.O. Estrada, R.C. Genova, B. Girma, E.S. Kissel, A.N. Levy, S. MacCracken, P.R. Mastrandrea, and L.L. White (eds.)]. World Meteorological Organization, Geneva, Switzerland, 29.3.1.

[13]             See Nurse, L. and McLean, R., 2014, Small Islands, in: IPCC, 2014, Climate Change 2014: Impacts, Adaptation, and Vulnerability, Contribution of Working Group II to the Fifth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change [Field, C.B., V.R. Barros, D.J. Dokken, K.J. Mach, M.D. Mastrandrea, T.E. Bilir, M. Chatterjee, K.L. Ebi, Y.O. Estrada, R.C. Genova, B. Girma, E.S. Kissel, A.N. Levy, S. MacCracken, P.R. Mastrandrea, and L.L. White (eds.)]. World Meteorological Organization, Geneva, Switzerland, Table 29-4.

[14]             See e.g. Wannier G.E. and M.B. Gerrard, 2013, Disappearing States: Harnessing International Law to Preserve Cultures and Society, in: Ruppel, O.C., C. Roschmann and  K. Ruppel-Schlichting (eds.), 2013, Climate Change: International Law and Global Governance: Legal Responses and Global Responsibility, Volume I, Baden-Baden, NOMOS Law Publishers Germany, 615-657; Takamura, Y., 2013, Climate Change and Small Island Claims in the Pacific, in: Ruppel, O.C., C. Roschmann and K. Ruppel-Schlichting, (eds.) 2013, Climate Change: International Law and Global Governance: Legal Responses and Global Responsibility, Volume I. Baden-Baden, NOMOS Law Publishers Germany, 657-683.

[15]             See Niang, I. and Ruppel, O.C., 2014, Africa, in: IPCC, 2014, Climate Change 2014: Impacts, Adaptation, and Vulnerability, Contribution of Working Group II to the Fifth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change [Field, C.B., V.R. Barros, D.J. Dokken, K.J. Mach, M.D. Mastrandrea, T.E. Bilir, M. Chatterjee, K.L. Ebi, Y.O. Estrada, R.C. Genova, B. Girma, E.S. Kissel, A.N. Levy, S. MacCracken, P.R. Mastrandrea, and L.L. White (eds.)]. World Meteorological Organization, Geneva, Switzerland, Executive Summary.

[16]             See IPCC, 2014, Climate Change 2014, Impacts, Adaptation, and Vulnerability – Summary for Policymakers, Contribution of Working Group II to the Fifth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change [Field, C.B., V.R. Barros, D.J. Dokken, K.J. Mach, M.D. Mastrandrea, T.E. Bilir, M. Chatterjee, K.L. Ebi, Y.O. Estrada, R.C. Genova, B. Girma, E.S. Kissel, A.N. Levy, S. MacCracken, P.R. Mastrandrea, and L.L. White (eds.)]. World Meteorological Organization, Geneva, Switzerland, Assessment Box SPM.1 Figure 1.

[17]             IPCC, 2014, Climate Change 2014, Impacts, Adaptation, and Vulnerability – Summary for Policymakers, Contribution of Working Group II to the Fifth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change [Field, C.B., V.R. Barros, D.J. Dokken, K.J. Mach, M.D. Mastrandrea, T.E. Bilir, M. Chatterjee, K.L. Ebi, Y.O. Estrada, R.C. Genova, B. Girma, E.S. Kissel, A.N. Levy, S. MacCracken, P.R. Mastrandrea, and L.L. White (eds.)]. World Meteorological Organization, Geneva, Switzerland, 20.