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The LIRS Climate Displacement Hub offers resources, updates, and information on upcoming LIRS events and initiatives. 

For 80 years, Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service has assisted forcibly uprooted people from around the globe. But increasingly, we are seeing an unprotected group seeking refuge: persons who are displaced, in whole or in part, due to climate disasters.

Climate Displacement FAQ

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) estimates there are 20 million people internally displaced every year due to extreme climate disasters. At LIRS, we refer to the populations moving due to sudden- and slow- onset disasters as “climate displaced persons” and the type of forced migration as “climate displacement.” In the 2021 Groundswell Part II Report, the World Bank Group estimates that by 2050 there will be 216 million people internally displaced due to climate change. Already, the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre (IDMC) explains that climate disasters displaced more people than conflicts in 2020.  

While the most credible predictions on climate displacement are only focused on internal displacement, there is consensus by the international community that climate displacement will increasingly become protracted and will cause substantial international displacements in the future. Given this, it is essential that the international community coalesce to provide meaningful protections for those vulnerable to climate displacement.

Sudden- and slow- onset climate disasters each have unique and severe impacts on vulnerable populations. Sudden-onset disasters, including flash floods, severe storms, hurricanes, and large-scale forest fires, usually cause short-term, internal displacement. In some cases, where individuals and communities are displaced annually or semi-annually, on-going climate change will exacerbate the impact and severity of sudden-onset disasters.

Slow-onset climate disasters, including desertification, sea-level rise, ocean acidification, air pollution, shifting rain patterns, and loss of biodiversity, have lasting consequences for generations. Slow-onset climate change may cause permanent damage to vulnerable regions. Individuals displaced due to slow-onset disasters are often fleeing uninhabitable environments that, unlike sudden-onset disasters, may not improve over time. People displaced due to slow-onset climate disasters will be especially vulnerable to protracted displacement in the years to come.

The short answer is yes! The 2021 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report on climate change is a “code red” for humanity. Under intermediate, high, and very high emission scenarios of the 2021 IPCC report, global temperatures will increase by 1.5 degrees Celsius or 2.7 degrees Celsius by the end of the 21st century. This level of warming, which climate data shows is linked to growing carbon emissions, is already causing major consequences for our planet and is contributing to ice sheet melt, glacial retreat, ocean warming and acidification, loss of biodiversity, and shifting weather patterns.

These environmental changes associated with global warming are shifting the severity and impacts of El Niño and La Niña weather patterns, which causes more severe storms including, monsoon rains, flash floods, hurricanes, and cyclones. These changes are also linked to sea level rise, desertification, heat waves, coastal erosion, saltwater intrusion, and plant and animal species extinction. These escalating climate disasters driven by climate change and global carbon emissions make it challenging for communities to remain resilient and will increasingly displace millions annually.

The 2021 Groundswell Part II Report estimates that a majority of persons displaced due to climate disasters will be in Sub-Saharan Africa, South Asia, and East Asia and the Pacific. Small Island Developing States (SIDS) across the Caribbean, the Pacific, and the Atlantic, Indian Ocean, and South China Sea are uniquely vulnerable to slow-onset climate disasters, especially sea level rise and loss of biodiversity due to global warming and the subsequent thermal expansion and ice sheet and glacier melting. In light of this, the United Nations (UN) has officially recognized the unique environmental vulnerability of SIDS and is working to advance climate resilience and adaptation programming to support groups vulnerable to climate displacement.

While there remains ample debate on terminology surrounding climate change and climate-related mobility, we have intentionally chosen to use the term “climate displaced persons.” The term “migration” is often thought to infer a predominately voluntary decision to migrate while displacement implies that there were existential factors that forced an individual or a community to relocate for adaptation or survival. Given that sudden- and slow- onset climate disasters cause serious harm and destruction to communities, including an estimated 150,000 lives lost annually according to the World Health Organization, we believe utilizing the term “displacement” better articulates the mobility that is happening in the context of climate change and climate disasters, i.e., movement to protect oneself from imminent danger.

The usage of the terms “climate displacement” and “climate disaster displacement” are also utilized by esteemed colleagues at the Sierra Club, Oxfam, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), and other U.S.-based resettlement agencies and refugee rights and mobility focused non-profits across the globe.

Climate displaced persons are not explicitly protected under the 1951 Refugee Convention, its 1967 Protocol, or under international law. The 1951 Refugee Convention and its 1967 Protocol, established the legal definition of a refugee under international law. According to these key legal documents which form today’s international law, a refugee is a person that has moved internationally due to:

  1. persecution for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion;
  2. armed conflict and ongoing violence that may have ties to any of the previously mentioned affiliations;
  3. persecution based upon sexual orientation and gender identification.

Those that qualify as refugees have certain rights, including non-refoulement, which means a host country should not return a refugee to its country of origin. As it stands, climate displaced persons who are not otherwise eligible based on the above definitions do not receive protections that are afforded to refugees that meet the definition. This means that receiving countries are not legally obligated to protect persons displaced by climate disaster that are not otherwise deemed refugees and, under international law, can return them to their countries of origin. Nevertheless, the 1969 Organization for African Unity (OAU) Convention, a regional complement to the 1951 Refugee Convention, allows protection for groups fleeing “events seriously disturbing public order,” which has been used to protect groups fleeing climate disasters.  This convention has been used at a regional level by the African Union (AU) to provide protections to persons displaced internationally due to climate disasters through the Kampala Convention. While this language does not yet exist in an international convention, its regional usage and implementation does provide optimism for a future where there are international protections provided to climate displaced persons.

As climate change continues to worsen sudden- and slow- onset climate disasters and      international displacements increase as a result, the international community will need to formulate protections for communities that are progressively vulnerable to climate disasters.

As climate change continues to exacerbate sudden- and slow- onset climate disasters, the international community must come together to address the systemic challenges and hurdles that face communities vulnerable to climate displacement. Some of these challenges include:

  • Efforts to curb carbon emissions remain inadequate and climate change will continue to escalate according to the projections of the 2021 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report on climate change.
  • Communities that contribute the lowest carbon emissions will be the most vulnerable to the impacts of climate change.
  • There remains no explicit protection for climate displaced persons under international law for those not already protected under other conventions.
  • There is no consensus on the terminology to describe people that are displaced due to climate disasters (i.e., climate/environmental refugee vs. climate displaced persons vs. climate migrants), a fact that encapsulates a deeper ideological debate among experts on climate displacement.
  • The nexus between migration and climate change is nebulous since displacement by climate disaster is often multi-causal due to the multi-dimensional impact that climate change has on vulnerable communities.
  • There is a lack of research and projections focused on international climate displacement because the majority of displacement happens within national borders and most leading research is focused on internal displacement only, which makes the call for an international response a challenging conjecture for some policymakers and international leaders.
  • The politicization of migration makes finding consensus in policymaking on this crisis exceptionally challenging.
  • There are limited existing international legal pathways and mechanisms that support migration to and from climate vulnerable regions; if such pathways existed there would bolster individual and communal climate disaster resilience, and they would displace possibly fewer people in the long-term.
  • For persons displaced by sudden-onset disasters, such as flash floods, severe storms, hurricanes, and large-scale forest fires, existing legal pathways under the purview of the legislative and administrative branches of the U.S. government include Temporary Protected Status (TPS), Deferred Enforced Departure (DED), and Humanitarian Parole.
  • For climate displaced persons who wish to return to their country of origin, when and if conditions improve, the U.S. could expand current seasonal worker programs that proactively assure worker protections and create new pathways for additional “guest workers” that do not preclude longer-term protection.
  • The administration could also work to develop bilateral or (sub-)regional agreements to facilitate temporary, circular, and even permanent migration that would ameliorate gaps in the domestic labor market while benefiting climate displaced persons.
  • The U.S. must become a climate resiliency leader by adopting sustainable practices that will help bend the global emissions curve to limit global temperature increases.

LIRS published a climate displacement report which outlines tangible ways the current administration and Congress can provide protections for climate displaced persons. Following eight months of consultation with leading climate and displacement experts, the administration established the Standing Interagency Policy Process on Climate Change and Migration to “coordinate U.S. government efforts to mitigate and respond to migration resulting from the impacts of climate change.” LIRS, in partnership with leading climate displacement colleagues, continues to call for more details on the implementation of the interagency policy process and for stronger protections for climate displaced persons. LIRS works closely with congressional offices to provide more lasting protections of those displaced by climate disaster. For instance, LIRS was early to endorse the first-ever U.S. Senate bill focused on the protection of climate displaced persons, introduced by Senator Edward Markey of Massachusetts.

In 2018, the international community took an important step in recognizing climate-displaced persons through the adoption of the Global Compact for Migration (GCM). The report includes a section on migration which identifies climate change as a driver of migration and suggests countries work together to start planning for people who move due to disasters and climate change. While the report was overwhelmingly adopted by 164 countries, the US did not adopt the document.

The International Migration Review Form (IMRF) took place in February 2022 and focused on the successes and challenges of the implementation of the 2018 Global Compact on Migration and the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. During this conference, global leaders worked to streamline processes and strengthen the regional implementation of the Compact to provide better protection for vulnerable groups, including climate displaced persons.

At the 26th annual UN Climate Change Conference (COP26) in November 2021, international leaders met to discuss greenhouse gas emissions and negotiate commitments to reduce emissions. While the conference mainly discussed country-level emission pledges, there were discussions that took place surrounding climate change adaptation for vulnerable groups. During the conference, the U.S. pledged a remarkable $356 million to the Adaptation Fund, intended to support low-income countries’ adaptation to climate change. Nevertheless, there remained inadequate commitments and discussions made surrounding climate displacement and protections for these vulnerable groups.

Read our Climate Displacement Report

It cannot be ignored: climate disaster is estimated to become one of the largest drivers of displacement in the 21st century. Most of the displacement will take place internally and is temporary. However, as global carbon emissions continue to escalate the impacts of climate change and the occurrence of slow-onset and irreversible climate disasters, millions of people will be at risk of international displacement that is increasingly protracted and permanent.

Nevertheless, mechanisms exist that will ameliorate these issues and ultimately, provide assistance and protection for populations in climate-vulnerable regions.  We need to reimagine and make substantial changes to our immigration system to protect these populations vulnerable to climate displacement. Read LIRS’s recommendations for the Biden administration, Congress, and all our leaders in our Climate Displacement Report below.

“Through nature, God teaches, communicates, and provides for the needs of humans. We are called by scripture and morality to partner with God in preserving, healing, and sustaining what God has granted us: our world, its people, and the beauty of creation…”

Christians are called to care for God’s creation, including the planet, its people, and all its fantastic creatures and natural wonders. Read more in our faith response below.

Further Reading

Climate Displacement Resources & Citations
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