CliSAP successfully finished in 2018. Climate research continues in the Cluster of Excellence "CLICCS".

What role does human mobility play in climate change negotiations?

Drought is an example for one of the consequences of climate change leading to migration.

As a political scientist, Sarah Nash is studying documents from international climate change negotiations, in particular to analyse how the issue of human mobility has been treated. In this longread she looks ahead to the Paris meeting and outlines some of her thoughts.

People are on the move. Recent months have seen increased movements of people towards and across Europe as they flee from war and violence in Syria and seek shelter on the European continent, causing the proclamation of a “refugee crisis” and calls for the shake-up of refugee and migration policy. Some academics have started to identify Syria’s 2007-2010 drought as one of the contributing factors to the conflict, and then to link the increased potential for drought to climate change. These findings have been picked up by commentators (e.g. in Nature, The New York Times, The Guardian and Time Magazine), with articles linking climate change to the Syrian conflict and, in the case of Time Magazine, elucidating how “climate change is behind the surge of migrants to Europe”.

The background of rapidly changing refugee and migration politics in Europe gives a dramatic new context to the forthcoming conference.

However, warnings have come from the academic community against an environmentally deterministic perspective in which a simple direct causal relationship exists between climate change and refugee movements. Instead, those working on the issue advocate for an understanding of mobility which takes into consideration the multi-causal nature of movement, with environmental factors most likely to be just one contributing factor among many. As well as providing a more accurate picture, a more nuanced understanding helps mitigate against a securitised view of human mobility and avoid adding to fear or anti-migrant sentiments.

Despite this, the background of rapidly changing refugee and migration politics in Europe gives a dramatic new context to the forthcoming climate change negotiations, where human mobility is firmly on the table for possible inclusion in a climate change agreement.

Tracing words in negotiation-documents 

My research deals with how human mobility is discussed, with one of my focuses lying in the climate change negotiations taking place within the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). This is the forum within the global community intends to decide on a new global climate change agreement in Paris in December.

The inclusion of human mobility within the negotiations is particularly interesting because it hints at the international community taking responsibility for the people whose lives are so affected by climate change in that they have to (or choose to) leave their homes: It is an issue of global justice.

Human mobility has been a continuous presence  in negotiations on the international stage since it was first raised in submissions by the humanitarian community in 2008 and was subsequently included in an assembly document for the climate negotiations in late 2008.

The international community can take responsibility for the people whose lives are so affected by climate change in that they have to (or choose to) leave their homes: It is an issue of global justice.

Since then, mobility has remained in the negotiating text, surviving the failure of the Copenhagen climate negotiations in 2009, with these negotiations actually providing an opportunity for significant work on how to include human mobility.

One of the turning points for human mobility in the negotiations has been the inclusion of the wording “migration, displacement and planned relocation” in an agreed-upon text for the first time in paragraph 14(f) of the Cancun Adaptation Framework that was agreed in 2010. Although no concrete action on human mobility is mandated by this paragraph, it calls for measures to “enhance understanding, coordination and cooperation” on the issue and, importantly, firmly anchored the issue within an agreed-upon text (rather than in a negotiating text which is still up for discussion) for the first time since 2008, providing a basis for future work on the issue.

The (bumpy) road to Paris

In the run-up to Paris, the topic of human mobility is already causing quite a stir. A concrete proposal for a “climate change displacement coordination facility” was included in versions of a negotiating text in early 2015, before briefly disappearing from the text completely in a routine practice of shortening the negotiating text to a more manageable length ahead of the final negotiations. However, the issue is seen to be so important that it has been re-inserted as part of a ‘COP decision’ in the most recent negotiating text, alongside an alternative option in wording reminiscent of Cancun to “enhance understanding, coordination and cooperation”.

Since climate change negotiations are already volatile, it is difficult to predict exactly what will happen with the issue of human mobility. Questions exist as to whether human mobility will be included at all in an agreement and, if so, how. A consensus seems to be building among those working specifically on the issue that there is reason to be hopeful that human mobility will be included in any Paris agreement, particularly given the long-term role which this topic has played in the negotiations since 2008.

The proposal for a “climate change displacement coordination facility” has been fairly stable throughout the drafts for a Paris agreement.

The form is more difficult to predict. Whilst the proposal for a “climate change displacement coordination facility” has been fairly stable throughout the drafts for a Paris agreement, it is a very specific proposal that may be susceptible to change in the course of the negotiations. It is also extremely difficult to judge whether the inclusion of this proposal would be a good thing. The wording of the Cancun Agreement is, in this sense, perhaps more likely to be included. It has already been accepted in a global forum and the ‘asks’ are much lower. However, this also means that once again no specific action will be mandated of the international community. 

Finally, we can speculate as to the positioning of the issue of human mobility: whether in the tight legal text of the main agreement, in the preamble (where issues such as human rights are often contained), or in a separate decision, there are various possibilities. Placement will be important, with the legally-binding text sending the strongest statement on the issue, whilst placement in the preamble signals the moral importance of the issue but does not require any specific actions. If contained in a separate decision, it could open up space for further negotiations to decide specifics such as institutional arrangements.

Will the international community seize the moment to make a statement?

Paris provides an opportunity for the global community to send a clear signal on the importance of human mobility as one of the many consequences of climate change, particularly given vitality of current debates surrounding asylum and migration. They may use this as an opportunity to anchor human mobility in the context of climate change firmly in climate politics or even begin to set out mechanisms for its governance, with its inclusion (in whatever form) in a legally-binding agreement providing a vital foothold for further work. But whatever the outcome in Paris: The issue of human mobility in the context of climate changes is not going anywhere.

Sarah Nash is part of the CliSAP Research Group Climate Change and Security, headed by Prof. Jürgen Scheffran. She is working on her doctoral thesis in political science at Universität Hamburg and is passionate about issues of global justice and human rights, especially within her specialist areas.


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