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Many policymakers think of migration as a failed outcome; climate advocates consider migration to be the result of inadequate efforts to cut carbon emissions, while government officials often consider migration to be a failure to contain risk abroad. But increased mobility is a necessary part of securing human survival in a changing world.
Even with the most ambitious climate action, there are already changes we have locked in. Sea level rise and higher temperatures will render climate-vulnerable regions of the world uninhabitable as the frequency and intensity of climate disasters makes recovery unsustainable. In fact, this is already happening; around the world, people are on the move to escape the accelerating climate crisis. While there are ways to mitigate those changes with climate action, increasing safe migration pathways is the only effective and humane response to this new reality. Creating orderly and accessible pathways is not only the smart response to mass displacement, it is also the equitable one.
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OECD countries have a responsibility to respond to this growing displacement in a humane and comprehensive way, especially as the historic source of most carbon emissions. While almost no legal pathways currently exist for climate-displaced people, some progress is being made. For example, the International Refugee Assistance Project (IRAP), the nonprofit organisation where I work, is developing a lesson plan to train United States asylum and refugee officers to recognise the impact of climate in claims where it intersects with other protection claims.
Climate events directly increas[e] threats like extortion and violence from organised crime and the persecution of Indigenous populations, forcing those individuals to leave their homes
Climate change acts as a threat multiplier, amplifying pre-existing dangers that ultimately force people to leave their homes in search of safety. While climate is not yet a recognised ground for humanitarian protection, many of those other claims are protected under international law. In March, IRAP and partner organisations released a report showcasing the ways climate change and climate disasters intersect with other drivers of displacement at the U.S-Mexico border. Based on dozens of interviews conducted with Mexican and Central American asylum seekers at a shelter in Tijuana, Mexico, the report found that climate events directly increased threats like extortion and violence from organised crime and the persecution of Indigenous populations, forcing those individuals to leave their homes.
“They don’t care about the hurricane. They collect the payments just the same,” said one Mexican interviewee about gang members operating in her agricultural community. “They killed two of our neighbours who were also fieldworkers because they couldn’t pay the extortion fees. They cut one of their throats and hung the other from a wall.” Unable to pay the gangs after her crops were destroyed, she had no choice but to flee.
While this report is meant to make the issue of climate displacement visible, more must be done by governments around the world to actually increase access to safe legal pathways for those populations.
If we believe in building a just world, climate migrants must have access to safe and legal pathways to relocate, and it is the responsibility of the international community to provide them
Thankfully, the international community’s response to the Ukrainian refugee crisis serves as an example of how countries can respond swiftly and favourably to displaced people. Countries across Europe mobilised to welcome those displaced by the conflict and offered them support and assistance to safely resettle, and the United States created Uniting for Ukraine, a special programme allowing Ukrainians to come to the U.S. on humanitarian parole. Countries must show the same commitment to welcoming those fleeing climate disasters.
When I was invited to speak at the World Economic Forum this January, I told the audience that the problem with climate migration is not that we don’t have solutions. We have plenty of solutions. The problem is that we don’t currently have the political and cultural will to implement those solutions. Climate change necessitates so much transformation, both for the planet and for our societies. That means creating a culture of welcome and building legal systems that are accessible to climate migrants before disaster strikes.
If we believe in building a just world, climate migrants must have access to safe and legal pathways to relocate, and it is the responsibility of the international community to provide them. The time to act is now.
To learn more, visit the OECD page on Tackling the climate crisis together
The OECD supports and helps drive higher levels of ambition and tangible outcomes – on mitigation, adaptation and resilience, and financing – that better align with the collective goals of the Paris Agreement. This includes enhanced support for climate action in developing countries, including in the least developed and most vulnerable countries which are heavily impacted by climate change, yet lack access to tools required to support a transition to net-zero emissions.
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