While climate-linked migration and displacement (‘mobility’) feature throughout discussions at the United Nations (UN) Climate Change Conference (COP27), they are not officially on the agenda. This is likely because climate-linked mobility is typically framed as a threat or a loss instead of an opportunity.
Climate migrants have been called ‘the face of climate change.’ Its effects are severely disrupting and altering how and where humans move. Predictions that millions will flee from the global south to the global north are, at best, well-intentioned efforts to compel urgent climate action and, at worst, xenophobic fearmongering. Either way, they are intellectually dishonest and haven’t helped to drive finance or action on climate-linked mobility.
Exaggerated predictions feed anti-immigration sentiments that fuel restrictive policies, securitised migration approaches and a reluctance to provide legal protections to people fleeing the effects of climate change.
Climate-linked mobility is an important issue in Africa. Climate change is emerging as a leading migration driver and could create up to 86 million internal migrants in Sub-Saharan Africa by 2050. However, most movement will be local. Projections also range significantly and could drop up to 80% depending on how well the world mitigates and adapts. Interventions are urgently needed to avert, minimise and address climate mobility in Africa.
Climate-linked migration and displacement are not officially on the COP27 agenda
One of COP27’s key themes is whether wealthy countries will follow through on their commitments to pay for poor countries to transition away from fossil fuels and adapt to the impacts of climate change. Last week, the COP27 Presidency launched the Sharm-el-Sheik Adaptation Agenda, establishing 30 adaptation goals to achieve by 2030. It seeks to mobilise up to US$300 billion annually.
One of the more contentious topics is loss and damage, which refers to climate change’s irreversible economic and non-economic costs. It demands that the largest, wealthiest polluters pay the poorest and most vulnerable countries that have contributed the least to climate change.
While loss and damage have finally been placed on the official COP27 agenda, wealthy countries have been reticent to discuss or commit to funding. They fear doing so will equate to compensation and could result in much larger claims against the biggest emission offenders.
COP27 is a missed opportunity to prioritise climate mobility at a time when financing is sorely needed
Framing climate-linked mobility as a loss and damage issue effectively portrays it as a failure to adapt instead of a positive adaptation strategy. In some cases, climate-linked displacement does indeed require compensation, particularly in vulnerable situations. However, migration is also an essential positive response to the escalating effects of climate change.
As parts of Africa become less habitable, migration allows families to spread risk and seek new income opportunities. It fosters social and financial remittances, enabling families and communities to adapt. Projects such as green livelihoods, infrastructure and integrated water structures that prevent or reduce displacement in vulnerable areas should be scaled up. And communities should be better prepared to receive climate migrants.
Many practitioners and policymakers are championing more nuanced narratives and approaches to loss and damage, and to mass migration. The UN Framework Convention on Climate Change established the Warsaw International Mechanism to formulate strategies for loss and damage. It includes human mobility as one of five workstreams. The Climate Mobility Pavilion at COP27 is active with robust discussions.
No African countries have climate mobility plans, meaning governments also need to be more proactive
Despite these crucial efforts, COP27 represents yet another missed opportunity to prioritise climate mobility at a time when financing and action are sorely needed. Since Cancun 2010 (COP16), the global community has recognised the need to plan for climate-linked mobility, yet funding remains muted.
National governments should also be planning more proactively. No African countries have climate mobility plans. Only two low-lying Pacific Island countries – Vanuatu and Fiji – have publicly available climate mobility strategies. The Brookings Institute argues that allocating adaptation funds to countries with plans would incentivise more.
Countries should evaluate areas most at risk of environmental impacts and project where people may be forced to move. Some regions will gain residents, while others will lose them. Planning climate mobility is complex and requires new legislation and action across multiple levels of government. However, the costs of doing nothing – unplanned mass urbanisation or people trapped in poverty – are even steeper.
Meetings such as COP27 should prioritise climate mobility, actively debunk false narratives and advance more nuanced ones. Better information informs better interventions. Countries and stakeholders need to move forward on financing for adaptation and loss and damages that include climate mobility.
Aimée-Noël Mbiyozo, Senior Research Consultant, Migration, ISS Pretoria