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Global Governance

Preparing for a warmer world:
Towards a global governance system to protect climate refugees

Global Governance Working Paper No. 33

Frank Biermann and Ingrid Boas

Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam

November 2007

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The need to mitigate climate change has dominated the debate on global environmental governance until very recently. Yet today it is evident that mitigation efforts have been too little and too late. Climate change is becoming a reality of world politics in the 21st century. This requires a new, additional focus in both academic research and policy planning: How can we build over the course of the next decades systems of global governance that will cope with the global impacts of climate change? What institutions are in need of redesign and strengthening? To what extent, and in what areas, do we need to create new institutions and governance mechanisms from scratch?

Not much policy research on these questions is available. In light ofthe most recent scientific findings, which indicate possibly accelerating climatic change, there is an urgent need for a new academic research programme on what we propose to call "global adaptation governance." Global adaptation governance will affect most areas of world politics, including many core institutions and organizations of current global governance. The need to adapt to climate change will influence, for example, the structure of global food regimes and the work of the UN Food and Agriculture Organization; global health governance and the agenda of the World Health Organization; global trade in goods whose production will be harmed or helped by climate change; the world economic system and the ability of the International Monetary Fund to address climate-related shocks to national and regional economies; and many other sectors from tourism to transportation or even international security.

One of the most crucial governance needs, we argue, is to address the plight of "climate change refugees," or "climate refugees" in short. Climate change will fundamentally affect the lives of millions of people who will be forced over the next decades to leave their villages and cities to seek refuge in other areas. Although the exact numbers of climate refugees are unknown and vary from assessment to assessment depending on underlying methods, scenarios, timeframes and assumptions (see section 3 below), the available literature indicates that the climate refugee crisis will surpass all known refugee crises in terms of the number of people affected. Many climate refugees may seek refuge in their own countries; others will need to cross borders to find a new home. Some local refugee crises, in particular in the richer countries in the North, may be prevented through adaptation measures such as reinforced coastal protection or changes in agricultural production and water supply management. Many poorer countries, however, are unlikely to be able to initiate sufficient adaptation programmes, and climate-induced migration might be the only option for many communities in the South. In these situations, climate refugees will need to rely on effective protection and support from the international community, regardless of whether climate migration will be internal or transnational.

Such a system of global governance for the recognition, protection and resettlement of climate refugees stands at the centre of this paper, as a major building block of the emerging global governance architecture on adaptation towards climatic change. Climate refugees have become a staple of popular discourse in recent years, and the image of the nation of Tuvalu requesting refuge in Australia or New Zealand a symbol of the looming crisis.1 In 2007, the link of climate change to "large-scale migration" even became part of the rationale for the awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize.2 Yet there is little systematic academic research on the appraisal of the threat of climate-related mass-migration. Almost no studies have analyzed such migration from the perspective of global governance reform. This lacuna is what this paper attempts to address.

We proceed in four steps. First, in section 2 we address the conceptual profusion that is not surprising for such a new area of research and political discourse, and propose a definition of climate refugees that locates the phenomenon in the larger literature on migration. In section 3 we sketch the scope of the problem based on the available estimates and scenarios. In section 4 of the paper, we analyze three global governance domains that will be at the centre of a future debate on political responses to the emerging problem of climate refugees, namely refugee protection institutions, security institutions, and funding institutions. In these three domains, we review, first, the status quo; second, options for reform within current governance structures; and third, options for the creation of new structures. Our evaluation draws on three criteria: effectiveness in terms of protection of refugees, political feasibility, and equity. In section 5, we draw our findings together and provide a blueprint for a global governance architecture for the recognition, protection, and voluntary resettlement of climate refugees.

  1. According to a news release by Reuters on the Pacific Islands Forum in Fiji on 24-25 October 2006, "Tuvalu is upset that regional heavyweight Australia, a major aid donor but also one of the biggest per capita emitters of the greenhouse gases responsible for global warming, has so far spurned advances to help resettle their people" (Reuters, 25 October 2006). Tuvalu has entered into negotiations with New Zealand for more open immigration policies. New Zealand now accepts 75 Tuvaluan people per year. However, this policy is not framed as a resettlement strategy for the Tuvalu nation but as part of a labor programme (Patel 2006, 736). The annual 75 Tuvaluan immigrants fall under the Pacific Access Category, which has other restrictions, such as an age limit (Immigration New Zealand 2005, last updated 2007).
  2. The Norwegian Nobel Committee 2007: "Indications of changes in the earth's future climate must be treated with the utmost seriousness and with the precautionary principle uppermost in our minds. Extensive climate changes may alter and threaten the living conditions of much of mankind. They may induce large-scale migration and lead to greater competition for the earth's resources. Such changes will place particularly heavy burdens on the world's most vulnerable countries. There may be increased danger of violent conflicts and wars, within and between states."

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