IPCC 5th Assessment, Sea Level Rise, and International Refugee Law

On September 27th, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released their highly anticipated fifth assessment concerning the physical science basis of climate change.  The report details the observed change in the climate system, the drivers of climate change, and projections of changes in the climate system.  This assessment reaffirms the scientific consensus concerning climate change and disseminates the probable disastrous consequences to the world’s interested parties.  As early as the late 1980’s, scientists, the UN, and NGOs warned the world of the mass human displacement and migration resulting from climate change. According to the IOM, estimates for environmentally induced migrants because of sea level rise (SLR), desertification, and catastrophic weather conditions vary from 25 million to 1 billion, with 200 million as the most widely cited.  This mass migration is the focus of this post.  By first detailing the scientific basis of continued SLR and its human consequences, this post examines the current legal and social frameworks available for migrants and then highlights the significant absence of support for the millions who will leave their homes in the coming decades.

A climate projection, even among the world’s greatest minds, is not an exact science. Scientific models rely largely on the present observed climate, then inserting multiple physical variables in various combinations and measures, and then hypothesize possible future scenarios.  We are now in an atmosphere that has never been experienced by humans, so the only climatic information connected to our current and future state happened millions of years ago.  Additionally, scientists acknowledge climatic shifts can be non-linear and unpredictable.  For example, around 12,000 years ago the earth’s temperature raised 8.3 Celsius in 1-3 years. Donald Rumsfeld commented on uncertainty most eloquently –

There are known knowns; there are things we know that we know.

There are known unknowns; that is to say, there are things that we now know we don’t know.

But there are also unknown unknowns – there are things we do not know we don’t know.

Therefore, we should neither consider the IPCC projections as inevitable phenomena nor natural law, but as a statement of today’s best available science concerning climate change.

The IPCC report, and many others like it (see IEA), base their projections on the parts per million (ppm) of CO2 in our atmosphere.  The IPCC classify these as “Representative Concentration Pathways” (RPC) and detail them as CO2 concentrations reaching 421 ppm (RCP2.6), 538 ppm (RCP4.5), 670 ppm (RCP6.0), and 936 ppm (RCP 8.5).  According to the SCRIPPS CO2 Program, we reached the 400 ppm mark in May of 2013.  The graph below details the IPCC’s conclusions.

Global SLR

The rising tides are just one affect of SLR – there are many others.  Despite the varying projections and possibilities, one thing remains clear – the sea has risen and will continue to rise for many decades to come.

Surely, SLR will disproportionately affect those individuals living on low elevation coastal zones. Using Geographical Information Systems (GIS), social and physical scientists can accurately hypothesize the affects of SLR on populations and land areas.  These low elevation coastal zones account for only 2.2% of dry land, but are home to 10.5% of the world population. That is, around 602 million people, of which 246 million live in the poorest countries in the world.

Owed to unequal development and other historical and current processes, developing countries, while contributing less GHG emissions, will suffer graver losses resulting from the lack of economic structure and financial support to adapt to climate change.  Moreover, the country’s government may be unable or unwilling to protect the victims of climate change impacts.  Developed countries; however, will be more adept at adapting to climate change because of mega engineering projects, strong rule of law, and deep government coffers.  So while the people of Manhattan face the same risks of SLR as those in Hanoi, the repercussions felt in Hanoi will be significantly more disastrous.

While responsibility for the effects of climate change in the most vulnerable countries lies outside its borders, international law does not reach across international borders and impose obligations upon those public and private actors at fault.  The international law human rights mechanisms applicable to those affected generally affects legal categories with weak enforcement such as protection rights in conflict, the rights of migrants, and social and economic rights.  Thus, we continue manipulating a legal system that ineffectively protects victims from harms caused by the world’s leading economic and political powers.

Migration scholars studying climate change and displacement either create their own definition regarding those displaced because of climate change or attempt to carve out definitions that may fit within the refugee convention.  Legal definitions and categories vary from ecomigrants, environmental emigrant, climigrants, and environmentally induced migrants.  The U.N. has recognized that environmental factors trigger displacement, and proposed the term environmentally displaced persons (EDPs).  Some scholars continuously seek to clarify the many definitions within the field of study, often combating the official definitions provided by the UN or large refugee NGOs.  What we are left with are a wide variety of definitions with each scholar, NGO, and supranational organization defending their definition as the greatest.  These definitions also depend on whether the person is internally displaced or migrated across nation state borders.  Without any convention relating to their status, the fate of EDPs, or whatever you want to call them, are left to the whims of scholars and lawmakers.  Importantly, there has been no successful shift yet from discourse to action, leaving many EDPs to suffer from environmental induced displacement without systematic assistance.

Leaving aside developing new definitions, treaties, and organizations, stretching the competence of an existing institution would clearly be the easiest way to protect climate migrants. The UNHCR’s extension of its jurisdiction to internally displaced persons provides a historical example.  In effect, this strategy carves out an exception for EDPs.  Yet, developed countries often deny entry to refugees or other migrants for economic reasons, so developed countries will most likely tie environmentally induced migration to migration for economic reasons.  For example, the salination of the farmer’s field, which destroyed any chance of a harvest, is intimately tied to an economic reason – he or she lost her livelihood.  Despite the many different scenarios and arguments, critics of UNHCR argue that the UN organization cannot currently manage today’s marginalized populations.  Thus, including a new class of refugees and internally displaced persons (IDP) would be ineffectual.

UNHCR’s recent global appeal provides us with their statistics about their “refugees of concern.”  In 2011, 10,549,670 fell under UNHCR’s definition of refugee of which only 5,849,140 are “assisted” by the organization.  The organization’s IDP figures listed here notes of the 28.8 million IDPs around the world the UNHCR “cares” for 15.5 million.  Taken together, the UNHCR is only capable of “protecting and/or supporting” half of the world’s current refugee and IDP populations.  Imagine if that number increased to 200 million.  This exercise in numbers does not consider the physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual consequences of being forced from your home.  For example, last year marked the twentieth anniversary of the world’s biggest refugee camp – Dadaab – located in Kenya where “today they host more than 463,000 refugees, including some 10,000 third-generation refugees born in Dadaab to refugee parents who were also born there.”  Will the millions of forced migrants live out their existence in refugee camps such as Dadaab?



To protect and ensure the human rights of the world’s marginalized populations who have fallen victim to the impacts of disastrous climate change calls for new ideas, institutions, and legal frameworks.  Current institutions cannot possibly hope to ensure the basic human rights of future victims if they systemically fail today.  Perhaps the current definition of a refugee is the problem with international refugee law.  Do you think a person who will die from starvation resulting from the destruction of his or her farm deserves refugee status more than one who risks being imprisoned for venting his or her political opinion?  To offer protection to the latter but not the former represents the acceptance of existing international refugee law.  If applicants must state their case based on whether they face persecution owed to race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, then this excludes those suffering owed to war, famines, drought, earthquakes, and climate change.  The current definition ignores the human interests that are most important for survival.  Reforming the definition of a refugee in the Convention would focus the world’s compassion on those suffering the most and not on sexy principles such as the freedom of speech for political dissidents.  By concentrating on the alleviation of suffering above all else will ensure the world’s resources will aid those in need of the most help – those struggling to exist.

SLR is just one instance of the many disastrous effects of climate change.  It will affect millions, especially those in developing countries.  Now is the time for action.  An action that stems from a place of compassion and a serious desire to alleviate the suffering of the world’s most deprived persons.