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Why action on climate change presents an opportunity for protection actors concerned about conflict

Written by Katie Peters

In the month the world’s leading scientists release the latest devastating science about the irreversible and irrefutable damages to our climate, humanitarians mark World Humanitarian Day 2021 with a focus on the climate emergency.

For specialist protection agencies, a changing climate presents renewed challenges for upholding the rights of displaced persons. Changes in the climate and environment have been recognised as a long-term driver of displacement, while sudden onset hazards including those that are climate-related can be trigger events for new or repeated displacements.

Dealing with the fallout of single, protracted and multiple displacements and trying to promote preventative action is difficult enough in relatively peaceful setting: in contexts of conflict, the intersection of climate change, conflict and displacement is all the more complex.

Climate-conflict-displacement nexus – a new way forward?

The interactions between climate change, conflict and displacement are the focus of upcoming research by the Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC) and ODI, in which we argue that climate change presents a crossroads for humanitarians. Climate change could be treated as a new specialism within the field of displacement, or an opportunity to develop a deeper understanding of the complex interactions between displacement drivers and triggers. I am concerned about the risk of the former.

Having spent the last 10 years arguing that the international community needs to get serious about pursuing disaster risk reduction in contexts affected by conflict I am all too familiar with being told that natural hazard-related disasters and conflict are dealt with by separate agencies, departments, policies, funding streams and approaches.

This is despite highlighting that disasters, including those that are climate-related, occur in conflict contexts and thus require redress, or when highlighting that conflict is a driver of increased vulnerability and exposure to disaster risk. Because of the influence of climate changes on natural hazards, climate issues tend to be compartmentalised into the ‘disaster’ camp in discussions around protection too.

Readying the system for change

Yet throughout 2020-2021, at the highest levels of decision-making – in the UN General Assembly and UN Security Council – the interconnectivity between climate change, conflict and displacement has been discussed and the readiness of the collective system (encompassing humanitarian, development and climate actors) to respond has been found wanting. In order to move forward, there’s a few things we need to get our head around:

  1. The factors contributing to population movement are complex. Displacement patterns are likely to change under increasing climate pressure, including in contexts already contending with issues of conflict and underserved protection needs.

  2. Climate change may become a more direct driver of displacement in the absence of appropriate mitigating actions. For example, slow-onset climate change impacts can erode livelihoods, increase vulnerability, and make displacement more likely when rapid-onset extreme events occur. In conflict contexts with insufficient climate risk management, mitigating actions (such as legal frameworks, social protection mechanisms, alternative livelihood options) are less available. Displacements may result in direct threats to the enjoyment of rights to life, adequate standard of living, safety and security.

  3. A changing climate has implications for protection outcomes. Climate extremes and slow-onset climate changes in conflict contexts, for example, have already prompted internal and cross-border movements, with people living under new conditions and in situations where they experience human rights violations.

  4. From a protection perspective, the displacement outcome is arguably of greater importance than the specific climate factor. Yes, clarity on the causal factors of displacement are important for ensuring the right actors and approaches are mobilised to help pursue preventative and response mechanisms. However, safeguarding the rights of those displaced, meeting basic humanitarian needs and supporting so-called ‘durable solutions’ is arguably of greater importance than trying to dissect the specific contribution of climate change; not least because ‘instituting separate response mechanisms according to the precipitating trigger may not be the most efficient or effective approach’.

  5. Protection agencies should continue to address people’s pre-existing vulnerabilities. All too often, displacements occur in the context of pre-existing discrimination and marginalisation – as is the case for displacement driven by armed conflict and drought in Mali and Sudan. Conflict can create vulnerabilities that compound people’s risk of climate change impacts and put them at severe risk of suffering human rights harms.

What do we need to do?

First, specialist protection agencies should collectively advocate to close legal protection gaps, including for people in conflict contexts where climate factors play a role. Existing legal frameworks such as the Kampala Convention, Protocol on the Free Movement of Persons and 1951 Refugee Convention will be useful here, as well as encouraging states to uphold commitments set out within the Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement, Global Compact on Refugees – and on Migration – and Intergovernmental Authority on Development Protocol.

Second, we need to better understand current displacement trends with more nuance than is currently available. For example, enhancing the interoperability of displacement data sets, ensuring adherence to common definitions, and undertaking longitudinal studies on linked climate-conflict-displacement trends. We also need to strengthen the quality of the empirical evidence base by encouraging protection agencies to collaborate with climate specialists to assess the relative attribution of climate change to an event – something rarely done – and to integrate climate change risks and scenarios into protection agencies’ existing tools, which seek to understand the complex interactions that drive and trigger displacements.

Third, protection agencies have a role to play in grounding truth to the current narratives on the intersection of displacement, climate and conflict – particularly where discussions enter the realm of those concerned with security. Arguably, productive framings are those that embrace ideas about being pro-poor and pro-mobility, to put the focus on those in highly vulnerable situations rather than on the politicking and securitisation of climate change, which all too often has been used as a scapegoat for displacement outcomes.

As others have observed, and we mention in our upcoming report: “It is ‘no accident’ that misuse of IDMC [Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre] data is being pedalled to ‘paint an exaggeratedly alarming picture’ of displacement projections and the role of climate change in those projections”.

Protection agencies should redirect attention to the attainment of rights, support UN Security Council members to understand the humanitarian implications of the climate-conflict-displacement nexus, and utilise state-led processes such as the Platform on Disaster Displacement to uphold state commitments to protection actions.

Fourth, there is a need to get one’s own house in order. Greening humanitarian operations through eco-friendly suppliers, shifting to renewable energy technologies and setting agency-specific targets as part of a pathway towards climate compatible relief is absolutely necessary. Agencies can also become signatories to the ICRC’s Environmental Charter for Humanitarian Organizations and follow the lead of protection agencies like the NRC in committing to carbon neutral operations.

As we collectively grapple with the implications of the climate crisis and as humanitarians reassess their priorities for the future, specialist protection agencies approach a crossroads. Dealing with climate change could continue us down a well-worn path wherein displacement drivers and triggers are treated separately.

The alternative is to recognise that there is more common ground between humanitarians, specialist protection agencies and climate actors than is currently being utilised. And, to use the intersection of climate-conflict-displacement risk as an opportunity to mature our understanding of displacements, with the aim of strengthening protection outcomes for those currently at risk. My hope is that we take the latter path.