From her office at UNHCR Headquarters in Geneva, Erica Bower keeps track of the wildfires ravaging Santa Rosa, California. For weeks it has destroyed homes and consumed possessions, forcing thousands to flee and taking the lives of dozens of people. Most scientists agree that climate change contributed to the elevated temperatures and drought-dried vegetation that made the flames especially hard to contain.

“Climate change is clearly one of the largest challenges facing our planet in the 21st century,” says Bower, an Associate Climate Change and Disaster Displacement Officer. “One only has to turn on the T.V. to see storm after storm and flood after flood and drought after drought and wildfire after wildfire.”

Her relatives’ Santa Rosa home was completely ruined. But with a strong social support network and the financial security to bounce back, they are the lucky ones. Many families in California suffered deeply, but homes will be rebuilt, residents and tourists will return, and life will go on.

Those kinds of financial security and support networks are not universal. Communities around the world are unable to bear the burden of disasters. In many of them, when people are forced from their homes, they are unlikely to ever return.  And with climate change both causing displacement and complicating responses to it, Bower believes UNHCR has an important role to play in contributing to the international community’s response.

The reality of climate change and displacement

There’s a tendency to think of climate change as a futuristic threat: one to start preparing for before it’s too late. Bower says, it’s already here. And the effects are evident today.

Weather-related disasters already force an average of 21.8 million people to flee their homes every year, according to the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre. Vulnerable populations are more likely to be displaced by climate change impacts and remain displaced for a longer time.

In some places, the geographies of climate change and displacement overlap, creating a melee of factors that confuse analysis of how best to tackle either. In others, climate change issues or disasters follow on the heels of conflict-related displacement, complicating the international community’s response to both.

Sudden onset disasters like hurricanes or earthquakes lead people to rush out of their homes quickly, leading to different protection needs than slow-building crises like drought, erosion or sea level rise. But communities can easily fall victim to both, or both at once, like a coastal area that suffers the devastation and damage of repeated storms due to depleted barrier islands and deforestation.

Climate change can also affect the idea of ‘safe and dignified’ return, completely changing the idea of what a durable solution is. “You can’t expect someone to return when their island is submerged or their land is rendered uninhabitable by desertification,” Bower says. “I would argue that many assumptions that underpin the whole ‘solutions’ paradigm need to be rethought.”

Relevant protection frameworks

Most climate change displacement is internal, not cross-border. These persons are protected by Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement. While some displaced people may be refugees under criteria of the 1951 Refugee Convention, the 1969 OAU Convention or the Cartagena Declaration, most will not fit these criteria. There is still a legal gap in their protection.

Roundtables, conferences, and state-led initiatives have resulted in commitments by countries to prevent and to address cross-border climate displacement. In 2015, 109 governmental delegations endorsed the Nansen Initiative Protection Agenda, which identifies tools to help states prevent, prepare for, and address “protection needs of people displaced across borders in the context of disasters and climate change.” And in 2016, The Platform on Disaster Displacement was launched to ensure implementation of this Protection Agenda. States are already using the tools it provides, such as humanitarian visas or temporary protection and stay arrangements, but administration is not always harmonised or systematic.

People who’ve been driven by their homes by disasters may need assistance and protection. While state practice is emerging, questions remain as to how the world can respond, and at what pace.

UNHCR and climate change displacement today

UNHCR is playing a growing role in addressing climate change displacement. And despite more and more frequent headlines, it’s not a new focus: UNHCR has been working on how to tackle the issue since the mid-2000s.

UNHCR continues to work with states to develop the legal and policy approaches that would provide protection for people affected by climate change displacement. A lot of this work involves enhancing protections for IDPs, supporting the Nansen Initiative Protection Agenda and the Platform on Disaster Displacement.

But it’s not all conference calls and policy briefs. Costa Rica and Panama recently led a bi-national workshop where they simulated a disaster and both sides had to deal in real-time with the virtual fallout. “I think it’s quite novel,” Bower says. “That’s the type of initiative that’s really forward thinking and will get actors to plan for these responses in the future.”

UNHCR has also developed guidelines for temporary protections like the ones the persons displaced across Panama border in the simulation exercise might have needed. And it works in a lot of different fora to promote coherence on protection for disaster displaced people across other policy agreements like the Sendai framework on disaster risk reduction, the global forum on migration and development, the Global Compacts on Refugees and Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration, sustainable development goals, and others.

Another critical forum where UNHCR engages on this issue is by providing technical support at the climate change negotiations to Parties of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change. “At first, UNFCCC Parties focused on mitigation of greenhouse gases. Then, it turned to adaptation,” explains Bower.

In the last five years, she says, discussions turned toward loss and damage: What happens when we can’t adapt to climate change and communities experience tangible losses and damage—including loss of their heritage and culture?

In this context, UNHCR participates in the Warsaw International Mechanism on Loss and Damage Task Force on Displacement, which Bower says was an important platform to talk to a whole new set of stakeholders like climate change experts and Ministries of Environment, and get them to recognise the importance of displacement.

“The new challenge now is to identify what the Task Force recommendations can add that is new and unique and complements other efforts such as the Platform on Disaster Displacement,” Bower says.

Transferring technologies like early warning systems from country to country would be one example. Using forecasting to be better prepared and respond faster is another.

Today, on the ground responses are not often on the table. Three conditions must be met before the UNHCR will get involved in this way: There has to be an existing UNHCR presence, the government of the affected country must request UNHCR intervention and it must be part of an interagency response. These conditions were met in situations including the recent earthquakes in Mexico and Ecuador, after typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines and during drought and famine in Somalia.

Even though protecting those internally displaced by climate change is not a core role for UNHCR, she says, “it’s a reality and it’s going to keep happening more and more with climate change exacerbating the frequency of these events.”

The question of global leadership

Governments are responding to the growing crisis. But they’re doing so in ad hoc, reactive ways. One of the roles UNCHR can play is to help coordinate the responses to these challenges, and make sure the international community is being innovative and forward-thinking in creating frameworks and approaches to dealing with climate change displacement.

“Right now, the way UNHCR and a lot of the humanitarian world addresses these issues is from a crisis management approach,” says Bower. “It’s focused on the here and now and what’s at stake today.”

That makes sense for a lot of reasons, she adds. Limited budgets, for instance, a constant rotation of staff, and the sheer scale of existing displacement crises. “It’s overwhelming how much trauma already exists on this planet. It’s hard to think about long-term trends and future risks.”

But Bower believes shifting from a crisis management approach toward one of risk management—one that instead of looking three or ten years down the line looks 30 or 100—would be a big step forward. “We owe it to the future to start to build the infrastructure and institutions and conceptual approaches to respond,” she says.

UNHCR is taking baby steps in the right direction. Its Multi-Partner Protection and Solutions Strategies are stretching planning documents in country operations from one year’s focus to three. Now looking ahead, there’s a lot the organization can do, like build better partnerships within the disaster risk reduction and climate change communities and even the private sector.

By looking at future risk as an integral part of the planning process, UNHCR can make sure solutions to displacement automatically include measures to prevent future displacement.

“This future risk question has to be integrated across everything UNHCR does,” Bower says.

If she was in charge? UNHCR would be bold, and not shy away from the realities of climate change and disaster displacement. To those who say that kind of focus is mission creep, Bower says not at all. UNHCR does not need to be the one to lead climate change adaptation and disaster risk reduction activities, but it does need to collaborate with partners whose work intersects with protection. After all, these issues are already affecting the organization’s populations of concern and intertwining themselves in existing displacement situations. It is no longer just about supporting people who’ve been displaced, but about proactively supporting them to be more resilient and reduce the chance of displacement when disasters strike.

That could even mean helping them with planned relocation, as a last resort, something the government of Fiji is already piloting and a move Bower thinks UNHCR could play a bigger role in developing tools and guidance for. “Because it’s about protection,” she says. “This is what protection means.”

Interventions like these are outside the norm, and certainly UNHCR’s current comfort zone. But they’re approaches that fit with a new reality.

After all, Bower says, “The rules of the game are changing.”


This essay was originally posted in the recently released report: UNHCR Innovation Service: Year in Review 2017. This report highlights and showcases some of the innovative approaches the organization is taking to address complex refugee challenges and discover new opportunities. You can view the full Year in Review microsite and download the publication here.