What motivates an international affairs student to dig into scientific data, learn how the climate works, and discover the disaster that sea level rise can cause? One word: people. The student, Luca Jendrek, earned her Master’s in International Affairs and Security Policy from Peter Pazmany University in Budapest, Hungary. She volunteered for a Mallorcan NGO protecting and conserving the Mediterranean before she joined the transboundary team at GWP. Here she outlines the connection between her studies and her traineeship at GWP.
We constantly bump into threatening news about climate change, natural disasters, record high or low temperatures, and ecosystem degradation. But we hear less about climate migrants or environmental refugees – hundreds of thousands of people who have already been forced to leave their homes because of climate change, or the millions who face the same destiny.
What migration patterns are provoked by sea level rise caused by climate change? Is there any national and international legislation to protect these people? These questions came to mind when I decided to write my Master’s thesis on this topic. I did not expect that one day I would combine this knowledge with my work at GWP.
Ninety-nine per cent of scientists agree that climate change is due to human activities. In the 20th century, we used more and more natural resources and slowly but surely overexploited our only planet, leading to the rise in emissions of the three most harmful gases (carbon dioxide, water vapor, and methane), resulting in global warming. One of the most alarming consequences is sea level rise which is happening at a faster pace than we expected.
According to the World Bank, 800 million people in 540 low-lying coastal or delta cities will be threatened by sea level rise by 2050, and this figure will likely increase. Most of these cities are in Asia – Mumbai, Kolkota, Dhaka, Bangkok, Ho Chi Minh City, Jakarta, Shanghai, Guangzhou, Beijing, Tokyo. However, other cities – New York, Los Angeles, Buenos Aires, Rio de Jainero, Rotterdam, Dar-es-Salam, to name a few – will also face rapid sea level rise in coming decades.
The 1951 UN Refugee Convention reached a milestone in the protection of refugees after World War II. Along with several regional and national treaties, it ensures protection and rights to people who are forced to flee because of various well-founded fears. However, the Convention does not consider environmental factors that trigger relocation. An extensive global framework is missing which would recognize, support, and protect climate migrants.
Nevertheless, legal frameworks are beginning to recognize and assist persons who flee because of climate change and natural disasters:
- Internally displaced persons, according to the UN Guiding Principles and the Kampala Convention, give a wider interpretation of refugee and covers those fleeing natural or human-made disasters. The UNHCR established an Advisory Group on Climate Change and Human Mobility to work on solutions for climate refugees;
- The Nansen Initiative addresses the needs of people displaced across international borders in the context of disasters and climate change effects;
- The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) agreed to the Cancun Adaptation Framework which recognized climate-induced human migration;
- For the first time, climate displacement was mentioned in the document at the climate conference in Paris in 2015;
- The International Organization for Migration leads climate migration programs in more than 40 countries.
The UN Guiding Principles on internal displacement need to be expanded to cover these situations, the Nansen Initiative needs to be enhanced, and climate migrants need to be recognized as a category of people requiring protection and entitled to human rights, as suggested in the Paris Agreement.
When I joined GWP as a trainee in July 2021, I was assigned to work on the transboundary team. Here I discovered that because climate change and its effects are diverse and multidimensional, it affects transboundary water systems and poses challenges for every water user – citizens, industry, government, and nature. No state can deal with these challenges on its own; wider cooperation between stakeholders and countries is key.
As more regions experience water stress, uneven water distribution, lack of fresh water and sanitation, and climate change impacts, more people will opt for the immediate solution: migration, posing further socio-economic-political and environmental challenges and putting migrants in danger.
Another similarity between environmental migration and transboundary water management is the pace and extent of the development of new legislation, policies, and regulations: they happen much slower than the rate of environmental degradation or disasters.
Future sea level rise depends on three factors:
- greenhouse gas emissions;
- the response of air and sea surface temperatures greenhouse gases; and
- thermal expansion and the level of ice melt.
While sea level rise is less dramatic than disasters, and happens relatively slowly, time is not on our side given the slow pace at which we are making – or not making – changes to policies and laws. We need to hear the voices of those directly experiencing climate change, sea level rise, and water stress so we can take collective and urgent action on mitigation, adaptation, legal, infrastructural, and institutional measures, and do so with a broad, all of society participation.