22 November 2013 | Justin Ginnetti

Update from COP19: Displacement sidelined as negotiations bottleneck around money talk

Governments, especially those of developing countries, are rightly concerned about the prospect of displacement induced by disasters and climate change. But in the context of these negotiations, we ask: have they put the right issue on the wrong agenda?


This weekend, the UN’s annual climate change negotiations will grind to a close in Poland’s National Stadium in Warsaw. After two weeks of through-the-night negotiations, representatives from both developed and developing countries will stagger to this finish line resembling weary marathon runners, having spent the better part of the last two weeks talking in circles on the issue of “loss and damage.”

This year’s talks about loss and damage have included several components, but the main element concerns the formation of an international mechanism through which developed countries compensate developing countries when they experience the negative impacts of climate change.  While the issue of how climate change affects population mobility was intended by many to be high on the agenda for many governments, particularly in terms of enhancing knowledge on “climate-change-induced displacement” – these have been largely sidelined as negotiations have become stuck around this issue of compensation.

Reaching the necessary consensus on the new international compensation mechanism has proven to be exceptionally difficult, and progress has been slow. This lack of progress spells bad news as it threatens to delay the linked decision on how to enhance understanding of climate change induced displacement, an issue all of the governments agree needs to be addressed.

In 2010, for example, governments called for “measures to enhance understanding” of “climate change induced displacement, migration and planned relocation” (Decision 1/CP.16, Paragraph 14(f)). Last year, governments reiterated this need for enhanced understanding of “[h]ow impacts of climate change are affecting patterns of migration, displacement and human mobility” (Decision 3/CP.18, Paragraph 7(a)(vi)).  Despite the will to take this forward, it seems that the bottlenecked negotiations around financial compensation threatens to push the human element of this issue off the table.

Governments should enhance knowledge and action in order to avoid climate change induced displacement

Some analysts have pointed out that the impasse stems from the fact that some governments prioritise enhanced action while others want to prioritise enhanced knowledge. It’s not a zero-sum situation; they should in fact enhance both knowledge andaction in combination. Enhanced knowledge can inform future action; similarly, actions taken now can provide lessons for the future.

Indeed this need for joined up thinking and acting has been highlighted year on year at the time when the COP takes place. Typhoon Bopha displaced nearly two million in the Philippines during last year’s COP, and this year’s climate change negotiations have taken place in the aftermath of Haiyan, which has displaced some four million Filipinos. So, if there was ever a signal that a fresh approach is needed to improve prevention, and response, they need look no further than the Philippines press.

The right issue in the wrong place

In the context of “loss and damage,” such discussions by nature are very much focused on the outcomes or impacts of disasters, rather than what can be done to prevent them by adapting to climate change.

The key mis-step here was linking displacement and the issue of loss and damage on the same agenda. If there is a silver lining to the impasse on the compensation issue, it is that it might help governments to realise that they missed an opportunity to address a matter on which they already agree, the issue of displacement.

For example, Governments could incorporate thinking about displacement in the context of National Adaptation Plans rather than the contentious and backward looking issue of “loss and damage”.

A harsh reality for 2014?

If recent global trends continue, it’s possible that by next year’s negotiations some 30 million people will have been newly displaced by disasters. This is the equivalent to the population of Peru, the host of next year’s talks.

We can only hope that Governments at this year’s COP19 can move forward on that which they cannot agree, and work together on that which they can. Only in doing so will they manage to stem the impact of disasters on the lives of millions of people throughout the world.

Read our report, Global Estimates 2012: people displaced by disasters

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