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Expert Opinion

We may not even know how much we don't know: displacement in the context of climate change and slow-onset disasters


As global leaders once again convene to tackle climate change in Katowice, Poland, this week, there are three major blind spots in what we know about its impact on people. 

This week, ministers and heads of state of more than 130 countries are trying to nail down important commitments and targets to address climate change. The 24th Conference of the Parties to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change – or COP24 – has an ambitious agenda with a long list of items to consider. Among these, there is one agenda item that gets only limited attention but that is critical to the future of millions of people already suffering the impacts of climate change: the recommendations of the Taskforce on Displacement, which IDMC had the privilege of helping shape.

 While we hope that all of the recommendations get adopted, we shall look out particularly for those related to displacement data collection, risk assessments and analysis. We hope these recommendations get the traction they deserve, not just because they are closely aligned with IDMC’s mandate, but because they would enable us to address major gaps in what we currently know about displacement, and therefore what we can do about it. Here are three critical ones that keep some of us awake at night.

1. Nobody knows how many people are already forced to flee.
There are no sound global estimates available for how many people are forced to move from their homes, communities and livelihoods due to climate change. Not only are we usually uncomfortable attributing any particular displacement situation directly to climate change, even attempting to estimate how many new displacements are taking place in the context of slow-onset disasters is a challenge. For 2017, IDMC managed for the first time to isolate figures for new displacements related to drought for its global report – while only done in less than a handful of countries, the numbers suggest that the true scale of displacement far exceeds available estimates.

2. Nobody knows how many people are at risk of losing their homes and livelihoods in the future.
Similarly, there is no sense of the scale of risk of future displacement associated with climate change at a global level. IDMC developed the first ever, fully probabilistic disaster displacement risk model last year, revealing significant displacement risk associated with sudden-onset disasters such as floods and storms. Some advances have been made also in modelling regional estimates for the number of people at risk of displacement in the context of drought, water stress and sea level rise with some useful lessons for policy. However, none of the existing attempts can be aggregated into a global assessment of displacement risk in the context of environmental and climate change and slow-onset disaster. This is not due to a lack of trying, which brings me to my last point:

3. We’re still guessing more than knowing how exactly such displacement comes about. 
There are a plethora of studies on why people move during drought, how sea level rise may generate displacement, or how the impact of natural resource constraints on livelihoods can lead to migration. However, there are only a few attempts to understand the phenomenon as part of a broader system of causes and consequences, which means that climate change and its impacts are not assessed in relation to the many other drivers and impacts of displacement at play. This also means that countries will have trouble identifying appropriate policy options to address displacement and reduce its risk in such contexts.

At IDMC, we are committed to filling the knowledge gaps. But we can’t do this alone. Therefore, today, we launch our research agenda on internal displacement in slow-onset disaster contexts, with a call for partners from a diversity of disciplines, institutions and regions. As ministers in Katowice this week will hopefully heed the advice of the Taskforce to continue efforts in addressing and reducing displacement related to the negative impacts of climate change, we look forward to informing the next steps with a more robust understanding of what we are dealing with and a stronger evidence base for policy and practice.