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The World Needs a Global Protocol for Climate Refugees


In only the first six months of 2020, disasters displaced 9.8 million people and remained the sole lead of new internal displacements globally. Climate change displaces millions of people worldwide, and there has been little response to this crisis. A Global Protocol will only be successful with both a legal framework and enforcement provisions. For this to happen, the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) both need to recognize climate refugees and provide legal protection under the several compacts already in place. 

The first step in recognizing climate refugees is to endorse the term under the U.N. Refugee Agency (UNHCR). This recognition is necessary as people are displaced on a global scale, including 1.2 million in Afghanistan and 590,000 in India in 2019. In addition, that same year experienced a total of 2,000 natural disasters causing 24.9 million internal displacements. This record is the highest figure recorded since 2012, and climate change causes approximately three times more displacements

Climate refugees remain virtually invisible inside the international community, with no recognition or legal definition for those displaced by natural causes. However, natural disasters such as floods, drought, heatwaves, and others are predicted to increase in frequency and severity. These disasters impact many of the world’s populations, with a prime example in South Africa. Its reliance on agriculture makes South Africa particularly vulnerable, and reduced crop yields in central and south Asia and climate-induced health problems like malnutrition affect people worldwide. Moreover, an increase in the severity of natural disasters has reduced climate refugees’ likelihood of ever returning to their homes. Therefore, the international community must provide some sort of hope for a better life elsewhere, with pulls attached: whether through social, economic, or environmental benefits.

At the start of 2020, the U.N. Human Rights Committee delivered a decision on a term known as non-refoulment. This determination means that governments cannot return refugees to locations where climate change would threaten them. The ruling is the first step any organization has taken to acknowledge the assistance and protection needed for climate refugees. However, it simply is not enough. The UNFCCC bases its decisions on climate change impacts and policy recommendations researched by the IPCC, which has stated climate change displacement will increase throughout the 21st century. Without defining climate refugees as refugees under international law and providing them protection, people will continue to suffer at the hands of mother nature itself.

Featured Image by Markus Spiske on Unsplash.


  • Cambre Codington

    Cambre Codington is a first-year Master of Public Policy student concentrating in environmental policy and climate change at American University’s School of Public Affairs. She attended Syracuse University in Upstate N.Y., where she graduated with a degree in environmental engineering and environment, sustainability and policy. Currently, Cambre is working as a housing policy intern with Neighborhood Fundamentals LLC, focusing on urban planning and infrastructure policy. In addition, she is also working as a research assistant at American University’s Center for Environmental Policy, researching climate change and sustainability initiatives. In her free time, she enjoys skiing, hanging with friends, working out, and photography.

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