Politicizing Environmental Displacement: A Four-Category Approach to Defining Environmentally Displaced People by Nicole Marshall

Herman Josef Hack’s Kunstaktion with 600 small climate refugee tents in front of the Hannover Central Train Station (translated from the original German caption)

Herman Josef Hack’s Kunstaktion with 600 small climate refugee tents in front of the Hannover Central Train Station (translated from the original German caption)

NICOLE MARSHALL is a doctoral candidate in the department of political science at the University of Alberta in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada. She has presented her work on the ethics of forced environmental migration at a number of international conferences and public talks, and has been the recipient of more than ten awards, including the Queen Elizabeth II Graduate Scholarship and the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council’s Joseph Armand Bombardier Canadian Graduate Research Fellowship. Nicole has also been recognized for excellence in teaching by both the University of Alberta and student groups. She would like to thank her reviewers for their helpful comments on earlier versions of this article.


Despite their rising numbers, people displaced by environmental events receive little formal recognition in international law or policy. This article considers that this may be due, in part, to a failure among the international community—academics, human rights lawyers, and policymakers—to settle on a clear and robust politicized definition of ‘environmentally displaced persons’ built around the circumstances of their displacement. Without a clear definition of environmentally displaced persons that recognizes the deeply political nature of the challenge they present, this article suggests that the international community will be challenged to afford this vulnerable migrant group the rights and recognition they deserve. The article first engages in a brief analysis of the common trends in conceptualizing and defining environmentally displaced people, particularly as they relate to international refugee law. I argue that the dominant trend is to employ a depoliticized or ‘naturalized’ understanding of environmental displacement that does not adequately capture its political complexity. I then offer a four-category, politicized approach to understanding environmental displacement that rejects the unhelpful term “environmental refugee” and seeks to capture both the political drivers and the complexity of human displacement driven by climate change.



The island of Tuvalu is being submerged by rising sea levels. So are the Maldives, the Marshall Islands, Kiribati, and a number of other small island states in the South Pacific.[1] Agricultural land is being lost across Africa and Asia to the spread of drought and desertification; the Gobi desert alone sees an annual expansion of up to 10,000 square kilometers of semi-arable land.[2] Storm activity resulting in massive environmental destruction and loss of life is increasingly becoming part of the new normal worldwide. The massive destruction caused by the 2005 hurricane season in the United States that included Hurricanes Rita and Katrina, and 2013’s Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines, which alone took over 6,300 lives, are clear examples of the destructive effects of environmental disasters.[3] The environment is clearly impacting the living conditions of people worldwide in significant and often violent ways. .

Yet, while these experiences may be more widespread and increasingly common in the modern era,[4] climatic change resulting in migration is not a new phenomenon. Historical examples are numerous: the Eurasian migration of the Huns, Turks, and Mongols from the first millennium BCE through the thirteenth century AD has been linked to general warming trends.[5] The permanent settlement of Europe and the Americas has been linked to the receding of the last glacial period and the emergence of the land bridge across the Bering Strait.[6] The migration associated with the great American ‘Dust Bowl’ across the U.S. states of Colorado, Kansas, New Mexico, Texas, and Oklahoma in the 1930s[7] also provides a well-documented example of environmental displacement.

When considering contemporary environmental displacement, or migration driven primarily by environmental factors,[8] I believe that there are three key historical developments that can assist in conceptualizing today’s associated migration issues and ultimately to define environmentally displaced persons. The first is the increased ability of the sovereign state to strictly regulate migration at and across its borders.[9] The second is the basic calculus of industrialization, rising levels of carbon dioxide, and the resultant climate change that can cause displacement.[10] The third is the knowledge arguably held by the international community[11] that Greenhouse Gas (GHG) emissions affect the rate at which the climate is changing.[12] These developments frame environmental displacement in the contemporary era as an active political challenge in a way that may now make it possible to legally address certain aspects of environmental displacement.

Yet, finding grounds to clearly establish international responsibility to address the challenges of environmental displacement is not without substantial challenges. One of these challenges may stem from the fact that the political nature of environmental displacement is not yet widely recognized or supported in international law or policy. This paper suggests that this lack of political recognition presents a deep and significant challenge to the definition and protection of environmentally displaced persons. International law, in particular, is rooted in a discipline that is challenged to fully conceptualize the political nature of environmental displacement because of its focus on traditional political and institutional causes of forced migration. Therefore, environmentally displaced peoples seem likely to face displacement that falls outside traditional vulnerable migrant pathways as they exist in international law. This political and conceptual problem thus holds significant practical implications: some environmentally displaced peoples may be displaced from their homes without any clear, legal place to go.[13]

In building this argument, the paper begins by recognizing that one of the first and most pressing challenges in addressing environmental displacement is the lack of a clearly articulated and comprehensive definition of environmentally displaced persons. I suggest that such a definition would better enable lawyers, policymakers and academics to fully understand the challenges presented by environmental displacement and to design appropriate responses. To this end, the paper first explores the ways in which environmental displacement has typically been conceptualized in legal and academic arenas, arguing that dominant trends in both tend to employ a depoliticized, or ‘naturalized’ understanding of environmental displacement that does not adequately capture its political complexity. The paper primarily focuses on legal frameworks dealing with refugees[14] to illustrate this point, although similar trends are found throughout other areas of international law and domestic (im)migration policies.[15] Following this, the paper provides a short comment on the Post-Katrina United States as an illustration of some of the consequences of a depoliticized understanding of environmental displacement. Ultimately, the paper offers a four-category approach to conceptualizing and defining environmental displacement as a political problem, which I believe is better suited to underpin the needed legal and policy responses in the international community. The categories I offer are imperative environmentally displaced peoples, pressured environmentally displaced peoples, temporary environmentally displaced peoples, and human-induced environmentally displaced peoples.

The Conceptual Challenges of De-Politicized Environmental Displacement

Perhaps the most contested area of debate over environmental displacement concerns the definition of environmentally displaced persons themselves. There is substantial contention among academics, policymakers, and experts in international law as to who or what distinguishes environmentally displaced persons from those who are traditionally understood as displaced.[16]

This paper puts forward that a helpful place to begin attempting to understand how environmental displacement is conceptualized is to look directly to the environmental factors that can cause human migration: sea level rise, drought and desertification, and extreme weather.[17] Sea-level rise is often understood as being directly related to the expected displacement of entire island populations in the South Pacific; desertification is commonly linked to slow-moving migration in desert regions like sub-Saharan Africa; and extreme weather is often linked to the temporary displacement of storm survivors around the world (with Hurricane Katrina in the United States and Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines being two of the most visible devastations in recent memory). The causes of displacement in each case, however, are also often presented as “natural disasters,” which is where I believe much of the literature misses a key element of climate change: its political nature.[18] This ‘naturalizing’ approach conceptually reduces the driving force of environmental displacement to nature and ‘bad luck,’ nullifying rights claims in the process. Approaches to protection that link environmental science and displacement are capable of capturing many of the ways in which environmental displacement is experienced, but they do not easily support a rational political platform capable of delineating responsibility for addressing climate change.   Therefore, while others in the migration field have linked climate science directly to displacement,[19] this paper highlights why the political calculus involved in both domestic and international climate change policies is significant for establishing a definition for environmentally displaced persons.                                       .

While some contention remains as to the specific details and amounts, there is growing consensus in the scientific community that GHG emissions are linked to global warming and the processes of climate change that are expected to cause mass human displacement. Some academics have connected this fact to responsibility, particularly for Western countries, stemming from industrialization in the early 1900s.[20] However, I believe the clearer calculus lies in economic and environmental policies emerging in a post-Kyoto era, where it cannot be argued that states were unaware of the climatic effects of their political choices. Leaving specific calculations for work elsewhere, here it is sufficient to mention this knowledge because it places a political frame around climate change displacement. Within this frame it can accurately be argued that states supporting policies that have enabled GHG emissions since 1990 have knowingly contributed to the conditions of climate change that are now threatening mass displacement.[21] This is significant, because it can conceptually move experiences of environmental displacement from the arena of displaced persons simply being in the wrong place at the wrong time toward a consideration of a political calculus. This move may offer legal remedies for the displaced related to forms of liability and negligence.

Yet, this is not to suggest that environmental displacement is not currently politicized in any form. The recent documentary Climate Refugees (2010) and a number of text and media sources provide illustrations of some of the primary ways in which the migration of environmentally displaced peoples are increasingly being politicized by the international community, with migrants targeted as security threats to geopolitical stability and domestic immigration controls.[22] This politicization (tied to security), however, is happening alongside a depoliticization of the causes of environmental displacement and any related rights or responsibilities, especially those that could have similarities to refugee rights.

Gaim Kibreab suggests that the very concept of “environmental refugees” may be connected to the agenda of some policymakers in the Global North who seek to further restrict asylum laws and procedures.[23] Kibreab claims that the term was “invented at least in part to depoliticise the causes of displacement, so enabling states to derogate their obligation to provide asylum.”[24]   Current international law does not require states to provide asylum to those who are displaced by environmental degradation, and therefore labeling migrants as environmental refugees enables the governments of the Global North to exclude them from consideration for the protections offered to refugees.[25]   Highlighting the environmental nature of displacement moves the migration experience from one that may trigger claims for asylum and rights under international law to one that legally triggers nothing.                                   .

I agree that environmental migration is widely “depoliticized” in both international law and policy.[26] Yet, Kibreab’s reasoning does not entirely fit with the thrust of the developing literature on forced environmental migration. For example, Richard Black argues that Kibreab’s analysis does not correspond with the fact that much of the academic literature on the migration of environmentally displaced persons argues for an extension of asylum law and/or humanitarian assistance to include them (indicating a clear realization that these persons are not considered refugees, or protected as such), not its contraction or their exclusion.[27] Overall Kibreab’s claim would stand up better if the bulk of the academic literature on defining environmental displacement consistently endorsed a differentiation between the political or economic causes of migration and those resulting exclusively from environmental factors, rather than conceptually conflating the two, as academics such as Norman Myers, Andrew Simms, and others tend to do.[28] Therefore, while I agree with much of Kibreab’s analysis, I suggest that part of the reason that we might see a depoliticization (and rejection) of environmentally displaced peoples’ rights is that the environment is often conceptually understood as a ‘natural’ element. To illustrate this point, I will look to specific examples in international law.

Environmentally Displaced Peoples and International Refugee Law

International and Regional Refugee Law: Environmental Displacement as Political Displacement

I believe the basic conceptual challenge I have highlighted is most evident in the relationship between environmentally displaced peoples and the discourse and documents of refugee law. Here, I will show that while the refugee is conceptualized politically as a function of the state and its actions or inactions, environmentally displaced persons are not conceptualized by this logic, despite having some similar practical experiences.[29]

Under international law, there is no clear definition of environmentally displaced persons. There is, however, case law which clearly tells us what environmentally displaced peoples are not: refugees.[30] Indeed, human rights scholars tend to agree that the term environmental refugee is legally misleading, if not also detrimental to both the status and availability of rights made available to Convention refugees.[31] The problem with extending refugee status to environmentally displaced persons can be found in the politicized, state-centered understanding of “persecution” under the 1951 Refugee Convention definition, which does not encompass environmental events. Yet, as the reader will see, the conceptual divide regarding the definition of persecution is not entirely justifiable due to states’ continued commitment to policies that perpetuate GHG emissions and, thus, accelerate climate change and migration.[32] The widespread depoliticized understanding of environmental displacement enables this false dichotomy while conceptually naturalizing the displacement experience and reducing it to bad luck.

Teitiota v. The Chief Executive of the Ministry of Business Innovation and Employment (NZHC 3125 [26 November 2013] presents a clear example of what I call the depoliticized framing of environmental displacement based in international law, which positions the environment as a passive, naturalized, displacing factor, and persecution as an act that can only be imagined as related to the state’s action or inaction. This precedent-setting 2013 case involved Iaone Teitiota seeking refugee status in New Zealand for himself and his family on the grounds that his home, Kiribati, was unfit for return due to rising sea levels and increasing salination. This case was the first of its kind to rule on the legal standing of environmentally displaced persons under international law.[33] In his ruling, Justice Priestly significantly noted that the legal definition of refugee is not limited to the one offered in the 1951 Refugee Convention, but can be expanded and defined as “a person driven from his or her home to seek refuge, especially in a foreign country, from war, religious persecution, political troubles, natural disaster, etc.”[34] Nonetheless, he found that he was unable to grant refugee status to Teitiota because of the Convention’s strict definition of “persecution,” a factor required for legal refugee status, which is defined as “the sustained or systemic violation of basic human rights demonstrative of a failure of state protection.”[35] Thus, while Justice Priestly recognized that climatic disasters could cause refugee-like displacement, they cannot trigger refugee rights under international law because the persecution threshold is not met.

Teitiota v. The Chief Executive of the Ministry of Business Innovation and Employment is not the only example of the possible depoliticization of environmental migration supported by international refugee law. Regional frameworks also raise similar questions about how persecution, disturbance, or threat, define who can and cannot be classified as a refugee or protected person. The OAU Convention, for instance, defines refugees as people who are displaced by “events seriously disturbing the public order,” which has raised questions as to whether this may include natural disasters or other environmental processes.[36] Edwards, for one, is unconvinced that states utilizing the OAU Convention would have an interpretation that environmentally displaced persons are refugees.[37] This, Edwards claims, is because states rarely declare their intent to act pursuant to their OAU Convention obligations when accepting or rejecting refugee claims and because the general practice of hosting environmentally displaced people would rather be likely to be seen as contributing to the development of temporary protection on humanitarian grounds under customary law.[38] [39] According to Walter Kälin, the same challenge would likely apply to the Cartagena Declaration.[40] Article III defines refugees as having “fled their country because their lives, safety, or freedom have been threatened by generalized violence, foreign aggression, internal conflicts, massive violation of human rights or other circumstances which have seriously disrupted the public order.” Kälin highlights the difficulty in pinpointing climate change as the primary motivator in a sufficiently meaningful way so as to be able to consistently and reliably extend refugee rights to environmentally displaced persons.[41]

Jane McAdam further points to the key difference between the 1951 Refugee Convention and regional documents like the OAC Convention and the Cartagena Declaration, in regard to their primary failing as potential protection documents for environmentally displaced persons. While the former “assesses the risk of potential future harm, both regional instruments seem to require evidence of an actual threat; protection is premised on having already been compelled to leave because of it.”[42] She therefore argues that their ability to offer pre-emptive migration protection is limited.[43]

By my own analysis, the framing of both of these regional documents further serves to illustrate the depoliticized (or naturalized) conceptualization of the environment in international law, where legitimate displacement is understood primarily as a political failing of the state that has resulted in (politically-framed) civil disorder. This point underscores the importance of the political framing of environmental displacement to clearly conceptualize the challenge environmentally displaced peoples present to the international community. In many ways, we can clearly understand environmental displacement as a deeply political experience, conceptually similar to that of political displacement: people are displaced due to circumstances that are largely beyond their control, but which can be traced to action/inaction on the part of the international community (particularly, as noted, since 1990). Yet, where Kibreab might locate the protection problem in the adding of ‘non-political’ migrants to a politically-defined group with access to protection (refugees), I offer that the protection problem may lie in the failure to recognize, or the ambition to obscure, the political nature of environmental displacement as it exists today. Even in a case where the intellectual separation between ‘political’ and ‘non-political’ causes of displacement is challenged (Teitota), the international community fails to offer protected status.

Rejecting Refugee Discourse for Environmentally Displaced Peoples

Despite the fact that the ‘environmental refugee’ does not legally command refugee status, the term still holds a commanding presence in the field.[44] The term ‘environmental refugee’ may be seductive, as Kibreab suggests, because it can be used to limit protections,[45] but perhaps also because refugee status holds substantial weight in international law and policy due to its associations with a comprehensive set of special rights and protections.[46] The challenge with an approach that adheres a position of limited protection (environmentally displaced person) to one that has an established set of protections (refugee), as we have seen, is that the practical conditions of environmental displacement do not actually align with the legal definition of a Convention refugee. Thus, terms like ‘environmental refugee’ can lead to legal and political confusion regarding the rights offered to environmentally displaced persons. This may lead to a notion of environmentally displaced persons where the multifaceted nature of this kind of displacement is problematically collapsed into one which is only capable of understanding a small portion of the environmentally displaced: those who are cross-border migrants.[47] This is particularly problematic because the vast majority of environmentally displaced persons do not, or are not able to, leave their countries of origin.[48] By attempting to create a linkage between environmental migrants and refugees, it is only made clearer that even if environmentally displaced peoples were included under the 1951 Refugee Convention, more than half would be left without sufficient protection.

Recognizing that prescribing refugee rights for environmentally displaced persons would be inadequate, McAdam has argued that a collaborative approach would be better suited to protect their rights. She argues that existing laws are largely sufficient to protect people displaced by environmental causes, under a combination of the 1951 Refugee Convention, the Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement, international environmental law, regional refugee instruments such as the 1969 Organization for African Unity Convention and the 1984 Cartagena Declaration, and international humanitarian law, particularly as it applies to disaster response.[49] Yet, even here, this approach misses an opportunity to highlight international responsibility: in as much as climate change can be clearly understood as having a political, causal element since 1990, environmental displacement resulting from the processes of climate change should be understood as a political problem, encapsulated by political responsibility. Underscoring McAdam’s concerns, this approach further lends itself to the logic of liability in the legal profession, which is capable of supporting legal rights claims where ‘natural’ disasters, or ‘bad luck,’ are political rather than natural events.

Rejecting Concepts, Rejecting People: Some Consequences of Depoliticization for Environmentally Displaced Peoples

Beyond the legal and conceptual challenges of defining environmental displacement as political, the challenges of enacting protections are also significant. To date, most industrialized states have done little to recognize the challenge of protecting any set of rights for environmentally displaced persons.[50] The same can be said of a number of international organizations, such as the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (UNHCR) and the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre (IDMC), neither of which accept responsibility for the protection or monitoring of environmentally displaced peoples.[51] There are several possible explanations for their lack of action, including a lack of resources or lack of consensus as to who, specifically, should receive recognition as environmentally displaced persons.[52] After all, almost all instances of environmental displacement are exacerbated by the challenges presented by poverty,[53] race,[54] gender,[55] or other experiences of marginalization. When coupled with the perseverance of inaccurate, over-simplified, or even well-meaning ‘environmental refugee’ discourse, the extension of suitable rights or recognition to environmentally displaced persons becomes an increasingly difficult and ambiguous task.

Environmentally displaced persons experience the consequences of the discord over the definition of environmental displacement. One particularly distressing example of an ineffective “collaborative approach”[56] to dealing with environmental displacement and environmentally displaced persons, suggested to varying degrees by both the UN and scholars like McAdam, is the United States’ efforts to avoid labelling Hurricane Katrina survivors as internally displaced persons (IDPs).[57] Cohen argues, and I agree, that a lack of political will on the part of the United States’ government to recognize that the global nature of environmental displacement could include their own population accounts for some of this ineffectiveness. I also suggest that the ineffectiveness of the collaborative approach is significantly enabled by a depoliticization of environmental displacement by the international community.

In 2005 Hurricane Katrina made landfall in the southern United States, causing massive destruction, killing more than 1,800 people, and displacing countless more.[58][59] After the devastation, the United States’ government “settled on every possible description of those uprooted by Hurricane Katrina except IDPs,”[60] according to Cohen’s study following media and official governmental releases. She found that Katrina survivors were described as “evacuees,” “disaster victims,” and even “refugees,” (here, depoliticized due to the obvious misuse of the term). Such framing naturalized and depoliticized the cause of their displacement. According to Cohen, this depoliticization was related to the American government’s conceptual view that displaced peoples are not produced in their own developed and democratic country, but are rather the result of conflict elsewhere in the world.[61] Further, the United States’ discursively depoliticized approach may not have been as widely criticized by the international community as were other problematic aspects of their reaction to the crisis,[62] because Katrina survivors did not clearly fit the common international conception of displaced people as those whose migration is the result of political state action or inaction, or civil unrest.[63] This point further underlines the ineffectiveness of assigning traditional labels in the context of environmental migration, in part due to the discursive baggage associated with them (i.e. the notion that IDPs do not exist in developed countries). Furthermore, the failure to recognize environmental displacement as internal displacement effectively shielded the treatment of these environmental IDPs from international scrutiny and monitoring: a point which Cohen argues contributed to their poor treatment and limited access to funding and mobility support.[64]

The United States is not unique in its treatment of environmental displacement. For example, the government of Canada has similarly failed to recognize the environment as a rights-triggering form of displacement in the north, where indigenous peoples’ traditional lifestyles are increasingly threatened by climatic warming and melting ice, including their effects on food security.[65] In northern Europe (particularly, Sweden, Norway, Finland, and Denmark), environmental events are more commonly recognized as factors that may cause human displacement in domestic immigration policies. [66] Yet, even where the environment is politically recognized as a legitimate cause of displacement, this recognition triggers no special rights beyond a stay of deportation for environmentally displaced peoples.[67] Again, much like in Teitiota v The Chief Executive of the Ministry of Business Innovation and Employment (2013), the lack of protection rights in these policies seem to indicate a conceptual disconnect between the causes and consequences of displacement.

Separating environmentally displaced persons from mobility rights under international law and downplaying their displacement diminishes their human dignity as they struggle to adapt to climate change and its effects. It is my contention that steps need to be taken which address the issue of environmental displacement directly, as a political challenge that demands a specific political and legal response. A collaborative approach drawing from existing legal or policy perspective leaves too many protection gaps which can result in the suffering of vulnerable environmentally displaced persons due to an inaccurate framing of the political and responsibility-triggering nature of environmental displacement. In response, I propose a four-category conceptualization of environmental displacement that makes room for the complexities of this displacement without depoliticizing its rights-bearing capacity.

Proposing a Definition: A Four-Category Conceptualization of Environmentally Displaced Peoples

Too many concurrent definitions of environmental displacement have often lead to the adoption of a simplified understanding of the problem that either excludes or conflates key differences in experience and fails to incorporate the political nature of displacement. Other definitions, such as that of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), define environmental refugees[68] in a way that is so general as to do little to accurately conceptualize the causes and consequences of displacement, nor to support a legal responsibility to environmentally displaced persons. This and other similar definitions[69] ultimately fail to support appropriate policy or legal resolutions. In response, I offer a four-category conceptualization of the challenge presented by environmentally displaced peoples, framed by the political nature of climate change discussed above. This is fundamentally different than the current naturalized understanding of environmental displacement, which does not easily translate into international law.[70]

Imperative Environmentally Displaced Peoples. Imperative Environmentally Displaced Peoples are people who are or will be permanently and irrefutably displaced from their homes and/or livelihoods primarily as a result of anthropogenic climate change. These environmental factors are not natural, but can be at least in part directly tied to human activity, particularly that of industrialized states.[71] The threat to small island states like Tuvalu or Kiribati, expected to be submerged this century at the current rate of sea level rise, will clearly establish a need for such a recognized category of migrant. This group will have the strongest claim for receiving a distinct set of protection rights that would, minimally, be similar to those of current refugees, as the situation of their displacement necessitates that another state accept them as residents. Legally speaking, an argument highlighting persecution resulting from the relationship between industrialization and climate change may be required to set aside these rights. Challenges related to the protection of such a category of environmentally displaced persons include ensuring that this displaced group not be focused on to the exclusion of others, nor be tied too heavily to pre-existing refugee definitions.

Pressured Environmentally Displaced Peoples. This category easily forms the largest and most problematic group of environmentally displaced people. As a result of slow-moving but devastating anthropogenic climate change many people are pressured to migrate in order to sustain basic living requirements. This category would include residents of Tunisia, Libya, Morocco, or China, who live along the border regions such as the Gobi desert, where land is suffering from the effects of desertification and subsistence agriculture is no longer a way to achieve food security. These migrants face significant challenges in securing migration rights because of their numbers and a difficulty in distinguishing their circumstances from those of economic migrants, who receive no protective rights related to their migration. The politicization of environmental displacement is necessary to distinguish this category as environmentally displaced peoples, in such a way as to create legal responsibility, without which it is likely that their access to international recognition and rights will be stymied. Further, while the number of migrants in this category is enormous, most will likely remain within their current borders and would primarily need adaptation support to improve their access to sustainability.[72]

Temporary Environmentally Displaced Peoples. Survivors of Hurricanes Katrina or Rita in the United States, or those of the 2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami,[73] are examples of peoples who have experienced environmental displacement resulting from a severe environmental weather event. The severity of the event, and the condition of infrastructure and financial support available to return living conditions to pre-event status (or habitable conditions) are factors that will all significantly affect how “temporary” the absence of these environmentally displaced persons must be. Domestic political emergency preparedness policies also affect the level of risk associated with displacement in many cases. (For example, levees.org has levied serious critique at the United States’ government for failing to build adequate levees in New Orleans, even after Hurricane Katrina.) It should also be recognized that the longer the period of time over which migrants are displaced, the less likely it may be that they will want to return home, as a result of having set down new roots, found new (and potentially more sustainable and/or profitable) employment, and/or re-built their lives. In cases of cross-border temporary displacement, it will be important to be wary of the problems currently faced by ‘voluntary’ repatriation under the refugee regime.[74]                               .

Human-induced Environmentally Displaced Peoples. This category would classify residents displaced from their homes as a result of human conflict over environmental resources. Those forced to migrate as a result of conflicts over diamond extraction in the countries of Sierra Leone, Angola, Liberia, Ivory Coast, or the Democratic Republic of Congo could be located in this category of environmentally displaced persons. This category, if recognized, could also hold substantial implications for persons displaced as a result of conflicts over water and food. Human-induced Environmentally Displaced Peoples seem less likely to face the same conceptual challenges as the previous three categories, because human-induced displacement is largely politically recognized under the international protection regime.

Delineating and awarding protection to environmentally displaced persons in each of these categories presents unique challenges. While none of these categories are clear-cut or without complications, we should remember that more than 25 million people are currently displaced at least in part by environmental events, with their numbers expected to rise sharply into the future.[75] Therefore, this area of protection is clearly one worthy of further consideration in the international community, and worth defining explicitly. Indeed, whether one advocates a new and comprehensive protection regime for environmentally displaced peoples, an overlapping protection regime, or a focus on domestic migration policies to protect their rights as vulnerable migrants, a clear definition will be a strong asset.


This article has argued that the lack of a clear understanding of the political nature of environmental displacement presents serious challenges in securing sufficient rights for environmentally displaced people under international law and policy. There is substantial discord among academics, experts in international human rights law, and policymakers worldwide as to what constitutes environmental displacement and how the challenges it presents should be addressed. Neither major international organization tasked with the protection of vulnerable migrant groups (the UNHCR or IDMC) accepts responsibility for their protection in their mandate, nor does international law offer a clear legal resolution to their plight. Where regional recognition of the challenge exists – particularly in the African Union – little has been accomplished in terms of securing rights or protection in an international context due, in part, to what I have argued is a depoliticized understanding of environmental displacement on the part of the international community. The primary response from the international community has been to take a collaborative approach, but this approach fails to fully grasp the political nature of environmental displacement and allows too many gaps in protection.

In response, this article has put forth four politically-framed categories of environmentally displaced persons for consideration. Ultimately, these categories offer a political understanding of environmental displacement that this article has argued is necessary to support appropriate responses in law and policy, and to avoid severe social and political justice failings as the number of environmentally displaced peoples continues to rise.

[1] Terry Collins, “As Ranks of “Environmental Refugees” Swell Worldwide, Calls Grow for Better Definition, Recognition, Support” (UNU-EHS, 2005.), http://www.ehs.unu.edu/file/get/3916.

[2] Norman Myers, “Environmental Refugees: A Growing Phenomenon of the 21st Century,” Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences 357 (1420): 609-613.

[3] “Typhoon Haiyan/Yolanda Fact Sheet #22,” USAID, accessed 10 December 2014, http://www.usaid.gov/haiyan/fy14/fs22.

[4] Bogumil Terminski “Environmentally-Induced Displacement. Theoretical Frameworks and Current Challenges” (Geneva: CEDEM, 2012), accessed 13 April 2015, http://www.cedem.ulg.ac.be/wp-content/uploads/2012/09/Environmentally-Induced-Displacement-Terminski-1.pdf

[5] B. van Geel, N.A. Bokovenko, N.D. Burova, K.V. Chugunov, V.A. Dergachev, V.G. Dirksen, and M. Kulkova, “Climate Change And The Expansion Of The Scythian Culture After 850 BC: A Hypothesis,” Journal Of Archaeological Science 31/4 (2004): 1735-1742; N. Bokovenko, “Migrations of Early Nomads In The Eurasian Steppe In A Context Of Climatic Changes,” Impacts of The Environment On Human Migration In Eurasia, (Dordrecht: Kluwer Academic Publishers, 2004), 21-33; Bas. van Geel, “PACT 51- Coastal Estonia. Recent Advances in Environmental and Cultural History” Review Of Palaeobotany And Palynology 102 (1998): 313-314.

[6] Clive Ponting, A New Green History of the World, (New York: Penguin Books, 2007).

[7] Ethan Goffman, “Environmental Refugees: How Many, How Bad?,” CSA Discovery Guides June (2006).

[8] There has been debate in the field over what constitutes environmental migration (see, especially, Black 2001). This article accepts the basic premise that to be considered environmental migration, the migration must be driven primarily as a result of environmental factors, as the reader will see. However, it also recognizes a challenge on this point, as clearly delineating environmental factors from other drivers of migration – especially economic ones – is exceedingly difficult (see Jane McAdam, Climate Change, Forced Migration, and International Law, (Toronto: OUP, 2012); Richard Black, “Environmental Refugees: Myth or Reality?,” UNHCR Working Paper no. 34 (2001). For this reason, this article seeks to apply a contemporary political frame in conceptualizing the problem in relation to anthropogenic climate change.

[9] In general, see Michael S. Teitelbaum and Myron Weiner (Eds.), Threatened Peoples, Threatened Borders, (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1995); in the context of environmental displacement, see Gregory White, Climate Change and Migration, (Toronto: Oxford University Press, 2011); or, Étienne Piguet, Antoine Pécoud, and Paul de Guchteneire (Eds.) Migration and Climate Change, (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2011)

[10] Edmond A Mathez and Jason E Smerdon, Climate Change, (New York: Columbia University Press, 2009); also, Stephen Gardiner “Ethics and Global Climate Change” in Climate Ethics, Stephen M. Gardiner, Simon Caney, Dale Jamieson, and Henry Shue Eds, (Toronto: Oxford University Press, 2012: 3-37)

[11] Particularly after 1900 and the widespread signing of the Kyoto Protocol.

[12] Admittedly, there remains some debate as to the level of human involvement in affecting the current conditions of climate change. My point here, however, is that there is sufficient scientific evidence to support the thesis that human involvement can be said to have contributed, to some degree, to what may or may not have otherwise been a ‘natural’ period of warming.

[13] See, for example, Environmental News Service. “Pacific Island Villagers Become Climate Change Refugees”. http://www.ens-newswire.com/ens/dec2005/2005-12-06-02.html. 2005.

[14] This framework is arguably the most related framework, at least for cross-border environmentally displaced persons. See Matthew Lister, “Climate Change Refugees,” Critical Review of International Social and Political Philosophy 17, no.5 (September 3, 2014): 618-34.

[15]For example, see Temporary Protected Status, Immigration Reform [United States] (1990); Temporary Protection Directive [European Commission] (2001); Qualification Directive [European Commission] (2004, renewed 2011); National Disaster Housing Strategy [United States] (2009); National Disaster Recovery Framework [United States] (2011); Aliens Act [Finland] (2004 and amendments); Aliens Act [Sweden] (2005 and amendments); among others, all of which naturalize the role of the environment in terms of its displacing capabilities. More below.

[16] See Jane McAdam, “Swimming Against The Tide: Why A Climate Change Displacement Treaty Is Not The Answer,” International Journal of Refugee Law 23 (2011): 2-27; Jane McAdam, Environmental Migration Governance. Research Paper No. 2009-1. UNSW Law. http://ssrn.com/abstract=1412002; Jane McAdam, Climate Change and Displacement, (Oxford: Hart Publishing, 2010).; Jane McAdam, Climate Change, Forced Migration, and International Law, (Toronto: OUP, 2012); Jane McAdam, Climate Change Displacement And International Law: Complementary Protection Standards. UNHCR: Division of Internal Protection, 2011, http://www.unhcr.org/4dff16e99.pdf.; Jane McAdam, “Conceptualizing Climate Change-Related Movement’. (proceedings of the Annual Meeting of American Society of International Law, 2011), 433-436; Jane McAdam and Ben Saul, “An Insecure Climate For Human Security? Climate-Induced Displacement And International Law,” Sydney Centre For Law Working paper, 2009, http://sydney.edu.au/law/scil/documents/2009/SCILWP4_Final.pdf; Gaim Kibreab. “Environmental Causes and Impact of Refugee Movements: A Critique of the Current Debate,” Disasters 21 (1997): 20-38; Richard Black, “Environmental Refugees: Myth or Reality?,” UNHCR Working Paper no. 34 (2001); Jon Martin Trolldalen, Nina Borgen, and P.T. Scott, “Environmental Refugees: A Discussion Paper,” (Oslo: World Foundation for Environment and Development and Norwegian Refugee Council, 1992); A. Suhrke, “Pressure Points: Environmental Degradation, Migration And Conflict,” (Fantoft-Bergen, Norway: Chr. Michelsen Institute, 1992); A. Suhrke, “Pressure Points: Environmental Degradation, Migration And Conflict’. (Occasional Paper Series Of The Project On Environmental Change And Acute Conflict, 3:31 (1993). Toronto and Cambridge: University of Toronto and American Academy of Arts and Sciences.; or, A. Suhrke, “Environmental Degradation and Population Flows,” Journal of International Affairs 47 (1994): 473-496; Stephen Castles and Mark J Miller, The Age of Migration, (Basingstoke [u.a.]: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005).; or Stephen Castles, Nicholas Van Hear, Jo Boyden, Jason Hart, Christian Wolff, and Paul Ryder, Developing DFID’s Policy Approach to Refugees and Internally Displaced Persons, (Oxford: Refugee Studies Centre, 2005).

[17]Mathez and Smerdon, Climate Change; Gardiner “Ethics and Global Climate Change”

[18] François Gemenne has recently argued that the depoliticization and “de-victimisation” of environmental migration has enabled the international community to view this type of migration as a “commodity” that could be solved through environmental policy, rather than as a political problem tied to industrialised countries (see Gemenne, “One good reason to speak of ‘climate refugees’,” Forced Migration Review 49 (2015): 70-71). In response, he advocates for an embrace of the term “climate refugee” or “environmental refugee” to politically frame the experience of environmental displacement by recognizing climate-induced migration as persecution. While I recognize and agree with his diagnosis, I am unconvinced of the effectiveness of applying the term “refugee” to the experience of environmental displacement. I am unconvinced precisely because of the deeply-rooted, historic political framing of refugee status, which I believe cannot easily be – indeed, should not be – severed from its current legal understanding. I also note the cross-border limitations that using the term refugee has when seeking to recognize internally displaced environmental migrants. While I agree that the depoliticization of environmental displacement has enabled the international community to avoid its responsibilities to environmentally displaced peoples, I advocate for a particularized, political conceptualization of environmental displacement through the definitions proposed in the final section of this paper.

[19] For example, see El-Hinnawi, “Environmental Refugees”; McAdam, “Conceptualizing Climate Change-Related Movement’; Black “Environmental Refugees: Myth or Reality?”; or Kibreab, “Environmental Causes and Impact of Refugee Movements: A Critique of the Current Debate, ” A. Suhrke, “Environmental Degradation and Population Flows,” Journal of International Affairs 47 (1994): 473-496; or El-Hinnawi, “Environmental Refugees,” (Nairobi: United Nations Environment Programme, 1984).

[20] Raphael Narwrotzki. “Climate Change and Moral Responsibility,” Ethics, Policy, and Environment 17 (March 2014): 69-87.

[21] See also Johnson, “Ethics, Public Policy, And Global Warming”.

[22] Climate Refugees. 2010. Film. Michael Nash. Also see: Thomas Homer-Dixon. ‘Environmental Scarcities And Violent Conflict: Evidence From Cases’. International Security 19 (1994): 5; Millennium, Project. 2011. ‘Environmental Threat Matrix’. Millennium-Project.Org. http://www.millennium-project.org/millennium/es-3thr.html.

[23] Kibreab. “Environmental Causes and Impact of Refugee Movements: A Critique of the Current Debate,”

[24] Kibreab. “Environmental Causes and Impact of Refugee Movements: A Critique of the Current Debate,” 21, italics added

[25] Kibreab. “Environmental Causes and Impact of Refugee Movements: A Critique of the Current Debate,” 21-22.

[26] For example, see TEITIOTA v THE CHIEF EXECUTIVE OF THE MINISTRY OF BUSINESS INNOVATION AND EMPLOYMENT [2013] NZHC 3125 [26 November 2013] ; Organization of African Unity Convention (1969); the Cartegena Declaration (1984); Temporary Protected Status, Immigration Reform [United States] (1990); Temporary Protection Directive [European Commission] (2001); Qualification Directive [European Commission] (2004, renewed 2011); National Disaster Housing Strategy [United States] (2009); National Disaster Recovery Framework [United States] (2011); Aliens Act [Finland] (2004 and amendments); Aliens Act [Sweden] (2005 and amendments); among others, all of which naturalize the environment in terms of its displacing capabilities.

[27] Black. “Environmental Refugees: Myth or Reality?” 11-12; also see Trolldalen et al. “Environmental Refugees: A Discussion Paper,” 23.

[28] Also see CRIDEAU and CRDP. 2008. Draft Convention On The International Status Of Environmentally-Displaced Persons. , University of Limoges: Revue Européene de Droit de l’Environnement; Bonnie Docherty and Tyler Giannini, “Confronting a Rising Tide: A Proposal for a Convention on Climate Change Refugees,” Harvard Environmental Law Review 33 (2009): 349, 350, 373.; or ‘A Convention for Persons Displaced by Climate Change’

[29] See Lister “Climate Change Refugees” on the similarities between environmentally displaced peoples (particularly those from ‘sinking’ island states) and refugees.

[30] Teitiota v MBIE [2013] NZHC 3125 [26 November 2013].

[31] See McAdam “Swimming Against The Tide: Why A Climate Change Displacement Treaty Is Not The Answer;” Lister, “Climate Change Refugees”; or, McAdam, Climate Change, Forced Migration, and International Law for an excellent discussion.

[32] Jamieson, ‘Ethics, Public Policy, And Global Warming’; Mathez and Smerdon, Climate Change; Gardiner “Ethics and Global Climate Change”.

[33] This decision was passed in New Zealand, and was the first of its kind. In this, it had the capacity to set precedent among common law states (New Zealand, Australia, Canada, and the United States often draw precedent from each other legal decision-making, as is common for states of the historical British Commonwealth: see “The Impact of Foreign Law on Domestic Judgments,” Law Library of Congress (2015), http://www.loc.gov/law/help/domestic-judgment/index.php).

[34] Teitiota v. MBIE 2013, 9.

[35] Teitiota v. MBIE 2013, 8.

[36] Alice Edwards. ‘Refugee Status Determination in Africa’. African Journal of International and Comparative Law 14 (2006): 225-7; James C. Hathaway. The Law of Refugee Status. (Butterworths 1991); Walter Kälin. ‘Conceptualising Climate-Induced Displacement’. In Climate Change and Displacement: Multidisciplinary Perspectives, (Portland, Oregon: Hart Publishing, 2010).

[37] Edwards ‘Refugee Status Determination in Africa’, 225-227.

[38] Edwards ‘Refugee Status Determination in Africa’, 227.

[39] Jane McAdam tends to agree, holding little faith in regional conventions to consistently provide reliable protection for EDPs (see Jane McAdam, Climate Change, Forced Migration, and International Law, (Toronto: OUP, 2012), 49).

[40] Kälin. ‘Conceptualising Climate-Induced Displacement’, 88-89.

[41] Kälin. ‘Conceptualising Climate-Induced Displacement’, 88-89.

[42] McAdam, Climate Change, Forced Migration, and International Law, 49.

[43] McAdam, Climate Change, Forced Migration, and International Law, 49.

[44]For example, see Lister “Climate Change Refugees”; or Diane C. Bates, “’Environmental Refugees? Classifying Human Migrations Caused By Environmental Change,” Population and Environment 23 (2002): 465-477.

[45] Kibreab. “Environmental Causes and Impact of Refugee Movements: A Critique of the Current Debate,” 21-22.

[46] Particularly, see Bates, “’Environmental Refugees? Classifying Human Migrations Caused By Environmental Change”.

[47] See Black, “Environmental Refugees: Myth or Reality”; McAdam , Climate Change, Forced Migration, and International Law.

[48] International Organisation for Migration and Refugee Policy Group. 1992. Migration and The Environment. Geneva and Washington, DC: IOM/RPG.

[49] McAdam “Swimming Against The Tide: Why A Climate Change Displacement Treaty Is Not The Answer,”; McAdam, Climate Change, Forced Migration, and International Law. An exception here, drawn from the latter source is with regards to pre-emptive migration.

[50] To date, only a small number of states have directly sought to address the challenge of environmental displacement through legislation (particularly: Sweden, Norway, and Finland lead this group). The Nansen Initiative has sought change through the development of a state-led, intergovernmental response to what it recognizes as a protection gap for Environmentally Displaced Peoples (Nansen 2015). It was launched in 2012 by Switzerland and Norway with the goal of building consensus around a Protection Agenda to address the needs, of cross-border EDPs in particular, specifically by building from a series of intergovernmental and civil society consultations in the Pacific, Central America, the Horn of Africa, Southeast Asia, and South Asia (Nansen 2015). The results of their findings are currently being consolidated, and are planned for global intergovernmental consultation in Geneva, in October 2015 (Nansen 2015).

[51] See Sheila Murray, “Environmental Migrants And Canada’s Refugee Policy,” Refuge 27 (2011): 89-102.

[52] For example, in 2004 McNamara conducted a set of 45 interviews with United Nations ambassadors and senior diplomats regarding “environmental refugees.” Her research revealed that as a result of a general lack of discursive consensus, common language and shared definitions, the issue of forced environmental migration was pushed to the periphery of UN discussions and policy initiatives, as key members felt unable or unwilling to take on such a large and undefined problem (Karen Elizabeth McNamara. ‘Conceptualizing Discourses on Environmental Refugees At The United Nations’. Population And Environment 29 (2007): 12-24).

[53] See, for example, Alisson Flâvio Barbieri and Ulisses E.C. Confalsonieri, “Climate change, migration, and heal in Brazil,” in Étienne Piguet, Antointe Pécoud, and Paul de Guchteneire (Eds.) Migration and Climate Change: 49-73; or, Allan Findlay and Alistair Geddes, “Critical views on the relationship between climate change and migration some insights from the experience of Bangladesh,” in Étienne Piguet, Antointe Pécoud, and Paul de Guchteneire (Eds.) Migration and Climate Change: 138-159.

[54] Sarah R. Lowe, Kara Lustig, and Helen B. Marrow, “African American Women’s Reports of Racism during Hurricane Katrina,” New School Psychology Bulletin. 8(2) (2011): 46–57.

[55] Lori M. Hunter and Emmanuel David, “Displacement, climate change, and gender,” in Étienne Piguet, Antointe Pécoud, and Paul de Guchteneire (Eds.) Migration and Climate Change: 306-330.

[56] Particularly, between the UNHCR and IDMC, but also suggested on for international law by McAdam Climate Change, Forced Migration, and International Law.

[57] Roberta Cohen, “For Disaster IDPs: An Institutional Gap,” The Brookings Institution, 2008. http://www.brookings.edu/opinions/2008/0808_natural_disasters_cohen.aspx#_ftn2.

[58] The Federal Emergency Management Fund received applications for assistance from over 700,000 families and individuals following Hurricane Katrina.

[59] Times-Picayune, September 26, 2005, page A-12. Retrieved on 2006-06-05.

[60] Roberta Cohen, “For Disaster IDPs: An Institutional Gap,” The Brookings Institution, 2008. http://www.brookings.edu/opinions/2008/0808_natural_disasters_cohen.aspx#_ftn2.

[61] Cohen, “For Disaster IDPs: An Institutional Gap”.

[62] It should be noted that general critiques were laid on the United States’ government for their lack of emergency preparedness, as well as the racialized, economic, and gendered effects of their response (see Jean Ait Belkhir and Christiane Charlemaine “Race, Gender, and Class Lessons from Hurricane Katrina,” Race, Gender & Class 14 (2007): 120-152; also notes xliv, xlvii).

[63] Also see Romain Huret, “Explaining the Unexplainable: Hurricane Katrina, FEMA, and the Bush Administration” in Hurricane Katrina in Transatlantic Perspective. Eds. Romain Huret and Randy J. Sparks (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2014): 38-49.

[64] Cohen, “For Disaster IDPs: An Institutional Gap”.

[65] For example, see: James D. Ford, “Vulnerability of Inuit food systems to food insecurity as a consequence of climate change: a case study from Igloolik Nunavut,” Regional Environmental Change 9 (2009): 83-100; James D. Fors, Tristan Pearce, Frank Duerden, Chris Furgal, and Barry Smit, “Climate change policy responses for Canada’s Inuit population: The importance of and opportunities for adaptation,” Global Environmental Change 20 (2010): 177-191.

[66] See Vikram Kolmannskog and Finn Myrstad, Environmental Displacement in European Asylum Law, Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, 2009, http://www.nrc.no/arch/_img/9429378.pdf.

[67] Temporary Protection Directive [European Commission] (2001); Qualification Directive [European Commission] (2004, renewed 2011); Aliens Act [Finland] (2004 and amendments); Aliens Act [Sweden] (2005 and amendments); Kolmannskog and Myrstad, Environmental Displacement in European Asylum Law.

[68] “people who have been forced to leave their traditional habitat, temporarily or permanently, because of marked environmental disruption (natural and/or triggered by people) that jeopardized their existence and/or seriously affected the quality of their life.” El-Hinnawi, “Environmental Refugees”.

[69] Particularly, see Myers “Environmental Refugees: A Growing Phenomenon of the 21st Century”

[70] McAdam, Climate Change, Forced Migration, and International Law.

[71] See Mathez and Smerdon, Climate Change.

[72] Given the choice, an overwhelming majority of potential environmentally displaced persons do not wish to leave their countries of origin (see, for example, http://www.cbc.ca/thecurrent/episode/2013/10/28/should-international-law-recognize-climate-change-refugees/)

[73] There is increasing evidence that tsunamis are linked to climate change, where temperature changes in ocean currents disrupt otherwise stable ocean fault lines, or cause underwater avalanches (see “Climate Change And Tsunamis: Ice Melt May Cause Underwater Avalanches, Research Shows,” Huffington Post 16 August 2013. Accessed 25 May 2015 from http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/08/16/climate-change-tsunamis_n_3769200.html).

[74] See B.S. Chimni, ”From resettlement to involuntary repatriation: Towards a Critical History of Durable Solutions to Refugee Problems” Refugee Survey Quartrely. 23(2004): 66-72.

[75] Myers “Environmental Refugees: A Growing Phenomenon of the 21st Century”; see also UNHCR, “2013 UNHCR Regional Operations Profile – North America and The Caribbean” (2013) http://www.unhcr.org/pages/49e492086.

Photograph used under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Germany license. Sven Kindler, 4 July 2009. Source: http://www.flickr.com/photos/sven_kindler/3686948591/. View image on Wikimedia Commons.