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COP24: New U.N. Guidelines Will Help People Displaced by Climate Change

The agreement marks a rare moment of unity on an increasingly fraught topic.
Polish Secretary of State for the Environment Michal Kurtyka speaks during the inaugural session at the 24th Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change summit on December 2nd, 2018, in Katowice, Poland.

Polish Secretary of State for the Environment Michal Kurtyka speaks during the inaugural session at the 24th Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change summit on December 2nd, 2018, in Katowice, Poland.

Nations agreed to consider new policies on climate migration at the United Nations climate negotiations in Poland on Saturday, approving a set of guidelines aimed at helping migrants driven from their homes by climate change.

The agreement marked a rare moment of unity on an increasingly fraught topic, and activists celebrated that President Donald Trump's divisive rhetoric around migration had not managed to "pollute" the global discussions.

Those tensions were evident at a separate U.N. meeting in Morocco, however, where nations adopted a separate pact that would help deal with the subject of migration more widely; notably, the pact was adopted without the approval of a cluster of countries, including the United States, that had rejected its message.

Despite the positive outcome in Katowice, the subject of climate-related displacement has been slow to get serious attention at the U.N. climate negotiations, although it's long been a priority for developing nations that are struggling to adapt to the hastening impacts of climate change. Developed nations have historically avoided the topic, and there were fears at COP24 last week that the guidelines would be rejected or sidelined entirely.

"These are very general recommendations, and there should not be any agenda in adopting them," says Md Nazrul Islam, director general of Bangladesh's Ministry of Foreign Affairs. "But developed countries think if you recognize the loss-and-damage issue, then you somehow have to pay compensation, so that's why they're not very interested in discussing this formally."

The guidelines were developed by the U.N.'s Task Force on Displacement, which includes 13 representatives from both rich and poor countries. The panel was established as part of the Paris Agreement in 2015, specifically to explore ways to "avert, minimize, and address" human displacement due to climate change.

The decision to establish the task force was a big step in itself, given that the first 16 years of U.N. climate conferences avoided mentioning the topic altogether, says Dina Ionesco, of the International Organization for Migration, who helped to write the guidelines.

"You can think it's boring, that nothing is happening.... But I'm convinced we've achieved something," Ionesco says. "Maybe with these recommendations, we're on the way to removing political sensitivities and [creating] something more concrete."

The recommendations ask countries to consider creating new laws and policies to deal with displacement, to enhance data collection and research on migration, and to consider the needs of migrants themselves—and of the communities where they end up.

Crucially, countries also agreed to let the task force continue its work on displacement indefinitely, meaning that this conversation is unlikely to fade any time soon. That's important, given the urgency of the subject. According to the Internal Displacement Monitoring Center, there were 18 million new displacements in 2017 caused by weather-related disasters—more than were displaced by conflict—including 8.6 million people moving because of floods, and 7.5 million because of storms.

At COP24, countries "welcomed" these guidelines and agreed to include them in their final report—a symbolically important gesture, and one that will make it easier to hold governments accountable in the future. The decision needs to be rubber-stamped before the conference concludes at the end of this week.

"Trump's approach to migration has not polluted the conversation here," says Harjeet Singh of ActionAid.

But there's one thing missing in the newly agreed-upon document, and that's money. Tucked away in a separate document—one that hasn't been approved by the negotiators gathered in Katowice—is an invitation to countries to "provide information, by January 15th of 2019, on sources of financial information they are providing" relating to climate migration. It's a weak demand that is unlikely to yield any offers of cash.

"It's a good thing that the issue has been recognized—all the critical aspects have been underlined," Singh says. "However, that will not help people on the ground unless we also put money on the table."

Eventually, Singh says, he would like to see the creation of a new "solidarity fund" to help climate migrants and anyone else who has suffered irreplaceable losses because of climate change. But he suspects that the absence of any hard commitments on finance was what led countries to accept the report.

Given the divisive language and increasingly draconian measures taken on immigration by populist governments like the U.S., that was far from an assured outcome—even though most displacement is expected to be internal, rather than cross-border, and will also affect developed countries as well as developing ones. According to the IDMC, the U.S. was the fourth worst-affected country in 2017, with 1.7 million displacements.

Nonetheless, the U.S. was among the handful of governments that refused to sign the other U.N. pact on migration that was adopted in Morocco on Monday, calling the Marrakech agreement an effort by the U.N. "to advance global governance at the expense of the sovereign right of states." Australia, Austria, the Czech Republic, the Dominican Republic, Hungary, Latvia, Poland, Slovakia, and Chile have also pulled out of that process.

The Global Compact for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration, as it is officially known, is not legally binding and contains 23 objectives for better managing the movement of people around the world, including in the context of climate migration.

While leaving homes will often be a last resort for those dealing with increasing storms and water scarcity, plus the slow rising of sea levels, it need not be an undignified process. If governments now take the recommendations seriously, this progress in Katowice could help re-frame a positive vision of migration as a way to cope with climate change, rather than a forced decision in times of chaos.