Climate change displacement presents an urgent adaptation problem for the international community. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the Stern Review and many other studies, warn that the effects of climate change may cause millions of people to be displaced.

While no one knows with certainty what climate change will mean for migration patterns, there is a growing consensus that climate change will lead to significant population movements over time.

There is ‘no coherent multilateral governance framework for environmental migration … [regulation] is extremely fragmented and disparate.’ Neither existing climate change law nor refugee law adequately provides for climate changed displaced persons (CCDPs). There has been no coordinated response by governments to address human displacement, whether domestic or international, temporary or permanent, due to climate change. And given the nature and magnitude of the problem which climate change displacement presents, ad hoc measures based on existing domestic regimes may lead to inconsistency, confusion and conflict. It seems to us that the international community has an obvious interest in addressing the problem of human displacement in a coordinated fashion and in the provision of pre-emptive resettlement to those most at risk in terms of the impacts of climate change.

We propose a single, multilateral, stand-alone treaty or convention (the ‘Convention’) to address the problem of climate change displacement, the scope of which – like the problem, both in terms of causation and consequences – is global; parties to the Convention would include both developed and developing states. And while our Convention is a stand-alone instrument, it does draw upon and adapt provisions of other instruments to provide for, assist and protect those displaced by climate change. Adopting a multifaceted, cooperative and international approach to providing for, assisting and protecting CCDPs, our Convention encompasses those displaced internally (and migration experts state that most persons displaced by climate change will be unlikely to cross an international border) and those who cross international borders.

Developing state parties to the Convention – with economies dependent on the natural environment, but without sufficient resources to mitigate and adapt to the effects of climate change – will be those states most in need of displacement assistance. As the International Council on Human Rights Policy notes, ‘the most dramatic impacts of climate change are expected to occur in the world’s poorest countries’; indeed, these countries already experience such impacts.

Both temporary and permanent relocation would be provided for under the Convention; the need for relocation assistance and protection arises whether the relocation is temporary or permanent. In outline form, our Convention proposal is as follows:

The Convention contemplates the collaborative provision of pre-emptive assistance (and if necessary, resettlement) to those most at risk in terms of the impacts of climate change. Provision of assistance under the Convention could, thus, be described as ‘anticipatory adaptation.’

The Convention would largely operate prospectively; assistance to CCDPs would be based on a ‘bottom-up/top-down’ assessment of the likelihood of their environment becoming uninhabitable due to events consistent with anthropogenic climate change such that resettlement measures and assistance were necessary. In other words, displacement is viewed as a form of adaptation that creates particular local vulnerabilities requiring protection as well as assistance through international cooperation. As Mastrandrea and Schneider note,

[s]uccess in adaptation to climate change will come from the mating of top-down and bottom-up assessment. Scientific projections are most useful when joined with the intimate knowledge of existing vulnerabilities that stakeholders possess … Detailed bottom-up studies provide understanding of the structural, institutional, psychological, financial, legal and cultural frameworks of affected sectors [and] … communities.


For a copy of our most recent paper (July 2011), which addresses arguments against a climate change convention such as that which we propose, and for more information on our CCDP convention proposal, please contact David Hodgkinson at or on +61 402 824 832.