Hopes and challenges for climate-displaced communities


The decision at COP28 to operationalise the Loss and Damage Fund is a welcome move but it needs to be put on the fast track to ensure a secure future for vulnerable people.

Climate migration

The latest Emissions Gap Report 2023 of the United Nations Environment Programme, released just before the 28th session of Conference of Parties (COP28), set the tone for the discussions and struggles around negotiations during the annual ritual at Dubai. We went to COP at a time when global temperatures and greenhouse gas emissions were breaking all records and the pledges under the Paris Agreement were found lacking. The report found that the pledges under the agreement were putting the world on track for about 3 degree C temperature rise above pre-industrial levels this century.   

Until the beginning of October this year, 86 days were recorded with temperatures over 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels. September was the hottest recorded month ever, with global average temperatures clocking 1.8°C above pre-industrial levels. The report finds that global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions increased by 1.2 per cent between 2021 and 2022 to reach a new record of 57.4 Gigatonnes of Carbon Dioxide Equivalent (GtCO2e). GHG emissions across the G20 countries increased by 1.2 per cent in 2022. Emissions trends reflect global patterns of inequality. Because of these worrying trends and insufficient mitigation efforts, the world is on track for a temperature rise far beyond the agreed climate goals during this century. In fact, by the end of December, it has already been confirmed that 2023 was the hottest year so far.

The current trend of temperature rise and ‘business as usual’ climate action may spell doom for the vulnerable communities on the frontlines of climate disasters. One of the impacts that we have been observing is the displacement of millions of people due to climate impacts. Communities facing such displacements are always on the move and have been seeking climate justice from the COP.  Every year they get hopeful but their hopes are shattered after the negotiations. 

Already, millions have become climate migrants, and the risks of migration further increase as temperatures rise and disasters become more frequent. Vulnerable people across the world – who are affected by climate change – face immense difficulties in coping with the situation. And their governments are also finding it difficult to help them out of this situation. Civil society groups have been advocating for both social and legal protection for the climate migrants and also those who cannot move out of the impacted areas for several reasons. Finding financial resources is certainly a problem but initiatives need to go beyond provisioning of funds. The people, whether they prefer (or are forced) to stay in their traditional places or they choose to migrate, have their rights to dignified lives, access to land, and basic life-preserving resources. Almost all who migrate are in a way forced to do so.

Hopes shift, from one event to another

I participated in the Bonn Climate Change Conference – Bonn intersessional – held in June last year. Many of us from the civil society and other stakeholders had hoped that the rights of climate migrants would be secured by the world governments. However, as the world seeks more participation of the private sector in the climate solutions, rights of the vulnerable groups seem to be receiving less priority. Everything centres on ‘funds’ and the climate negotiation process still struggles to break this barrier.  Unfortunately, but not surprisingly, the Bonn intersessional did not yield concrete results for the millions of climate migrants.  

Looking at the slow pace of development with regard to providing ‘climate justice’ to the climate-displaced communities, I did not pin much hope on COP28 as well. Little had progressed in the meanwhile – between Bonn and Dubai – except for compromised guidelines for a loss and damage fund. Not to my surprise, Simon Stiell, the Executive Secretary of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), also said he was “never satisfied” when it came to these conferences, noting that COP28 itself would be the litmus test on whether nations are making progress on collectively addressing the impacts of climate change.

Forced to stay, forced to move

Our experience in the Bay of Bengal tells us that communities don’t normally want to migrate out of their traditional habitations until and unless they become completely uninhabitable. People know very well that once they move out of their places, where they lived with their customary rights and other privileges, they would be permanently alienated. They are also alienated from the natural resources on which their families have depended for generations. Those forced to move permanently lose local social, cultural, and ecological resources forever. Their traditional knowledge systems, deeply rooted in their cultures, suddenly become irrelevant as they find themselves stateless. This loss of culture and knowledge can never be remediated, but what governments can do is to assist those dispossessed by global warming to safely migrate and resettle.

In the Indian state of Odisha, some communities living by the Bay of Bengal are consistently driven away from their lands by an ever-invading sea. In Kendrapara district of the state, climate change has accelerated the process of engulfing the Satabhaya area (named afer a cluster of seven villages already drowned in the sea) in the last three decades, making the region the first in India to be completely swallowed by the sea. As the area kept shrinking, people shifted to safer locations inland. The Government of Odisha assisted in relocating residents to a safer place 12 km away, offering basic amenities and support with building homes. As I have been maintaining, this is arguably the first relocation colony for climate-displaced people in India. While the government has been improving the facilities by the day, the people now need policy support. This is just the first relocation colony. Many more have to be built. They need to be backed by inclusive policies.

What we have witnessed while working with communities along the Bay of Bengal is that they don’t want to move until the sea completely engulfs their lands. Migration is hardly a choice for them; they move out they are forced to. On the contrary, staying back at the same place after sometime does not become voluntary either;  they are forced to stay back because they are not sure of adequate compensation and what will happen to their resources – including the bovine wealth – if they move out. In Satabhaya, people still go back to the original ‘submerged’ location because they still have some important resources and livelihood options left there. 

Relocation policies needed

Individuals and families who suffer losses from infrastructure projects or industrial accidents at least have a legal framework, through which they can seek redress. For the ever-growing number of climate migrants, no such comparable system exists yet.  

And there are people who are landless. The fisherfolk, who are a major vulnerable community so far as sea-level rise and other coastal disasters are concerned, technically don’t own any land. They are not farmers. Traditionally dependent on the sea for their livelihoods, they now find themselves at odds with their greatest resource. Members of these communities enjoy a customary right to a few kilometres of ocean where to fish as well as coastal areas to launch their boats and process their catches. As these areas become increasingly eroded, relocating them has been a challenge for governments. For them, the sea is the land and they cannot move far away from it. If they move to far off places, it becomes difficult for them to come back. 

In Ganjam district, the Odisha government has helped some of these communities who are facing an ever-invading sea to settle in habitation areas built under some cyclone relief schemes. But their rights to fishing are not yet protected because of the lack of any policy. The moment they decide to migrate out, they become just another bunch of migrant workers with the knowledge of fishing and the customary right they have gone forever. There is no way to compensate for these losses at the moment. Any national or supranational frameworks for relocation will need to take into account the needs of diverse communities and the deep sense of loss their members face. The recently established Loss and Damage fund recognises this problem. The fund has been established to “respond to loss and damage whose mandate includes a focus on addressing loss and damage to assist developing countries that are particularly vulnerable to the adverse effects of climate change in responding to economic and non-economic loss and damage associated with the adverse effects of climate change, including extreme weather events and slow onset events”. We will discuss more on that in later parts of this article.

The myriad issues involving climate refugees and forced relocation cut across all regions. The risks are set to intensify in the coming years. The World Bank’s 2021 Groundswell report estimates that an estimated 216 million people will be forced to migrate within their own country by 2050 in six regions of the world, if we fail to address the root causes of climate change. Asia is among the worst regions in this context. In a regional consultation that was organised by us before the Bonn intersessional, as part of the Climate Migration and Displacement Platform network, civil society organisations from India, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, the Philippines, Indonesia, Thailand, Cambodia, and Vietnam echoed this and discussed the immediacy of climate disasters and resulting migration in large numbers. 

Civil society advocates hoped the Bonn intersessional would collectively push governments to adequately finance climate response and rehabilitation projects and other forms of technical support. Developed nations, as the historical and current contributors to the climate crisis, are responsible for these “planned disasters” and as such it is their responsibility to provide equitable relief. Unfortunately, such high greenhouse gas-emitting countries delayed the discussion of adequate climate finance to COP28, further delaying the creation of just policies for relocating and resourcing the displaced.

As the climate crisis advances, nations that have contributed the least to this catastrophe have one resounding demand for those that have contributed the most: Take responsibility for your actions. The planet’s most vulnerable populations need large, wealthy polluters to stop delaying critical conversations and begin planning and financing solutions for the emerging climate migration crisis. For communities like Satabhaya, it’s too late, but for many more communities, there’s still hope.

Did COP28 deliver?

COP certainly brought a lot of hope for the climate displaced people of the globe. Climate mobility was in discussion on a daily basis, both at events and negotiations. It’s also noteworthy that the Global Stocktake makes clear references to displacement. It recognises the particular vulnerability of displaced populations, acknowledges efforts already made to respond to displacement and calls for governments and relevant institutions to make progress in averting, minimising and addressing loss and damage, including through measures related to displacement, relocation and migration.

As negotiations are all about texts that the negotiating governments agree, displacement language in the negotiation texts is certainly encouraging. Experts believe that it would provide governments motivation to strengthen policies and commitments to avert, minimise and address displacement and related losses and damages in their next round of nationally determined contributions (NDCs) to be put forward by 2025.

In fact, the COP started with a very surprisingly welcome decision about the operationalisation of the Loss and Damage Fund and the inclusion of displacement and displaced persons in its scope. This, we believed, would pave the way for financing vulnerable communities in developing countries in ways that other climate finance mechanisms had not been able to do so far. Working with local governments has made us realise that they are also constrained to take long-term policy and plan measures as they are not sure of the climate finance they could receive. The Loss and Damage Fund, we thought, would not only help the governments in accessing better finances but also help fight some of the issues and challenges they were facing with the existing funds like the Green Climate Fund. However, the pledges to the fund have not been encouraging so far. It is estimated that developing nations face about US$ 400 billion in losses due to climate change, but the pledges to the fund so far stands at only 0.2 per cent of this – US$ 700 million

Working out the basics

A recent research involving 11 displaced communities living in urban areas shared during one of the side events at COP28 that had me as one of the speakers has found out that the overwhelming majority of displaced populations continue to be vulnerable to disasters and conflict years after their initial displacement, and they are at high risk of entering, or staying in, economic insecurity once they have been forced to leave their home. While forced displacement is on the rise across the world, one in four displaced persons end up in urban informal settlements, often on the edges of cities. With these people getting disconnected with natural resources, a vast reservoir of traditional knowledge systems linked to these resources also gets lost. In cities, there are no takers of this knowledge system anymore. Almost all the displaced people end up being daily wage labourers in sectors to which they had no exposure before.  They are forced to live a life that is far below their previous standards on most counts. 

While the details of the Loss and Damage Fund are being worked out, all these factors need to be counted. The fund should not only be easily accessible to the most vulnerable communities in the poor and developing countries, but also be transparently governed, equitable and accountable.  Further, the fund should be used to support communities in their decisions to stay or move by compensating them for the losses – both economic and non-economic. The fund should also be governed by a human rights based approach that should be adhered to by the grantee governments and other stakeholders. 

The decision to operationalise a fund sparked a sense of hope at the beginning of COP28. However, the slow pace of the funding pledges and other developments is not encouraging at all. This needs to change for us to call COP28 a real success. Or else, it will go down as a jamboree of little substance. Hope the collective consciousness and professional decision-making abilities of the governments of the world are put to scrutiny this time around. Science has not failed us, our governments have.