A growing number of migrants are forced from their homes each day by climate change, and President Biden signaled last week that he wants the United States and the world to pay more attention to the problem.
His first step in that effort was the approval of an executive order Thursday that directs administration officials to undertake a six-month study of climate change’s impact on migration, including “options for protection and resettlement.”
The changes under consideration could far surpass current international practices, experts said—potentially vaulting the United States to global climate leadership after President Trump spent four years dismantling the United States’ capacity for both climate action and refugee resettlement.
Climate migrants lack protections under international refugee laws, despite their ballooning numbers.
“Those of us who have been working in this space have been waiting for this kind of development—and at the highest levels—for years,” said Maxine Burkett, a professor of international and climate change law at the University of Hawaii, Manoa.
Originally designed for people fleeing armed conflict or persecution, the international refugee system is unequipped to help people displaced by climate impacts. It struggles even to define them, because climate change is often an indirect or contributing factor to the proximate causes of migration, such as famine or floods.
Extreme weather is the world’s leading cause of forced displacement. Droughts, wildfires and other weather events have displaced an average of 21.5 million people every year for the past decade, according to a Center for Strategic and International Studies analysis of Internal Displacement Monitoring Center data.
That means extreme weather displaces nearly three times more people than conflict and nearly nine times more than fear of persecution, according to the CSIS analysis.
By 2050, the World Bank estimates that as many as 140 million people could become internally displaced each year. (Significant emissions reductions could save as many as 100 million people annually from that fate, according to the 2018 research.)
Climate change is not the sole cause of extreme weather, but it’s making the impacts worse and more frequent. And while many of those displacements are temporary, they’re more likely to become permanent as they repeat.
Erol Yayboke, one of the authors of the CSIS analysis, said Biden’s order potentially could put the United States on the “cutting edge" of an issue that has gotten scant attention, even in the Paris climate agreement and the global compacts on refugees and migration.
“These things usually have to start with strong domestic action by globally influential countries like the U.S.” said Yayboke, a senior fellow and deputy director of CSIS’ Project on Prosperity and Development.
“I think that this executive order is absolutely a step in the right direction but, as always, the proof will be in the pudding,” he said.
Biden’s order directs his administration to analyze how to identify, protect and resettle people “directly or indirectly” displaced by climate impacts. It also instructs the government to consider how U.S. foreign aid can help prepare climate-vulnerable areas. Those findings are expected to be published publicly.
Burkett called Biden’s order “incredibly forward-looking,” both for leapfrogging the international community and for outlining a comprehensive approach to the issue, including preemptive assistance to areas that might suffer climate impacts.
“The proposal is not only smart planning to prepare for increased movement of populations, but also allows for careful consideration of how to prevent migration by ensuring that communities can thrive in place for generations to come,” she said in an email.
Eric Schwartz, president of Refugees International, said the totality of Biden’s actions signals the “most comprehensive commitment to enlightened policies and practices” since the modern U.S. refugee system was created four decades ago.
“This is not hyperbole,” he said in a statement.
“The E.O.’s section on climate change and migration marks a new commitment to seriously explore additional options for protection and resettlement of those forced to migrate due to climate change,” added Schwartz, who was one of the Obama administration’s top refugee officials.
Last month, Biden signed executive orders directing his diplomats to press for greater climate ambition at international assemblies like the Group of Seven summit.
Together, that order and this new one suggest that Biden is looking to pursue the issue on several fronts at once, said Erin Sikorsky, deputy director of the Center for Climate and Security. She called it “a big moment of opportunity.”
“It is a chance to truly ensure that the global rules and norms around migration and refugees are updated to match the key current and future drivers of forced migration,” she said in an email.
“Renewed US leadership on this issue at home and on the global stage on climate migration is a potential game changer in terms of developing legal protections that stick, and the study and options called for in this EO are a good first step.”
In remarks Thursday, Biden said he was seeking to reclaim “our credibility and moral authority, much of which has been lost.”
The president said his order would put the United States on a path to raising its refugee cap to 125,000 next year. Biden also described it as part of his strategy to pressure other countries to act more urgently on climate.
“As I said in my inaugural address, we will repair our alliances and engage with the world once again, not to meet yesterday’s challenges, but today’s and tomorrow’s,” Biden said.
“We’re taking steps led by the example of integrating climate objectives across all of our diplomacy and rais[ing] the ambition of our climate targets,” he said.
Reprinted from E&E News with permission from POLITICO, LLC. Copyright 2021. E&E News provides essential news for energy and environment professionals.