We must act fast on both climate displacement and adaptation. It’s right and it’s smart.

December 13, 2023
December 13, 2023

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As global leaders gather in Geneva, Switzerland, for the Global Refugee Forum on 13-15  December 2023, BRAC Global’s Executive Director, a global champion in safeguarding people on the move, is calling for policy direction and investment to address climate displacement and support adaptation initiatives in the global south. With the climate crisis unfolding into a global emergency, how do we support communities to build climate resilience?

The relentless march of the climate crisis is continuing its devastating impact on lives and livelihoods worldwide. Bangladesh is a poignant example – it is the seventh most climate-vulnerable country in the world, and 2,000 people migrate to Dhaka every day already. This influx is equivalent to transplanting the city of San Francisco in the United States to Dhaka each year, placing immense strain on one of the world’s most densely-populated cities.

The palpable impact of the climate crisis affects health, forces people and communities to seek new ways to survive – and causes unprecedented displacement. Climate-induced migration has surged by 40% in the past five years, and over a billion people are estimated to be forced to migrate by 2050. The consequences of being forced to move for survival know no borders, as evidenced repeatedly in Europe, the Middle East, Africa, and the Americas.

While regions like South Asia and East Africa, where BRAC has its largest programmes, have borne the brunt of the climate impacts for decades, the consequences are now reverberating in the regions most responsible for global warming. In 2023, Greece experienced record-high temperatures, leading to the evacuation of 30,000 people from Rhodes, marking the largest climate change-induced evacuation in Europe.

Each job, home, and life lost to climate events is a tragedy, but the scale and impact of such events in developed nations are only a fraction of the reality faced by the most climate-vulnerable countries.

The palpable impact of the climate crisis affects health, and forces people and communities to seek new ways to survive. © BRAC

Conducting fire drills while the world burns

Despite decades of acknowledging the injustices perpetuated by industrialised economies, the growing consequences of emissions persistently burden the world’s poorest nations, entangling them in escalating debt and destitution. World leaders gathered in Dubai for COP28 and made some progress by operationalising a Loss and Damage Fund, but the funding pledged does not even begin to touch the enormity of what has been destroyed. Policy decisions related to the climate remain ensnared in misinformation, cycles of inaction, and failed compromises. As BRAC’s Executive Director Asif Saleh said after COP26, world leaders are ‘conducting fire drills whilst the world burns’.

As we hurtle towards a future marked by unabated global warming, policymakers need to recognise that adapting to this new reality is as crucial as slowing the rate of warming. A number of these policymakers will be in Geneva in mid-December for the Global Refugee Forum. Climate-induced migration needs to be at the centre of their agenda.

Climate displacement is forced displacement and cannot be conveniently labelled as economic migration – of people seeking a better life. Paradoxically, this forced migration is the consequence of high polluters and industrialised nations themselves seeking a better life. Recognising this cause and effect is a critical step to rejecting narratives that mislabel reasons for displacement and contradict the benefits and hardships we sow as a global society.

There are two clear approaches to handling this forced and growing displacement.

The effective and humane approach involves giving the right to asylum to those displaced by the climate crisis, recognising their involuntary situation, and equipping them with tools to actively participate in hosting societies. This includes access to essential services like education, health, financial services, and the right to work. The success of this approach has been demonstrated in how the unprecedented number of refugees from Ukraine have been managed in Europe over the past year. While conflict-related refugees may one day hope to return home, such hope is not an option for those whose lands are unlivable or no longer exist.

The other option is the ineffective and dangerous approach that involves rejecting asylum rights, refusing to acknowledge the causes of displacement, and locking people out. This option exacerbates crises for the most vulnerable, pushing them into unsafe conditions, exploitation, and a cycle of perceived criminalisation by those guilty of creating the problem that caused their loss of livelihood.

Special attention is needed for communities living in the most vulnerable situations. © BRAC 2018

No need to reinvent the wheel – invest in scaling proven solutions

Climate adaptation must complement mitigation actions, or risk facing the consequences of protecting the rich for tomorrow, while unashamedly relegating innocent people to being the collateral damage of polluting economies looking to ‘equitably’ transition towards green economies.

Our collective future must pivot away from polluted waters, scorched lands, and punishing innocent displaced people. We need to invest in those most impacted; their knowledge and lived experience will provide returns not just to them but to those who will need to adapt tomorrow.

BRAC is doing this through the Ultra-Poor Graduation programme, which equips people with the tools to lift themselves out of extreme poverty. In Bangladesh, this approach has graduated two million households out of extreme poverty, with over 95% of participants continuing to improve financially seven years after the programme finishes.

The programme is now being adapted to enable people to build resilience to climate shocks, by providing people with climate-resilient livelihoods, connecting them to existing social protection programmes, encouraging savings, and coaching them in disaster management skills. The programme encourages the creation of mobile businesses to reduce risks from natural disasters, promotes climate-tolerant home gardening, shares information on disaster risks tailored to the region and season, and works with people to form community-based climate resilience groups. It has now also been successfully rolled out in both Uganda and Afghanistan, where the programme has been adapted for refugees and those who have been internally displaced.

Nations must collectively recognise the cause and accept the consequences that the impact of the climate crisis will have on both our natural environment and social reality. Proactive action is needed to focus on our global social welfare and not be short-sighted by national and global business interests guided by election cycles and quarterly profit returns. A failure to support people, communities, and countries to adapt will further jeopardise the world’s ability to combat climate impacts effectively. Funding adaptation at scale and recognising the causes of displacement and the rights of the displaced is not only the right thing, it’s the smart thing to do – and it must be prioritised in this month’s discussions.

Bangladesh is an example that climate adaptation can work, but it needs to be better financed and better implemented. Three principles are crucial – that adaptation is a nexus of development-humanitarian-climate programming, that special attention is given to the most vulnerable communities and that adaptation is locally-led.

Jerome Oberreit is the Executive Director, BRAC Global

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