If living spaces become uninhabitable – What will the future hold for the world, Germany and Munich?

Special dialogue forum “Klimaherbst 2017”

The United Nations expect that environmental and climate changes will trigger massive migration movements. Developing countries face a disproportionate threat from sea level rise, severe storms and droughts. The special dialogue forum, which the Munich Re Foundation organised in conjunction with the publishing house oekom Verlag, discussed the challenges involved and potential solutions.

One thing is already certain today: The poor, and frequently marginalised, sections of the population in developing countries are those who are first and foremost suffering the consequences of climate change. Very often these people have a reduced level of resilience and adaptability. “Bangladesh is threatened by rising sea levels, as are a number of islands in the Pacific. The Sahel zone is affected by droughts more and more frequently”, explained Carolin-Anna Trieb, a Global Studies Master student from the University of Graz in Austria. Dina Ionesco from the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) believes that this makes it all more important to increase the awareness of migration problems. The IOM is a Related Organisation of the United Nations that deal with migration in all its diversity and complexity. They promote international cooperation and the search for practical approaches to handling with the problem.  

A difficult undertaking: “It took 64 years before the IOM member states established a department in 2015 that was dedicated to the links between migration, environment and climate change”, said Dina Ionesco. She believes the topic has now become anchored in people’s consciousness, but is concerned that it is in danger of becoming a fashionable trend that no one really feels responsible for.

"We have a historic opportunity to anchor firmly the phenomena of climate change and environmental changes in the context of migration", said Ionesco from the IOM.

No standard definition
Migration caused by climate is not a new phenomenon. Natural disasters and climate changes have always driven people away from their homelands. It is simply an adaptation strategy with which people secure their livelihoods. However, academic discussion of the phenomenon only began relatively recently. Even today, there is no generally accepted or even legally binding definition of environmental migrants. The category includes people who have lost their homes as the result of natural disasters, as well as those whose livelihoods are undermined by gradual destruction of their environment. “The connection between migration and climate is rather like a complex equation with several unknown variables”, Dina Ionesco explained. It is a phenomenon that is not restricted to a single cause, she adds. Compounding the difficulty is the fact that climate refugees are not protected by the globally valid Geneva Convention, and therefore have no right to asylum.

Understandably, therefore, estimates of the number of future environmental migrants must remain vague. This includes among others voluntary migrants and those driven by necessity, as well as short- and long-term resettlement. Nevertheless, some facts are clear: “26 million people lose their homes each year due to natural disasters and climate changes. This is three times the number of people who are driven out of their homes by conflicts”, explained Dina Ionesco. Experts are largely in agreement that migration is set to increase because of environment-related factors. They are therefore looking for both global and regional approaches. One very positive step is that climate migrants have now been officially recognised as a group in the Paris Climate Agreement, in the Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction, and in the Agenda 2030 for Sustainable Development. “We have a historic opportunity to anchor firmly the phenomena of climate change and environmental changes in the context of migration”, said Ionesco. The general public needs to be sensitised. A major contribution in this context was the “Atlas of Environmental Migration”, recently published by oekom Verlag, which was compiled by Ionesco in collaboration with leading scientists.

Climate change as a strategic challenge
The business world is also concerned about the impact of climate change: “Munich Re recognised about 10 years ago that climate change needs to be seen as a strategic challenge, and one that has an indirect influence on business operations”, explained Ernst Rauch, head of the Climate and Public Sector Business Development unit at the reinsurance company. As part of a comprehensive approach, they asked themselves what they could do to help solve the problem. One way is to provide other countries with the wealth of knowledge and experience that insurers and reinsurers possess. The insurance industry is also involved in specific projects – such as the InsuResilience initiative launched by the G7 states in 2015. This aimed to provide 400 million poor and vulnerable people in developing countries with access to insurance against climate risks by the year 2020. The positive impact that insurance can have was underlined in September 2017, when a hurricane caused widespread devastation on the Caribbean island of Dominica. “The island state had insurance cover through a catastrophe pool, and received aid amounting to US$ 19 million within just a few days”, explained Ernst Rauch.

Following the expert panel, lively discussions with the audience took place.

Meanwhile, in far-off Europe, politicians are now looking for ways to cope with the expected streams of refugees. “The scaremongering that is sometimes seen in this context is dangerous”, Dina Ionesco warned. She pointed out that, in most cases, climate migrants did not want to leave their country. “Let us try to ensure that they can stay there,” she said. Carolin-Anna Trieb added that initiatives to reduce disaster risks offered ways to achieve this. People’s resistance to the effects of climate change needed to be strengthened, by recognising risks and taking prevention and adaptation measures. It is also important, she argued, to keep a close eye on stress factors like increasing urbanisation and the rapid growth in population in some regions of the world.

Two-degree target scarcely achievable
Ernst Rauch believes that any hope of adequately limiting climate change is illusory and that, in all probability, the target of a maximum of two degrees of global warming will not be achieved. “Even if we could stop all CO2 emissions today, the greenhouse gases currently stored in the atmosphere would continue to heat the earth’s atmosphere for the next 100 years”, he pointed out. In terms of climate change, he is concerned that the world will be divided between states that can adapt to the changes and those who do not have the resources or options to do so. Rauch fears that this could trigger new social conflicts and further migration.

The consequences of climate change and environmental migration are the major challenges of our time. The community of states urgently needs to find rules that apply across national boundaries, and that comply with human rights and international law. If the causes and problems relating to environmental migration are recognised and tackled at an early stage, migration could be seen as an adaptation strategy and solution, rather than as an obstacle. 

19 October 2017