30 Apr 2019

Venue: International Environment House I | Room 3

Organization: Geneva Environment Network

There is an emerging global consensus that climate change will stress the economic, social, and political systems that underpin each nation state, with impacts on food and water supply, increased competition over natural resources, loss of livelihoods, climate-related disasters, migration and displacement.

About this Session

The UN Environment Programme and the European Union have joined forces to assist crisis-affected countries tackle the effects of climate change. Building on the findings of the G7-commissioned report “A New Climate for Peace”, the four-year project (2017-2021) is developing tools to convert theory on climate change and security into practice.

A lecture with Professor Jon Barnett, a political geographer whose research investigates social impacts and responses to environmental change took place at the International Environment House on Tuesday 30 April. Prof Barnett has twenty years of experience conducting field-based research in several Pacific Island Countries, and in Australia, China and Timor-Leste. This research has helped explain the impacts of climate change on cultures, food security, inequality, instability, migration, and water security, and ways in which adaptation can promote social justice and peace. Jon is Australian Research Council Laureate Fellow in the School of Geography at The University of Melbourne. He was a Lead Author of the chapter on Human Security in the IPCC Fifth Assessment Report, and co-edits the journal Global Environmental Change.


Bruno POZZI, Director, UN Environment Europe Office

Lecture from Prof John BARNETT (University of Melbourne) followed by a discussion with environmental and climage migration and security experts.

Dina IONESCO, Head of Environmental Migration and Climate Change Division, IOM
Catherine-Lune GRAYSON, Policy Advisor, International Committee of the Red Cross
David JENSEN, Head of Environmental Cooperation for Peacebuilding Programme, UN Environment (Moderation)



David Jensen, Head of Environmental Cooperation for Peacebuilding Programme, UN Environment Programme

  • Climate change is referred to as a wicked problem, a problem that amplifies and accelerates existing threats and this is the vicious cycle mentioned in the title
  • Today is about transforming this wicked problem in a virtuous cycle and leveraging the positive opportunities for cooperation and joint action
  • At UNEP we have been working on this topic since 1988 and there’s been a massive evolution in how this topic is being addressed
  • We are at the beginning of phase 3, which consists in transforming knowledge into practical actions on the ground
  • There has been a fundamental shift in the interest on the issue and in the attention it is getting
  • Phase 1: conceptional phase, build the evidence case for climate change existence
    • 1988: the first global conference, hosted by WMO and UNEP, on “the changing atmosphere implications for global security” and concluded that “unanticipated and unplanned climate change may well become the major non-military threat to international security and the future of the global economy”
    • 2003: UNEP event on “environment, conflict and cooperation” and concluded that climate change is a security risk
    • 2007: 4th IPCC report mentioned the consequences of climate change for food, water and energy security as well as the potential for new conflicts
    • 2007: first UNSC on the implication of climate change for international peace and security
    • 2009: first UNGA on the security implications of climate change
    • 2011: end of first phase with the UNEP report on the implications of climate change in the Sahel
  • Phase 2: building global awareness and political will for action
    • 2011: UNSC debate resulted in a Presidential statement, which requested further information on when climate change acts as a threat to UN peace operations
    • 2014: IPCC 5th assessment report, with a chapter on human security related to climate change
    • 2015: Paris Climate Accord + Sustainable Development Goals + Sendai Agreement + New Climate for Peace report of the G7 + Planetary Security Initiative, focused on climate change
    • 2017/2018: UNSC debates, keen to giving mandates to specific missions to address climate change
    • 2018: Migration Compact for Refugees, which talks about the implication of climate change on migration
    • 2018: end of phase two with the establishment UN Climate Security Mechanism
  • Phase 3: transforming knowledge into actions and risk reductions
    • Find ways to systematically assess climate change and security risks and mobilise early action
    • Understand the interactions between climate, natural resources, livelihoods and governance over time and over space
    • Measure the impacts of human intervention and implement these practices across the peace and security communities, the climate change communities, the SDGs communities, … to have a more integrated approach to risks


Professor John Barnett, University of Melbourne

  • Focus on the most dramatic social and geopolitical outcomes of climate change
  • Strategy by climate scientists to politicise and securitise the issue of climate change
  • Nowadays, knowledge more nuanced and coming from different types of scientists
  • Agreement among scholars that climate change is not going to cause conflict among countries, but there is debate about the influence of climate change on sub-state conflicts
  • There is nothing natural about climate change causing armed conflict, other factors have far more influence over the likelihood of inter-state conflict (availability of weapons, institutional stability, …)
  • Agreement among scholars that climate change is likely to have a significant impact on future migration, that migrants might be more vulnerable to climate risks and that extreme events will displace increasingly more people
  • Disagreements about approaches, methods, evidence and analysis: both migration and climate are ubiquitous, how do you find a relationship between ubiquitous phenomena?
  • How can you do reliable and meaningful research on a multi-sided, difficult to get evidence for problem? (When does a change in climate begin/end? When does a conflict begin/end? How do you measure what conflict is? How do you really know what happened if you were not on the field?)
  • Coexistence (of climate change and violence) does not equal causality

Rethinking climate security

  • Climate security research examines cases of violence, retrospectively, looking for a climate signal among multiple causes
  • To understand the causes of peace we need to examine cases where violence is likely, but does not occur (Marshall Islands and Timor Leste)
  • Need to monitor change in climate, social and ecological conditions
  • Peace-building and climate adaptation are interdependent: recruitment into armed groups arises when people have little to lose, and a sense of something to gain – vulnerability to climate change arises when people have no options to adapt
  • A lack of choices (to choose peace and/or to adapt to climate change) generates vulnerability and violence
  • Give people opportunities in terms of social and economic opportunities, political freedoms, transparency
  • Expansion of freedom and choices of individuals as fundamental for adaptation to climate change and peace-building
  • Cooperation on climate change builds confidence among stakeholders, which in turn enhances adaptation and reduces the risk of armed conflicts
  • Maybe climate change will indirectly increase the risk of violence, but we can make peace resilient to climate change: through knowledge about peaceful responses to climate change, through policies and programs that give people choices to adapt to changing social and environmental conditions, through strengthened international cooperation on mitigation and adaptation

Rethinking climate and migration

  • As a species, mobility is central to our history and for the most privileged people in the planet mobility is a huge part of their lives
  • Only after WWI the concepts of sovereignty, borders and passports became important – controlling human movements has become essential to the integrity of the nation-state
  • Migration is normal and has always be related to climate, and it has been a successful strategy
  • The common-sense perception is that everyone wants to migrate, but people often don’t want to move – dignity, identity, sense of belonging of the birthplace
  • The rights of vulnerable people – right to remain and right to adaptation
  • Vulnerability is inversely correlated with mobility (migration takes money, resources, connections)
  • Real humanitarian concern should be on the people who cannot move, since they are the most vulnerable
  • Migration is a risk reducing mechanism for vulnerable people
  • Reasons for concern about climate change and migration, but also opportunities: adaptation strategies in all region of the world (people adapt themselves to climate change) and the expansion of opportunities can lead to reduced vulnerability


  • Uncertainty about the effects of climate change on violence and forced migration – complex causality, evidence and methods
  • Possible responses based on synergies between adaptation, peacebuilding and migration


Dina Ionesco, Head of Environmental Migration and Climate Change Division, IOM

  • My first point is related to the timeline that was mentioned: the timeline on migration, climate change and environment is very similar, but it is not the same
    • Phase zero: all the issues are fully invisible under other issues (demography, labour, …)
    • Phase one: from 1991 to 2010, is exactly the same – making the case, framing the problem
    • Phase two: from 2010 to 2019, with the COP16 in Cancún – anchoring of migration in climate change under an adaptation point of view; with the Paris Climate Accord – mentioning migration and establishing a task force to give recommendations
    • Phase three: from 2019 onwards, with actions being implemented to deal with the issue as well as overexposure of the issue on the public sphere
  • My second point is that it is extremely important to adopt a nuanced approach and not the dramatic mediatic approach; as well as to deal with the technical versus political language debate (migration as climate adaptation versus migration as a failure of climate change mitigation)
  • My third point is about prediction: many projections are confusing people at risk, with people who will certainly migrate – but the latter requires a lot of different conditions to happen (money, will, mobility, …)
  • My fourth point is about action: much can be done and is being done, but just two ideas:
    • Helping people to stay through environmental and climate action (right to remain)
    • Work on migration practices to enhance concretely people’s choices (visa, passports, return, …)

Catherine-Lune Grayson, Policy Advisor, International Committee of the Red Cross

  • Idea of a virtuous cycle difficult to envision
  • Fairly new topic for the ICRC: impact of environment on populations in zones affected by armed conflicts and other situations of violence
  • Helping civilian populations that are affected by climate shocks
  • Need for a good understanding of these shocks to provide short- and long-term relief
  • Complex relationship between climate change and conflicts: climate change can exacerbate situations that can lead to conflicts
  • Currently researching the double impact of climate change and conflicts on populations and infrastructures
  • Pragmatic take on research – focused on humanitarian practices in the context of climate change
  • When it comes on double impact of climate change and conflicts on populations research is poor – actions not yet possible
  • Conflict stricken populations have a limited adaptive capacity because conflict limits their possibilities of adaptation
  • Understand how to work with these populations to help adapt – usual approach on diversification fairly limited as populations usually rely on farming
  • Distinctions: migration as a positive adaptive mechanism; displacement as a negative coping mechanism, that allows to survive but that leads to resource depletion, …
  • In the absence of strong institutions, environmental shocks create tensions inside communities because there are no longer institutions that can mediate on resource exploitation
  • To which extent climate shocks are likely to lead to longer conflicts, knowing that, in a conflict situation, institutions have already deteriorated?


Bruno Pozzi, Director, UN Environment Europe Office: There is one thing that are not in the presentation that might add on to it: the impact of demography and of demographic transition on populations.

JB: There is some evidence that the demographic transition might be reverse in some places experiencing climate change, as historically there has been a process of females delay of marriage as households become wealthier and education becomes more accessible, but we see that droughts are causing a reversal of that and households are marrying off their daughter much earlier as a counter-strategy to droughts. Migration has an influence on the human capital of a population, which in turn influences the economic development of a population.


European Union delegation in Geneva: The EU supports this relevant area of study, through projects like the Platform on Disaster Displacement. In relation to disaster displacement, in that we will probably see an increase in people displaced by disasters, and in relation to the lack of monitoring, can you point to any good examples at national and international level?

JB: In China, for instance, most of the migrants from rural to urban areas are identified so you can get reasonable data of the internal migration, this system is quite unique and other countries don’t have it. Otherwise, there are international migration statistics obviously, but, in the Pacific, there is no good examples of this.

DI: There are very different level of understanding of a disaster displacement, whether it is internal or if it is cross-border. There are different tools, statistical tools at national level, for instance, that can be used to monitor and understand better the situation. There are many things ongoing, but the gaps are major: if we collect data for operational reasons, for instance, you cannot always use it for statistical purposes.


Platform on Disaster Displacement: We do simulation exercises between countries on simulated disasters, so that we can help capacity-building in the response to disasters and enhance preparedness. Professor Barnett, you mentioned the ASEAN and their commitments in terms of receiving people from disaster-stricken areas, could you say something about the Pacific? How are the leaders of the region dealing with these kinds of triangulations?

JB: We talked about lifestyles that are allergic to a discussion about migration and adaptation. On the one hand, you have some countries of the Pacific which are quite sensitive about this: the Marshall Islands never really wanted anyone to talk about climate migration, Tuvalu stopped talking about refugees altogether, Kiribati has completely shut down the conversation to the point that they would arrest an academic if they talked about forced climate migration. They really want to control the narrative around that, since countries don’t want to be talked about or their future to be devalued because that would reduce confidence in the government. However, internally, there is a really strong focus on internal mobility and population planning as part of their adaptation strategy.

On the other hand, you have countries like Fiji, which is a very cosmopolitan country because it is a hub for the other Pacific countries, and they are very open and ready to have a discussion about the topic, they believe they should be leaders in terms of regional migration dialogues. The general perspective is a will to take this conversation forward and the Pacific countries really want to control the narrative. Those countries that are strongly against talking about the topic are quite supporting regional dialogue on the issue.



The event was live on Facebook.