After months of negotiations, the UN climate change talks in Copenhagen have good news for countries that might see hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of people migrating or being displaced by climate change.
For the first time the text dealing exclusively with adaptation to climate change - one of several tracks up for negotiation - has included a substantive paragraph on the need to consider planned relocation for people displaced by climate change, with "interstate cooperation" to respond to their needs.
The text has yet to be adopted, but this paragraph had "no opposition from all the countries, and is most likely to go through," said Bruno Sekoli, chair of the Least Developed Countries (LDCs) group at the talks.
Koko Warner, head of the Environmental Migration, Social Vulnerability and Adaptation Section at the UN University, described the inclusion as "very significant". She and other academics and aid agencies have been lobbying and working with countries at the talks for the recognition of migration and displacement as part of adaptation action.
The term "climate refugees" was first mentioned in the adaptation text at talks in Bonn, Germany, in June. The term has been dropped, but the need to help people who "either cross an international border as a result of, or find themselves abroad and are unable to return owing to, the effects of climate change" has gained prominence.
There was widespread consensus that the current legal definition of a refugee should not be tampered with to accommodate those affected by environmental factors, and researchers agreed that most countries would accept a new concept and a separate convention on people displaced by environmental changes.
Mizan Khan, a member of the Bangladesh delegation and part of the team working on migration in the adaptation text, said he was certain the issue would be endorsed by all countries, which would set in motion the process of considering an international legal framework for the status of people displaced by climate change.
"We are considering the term 'climate change-induced displacees'," said Khan, who teaches environmental science at the North South University in Bangladesh.
Among the other immediate steps taken, he suggested, should be setting up an international financing mechanism to fund the relocation of internally displaced people, and beginning a process to consider the status of countries such as Maldives, a group of low-lying islands in the Indian Ocean, whose entire population might have to be relocated because of the rising sea level.
Global meetings were marked by emotional appeals from island states, such as the Maldives and Tuvalu, which could become largely uninhabitable by a one-metre rise in sea level. The Maldives has played a leading role in creating awareness of the issue for the past two decades.
The debate on "climate refugees" has been controversial because of the sheer numbers of people likely to be affected, but the UN University's Warner said research organizations and humanitarian agencies emphasized that most of the migration and displacement caused by climate change would be internal.
As the impact of climate change intensifies, estimates of the number of people displaced by natural disasters or rising sea levels have grown from 50 million in 2010, to hundreds of millions or even one billion by 2050.
"Forced movements, both internal and transboundary, can partially be prevented by timely and adequate adaptation, including disaster risk reduction measures," Warner said. "This needs to be combined with measures to better manage and increase the positive impact of voluntary population movements."
The considerable attention to the issue in Copenhagen follows the African Union's recognition in an international agreement, the Kampala Convention, that natural disasters as well as conflict and generalized violence were key factors in uprooting people.
In 2008 climate-related natural disasters like droughts, hurricanes and floods forced 20 million people out of their homes, while 4.6 million people were internally displaced by conflicts, according to a recent joint study by the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) and the Geneva-based Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre.
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