Nearly three decades ago, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) indicated that “the gravest effects of climate change may be those on human migration.” Estimates differ widely, but most experts agree that upwards of 25 million people will be forced to leave their homes by 2050.

Yet, international and domestic laws around the world continue to take a cautious and nuanced approach to the problem. Confusion and a lack of global consensus surround even what to call these displaced persons. Nor is there agreement on where they are going, what causes their movement, and how these future fast-onset disasters differ from slow-onset environmental degradation that caused people to voluntarily move throughout history.

The matter is further complicated by a complex web of social and economic factors. Brittany Lauren Wheeler, a current PhD student at Clark University exploring the moral-legal interfaces of migration, and a research assistant on University of Hawaiʻi’s Marshall Islands Climate & Migration Project, puts it simply. “Everything is involved. Taking it all into consideration is so much easier said than done.” Everything, she clarifies, means colonialism, imperialism, flows of worldwide finance, environmental change, and labor relations, just to name a few factors. But despite the complexities, Wheeler is careful to add that “leaving some of the context out when we talk about climate change is not doing anyone any service.”

Through a series of interviews, surveys, and the Q method (which asks participants to rank and sort a series of statements in order to measure shared viewpoints and subjectivity regarding a specific topic), the Marshall Islands Climate & Migration Project attempted to untangle some of these complexities. The number of Marshallese residing in the U.S. has risen from 7,000 people in the year 2000 to 22,000 in 2010, settling predominantly in Hawaiʻi, Arkansas, and Washington state.

Researchers landed on one main takeaway: the Marshallese they spoke with did not articulate climate change as a motivator for moving. “You have to look at what people are talking about: education, health care, and employment,” says Wheeler. “And you need to understand those desires in relation to environmental change, but also independently. Some things are just more important in the moment: keeping a job or keeping your family fed.”

Mariam Traore Chazalnoel, senior policy specialist in the Migration, Environment and Climate Change Division of the International Organization for Migration (IOM), says the same pattern exists around the world. “We had exactly the same kind of results in a study that was done for sub-Saharan African migrants to Morocco,” she explains. “The impacts of climate change are still real on [migrants’] livelihoods, on their environment. It’s just really hard to make that direct connection, as well for us the researchers or the field operation people who speak to these migrants; everyone finds it very hard to make the link.”

But if migrants do not define themselves as victims of climate change, how can the world identify the problem and develop appropriate policies and programs? Are they internally displaced persons? Climate refugees? In the specific case of the Marshallese, are they Compact of Free Association (COFA) migrants? The Marshall Islands are one of three states along with the Republic of Palau and the Federated States of Micronesia (FSM) that are part of COFA, the details of which are currently being renegotiated for 2023 and 2024. Currently under this bilateral agreement, citizens from these three states can migrate to the United States to live, work, or study without visas as partial compensation for America’s legacy of nuclear testing in their homelands. Some governments are even looking to COFA to see if it can be modified to address climate migrants.

And this may not be an isolated case. Chazalnoel passionately believes regional and bilateral agreements are where most of the future protection of migrants should and will come from.

But that still leaves many questions unanswered. What do destination states like Hawaiʻi need to do to prepare, if anything? What does the label of “migrants” mean with regard to the resources they will receive when they arrive at destination states? How well will they integrate and how will they be perceived and accepted by others?

The answers are not straightforward. Although the Marshallese are unique given their COFA status and the intense impact climate change is currently having on their island nation (even compared to fellow COFA states Palau and FSM), coastal communities around the world are facing the same ambiguity of terminology and the legal no-man’s land that currently exists at the nexus of environmental law, refugee law, human rights, environmental studies, and international relations.

One of the leaders working in this fundamental gap is Robin Bronen, an immigration attorney and Alaska’s first refugee resettlement director who coined the term climigration in 2008. “I recognized we did not have the governance tools to address the internal displacement of people, and the term climate refugees was inappropriate,” explains Bronen. “Look anywhere in the world. Being a refugee sucks. That should be the last possible solution.”

Refugees, as defined in the 1951 Refugee Convention (which still serves as the world’s preeminent refugee law), are people fleeing persecution and torture, which is often caused by the government charged with protecting them. In the case of climate-forced displacement, however, governments are being asked to reduce greenhouse gases to protect their citizens.

Climate refugee is arguably still the most mainstream term, however, and the one most commonly used by the media. Wheeler, who admittedly says she does not use the term climigration, says she has also heard several conferences warn of adding a climate amendment to the 1951 Refugee Convention. Although meant to broaden protections to those suffering from environmental change, a climate refugee amendment may actually become more restrictive, while simultaneously watering down protections that were hard fought for political refugees. The legal definition of the term refugee also explicitly refers to international displacement, and as Bronen repeatedly stresses, “People don’t want to leave their countries. The governments that have jurisdiction over their lives need to have the capacity, tools, and resources to facilitate the internal movement of people.” Wheeler agrees that “people want to remain where they are or return to where they live,” and Chazalnoel is careful to note that “most countries, including small islands and developing states, don’t want to paint themselves as victims or as disempowered.” The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) also agrees that most climate change-induced migration is likely to be internal, with migrants moving within their countries of origin.

This may be surprising considering the frequent news stories about disappearing island nations. In the Maldives, for example, former president Mohamed Nasheed was considering buying land in Australia, Sri Lanka, or India as part of climate change adaptation. Perhaps equally surprising is that many political scientists say the majority of international environmental migration will happen between developed countries, not developing to developed as the above example might suggest. Unfortunately, there is no government relocation framework or funding that can accommodate the influx of people moving either domestically or internationally.

Bronen, however, has developed an idea for a relocation framework that she calls a “roadmap for what needs to happen [with national policies].” It relies heavily on partnering with indigenous knowledge keepers and conventional earth scientists to develop in-depth community engagement protocols and a community-based environmental monitoring program. Examples of the framework identified a new hazard in Alaska called Usteq. The Yupik word means catastrophic land collapse, and it is caused by the combination of thawing permafrost, erosion, and flooding.

Despite its success, the framework has yet to be adopted. But Bronen, who previously worked with the Obama administration, remains optimistic. “I’m hoping that with this new administration, we will have the opportunity. I think [the roadmap] is viable. And it’s not a giant, heavy lift.” A seemingly straight shooter, Bronen sees the main challenge as getting society to recognize the fact that millions of people are not going to be able to stay along coastlines. “It’s the reality of the consequence of our refusal to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.”

In the meantime, Kivalina, an Alaskan Native Village widely touted across international publications as Alaska’s first “climate refugees,” is one prominent example of the internal displacement of which Bronen and the UNHCR speaks. And although vastly colder than their counterparts on low-lying islands and atolls in the Pacific, they too are disproportionately experiencing the frontlines of climate change. Surface air temperatures in the Arctic continue to warm at twice the rate relative to the rest of the globe, and the effects on Alaskan ecosystems have been playing out in a multitude of ways, including thawing permafrost, reduced shore protection from sea ice, and increasing river flows.

The changes have been so drastic that the situation prompted the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to do a four-year erosion study from April 2005 to March 2009. One hundred and seventy-eight Alaskan communities were found to have erosion problems, of which the Corps designated 26 as “priority action communities.” Also, in March 2009, the Immediate Action Work Group (IAWG), which was formed by the Alaskan Climate Change Subcabinet in 2007, found six Alaskan communities “most imperiled by climate change and in need of immediate action.” Five of the six communities made both lists, including Kivalina, which has been plagued by storm surges and flooding and is estimated to be uninhabitable by 2025.

From 1980 to 2000, Alaska’s oil and gas industry produced more than 18 billion barrels of oil and six billion cubic feet of natural gas, accounting for an average of 20 percent of the United States’ domestic production. In 2008, Kivalina sued 23 industrial oil and gas corporations, including Exxon, BP, Chevron, and Shell for federal common law nuisance, a common citation in environmental pollution cases. The community claimed the companies’ massive greenhouse gas emissions resulted in global warming that eroded the Arctic sea ice on which their city was built. The companies moved for dismissal, which was granted based on lack of Article III standing—proof the plaintiffs are the object of the defendant’s actions. An appeal was filed in 2012, which was denied a year later.

Regardless of the outcome, this lawsuit is one of the first court cases directly linked to climate change, and it affects all those on its frontlines now and in the future. It also speaks volumes to the complex socio-economics at play in greenhouse gas emissions and how climate change induces migration. Perhaps there is a need to trace responsibility, and in turn appropriate remediation funding, along the lines of colonialism. Of course, this is not straightforward either, and all discussions need to explore the unique and complex histories of each particular place and the money that is already being funneled there. At the end of the day, however, whatever policies are implemented and frameworks are designed, Bronen reminds us it is all about “protecting the human right to self-determination and sovereignty.”


There are many competing and contentious terms (often used interchangeably) that attempt to identify the people and communities moving now, or in the future, due to climate change.

A term coined in 2008 by Alaskan human rights lawyer Robin Bronen to describe “forced permanent migration” of entire Alaskan communities due to climate change. Bronen states, “The critical elements are that climatic events are on-going and repeatedly impact public infrastructure and threaten people’s safety, so loss of life is possible. Catastrophic random environmental events, such as tornadoes and hurricanes, do not cause climigration.”

Climate refugees:
The most mainstream term used in media and academic discussions, although it is misleading. It implies climate change displacement is, or will be, predominantly international, but the UNHCR suggests most climate movement will be within countries of origin.

Environmental Migrants:
An International Organization for Migration (IOM)-approved term, describing people who leave their homes and move either within their country or abroad, because of sudden or progressive changes in the environment that adversely affect their living conditions. This definition is deliberately broad and flexible to include a wide range of movements due to all types of environmental drivers.

Climate Migrants:
Another IOM-approved term used to describe people who relocate within a state or across an international border because of environmental changes specifically due to climate change. Climate migration is thus a subcategory of environmental migration. Mariam Traore Chazalnoel, senior IOM policy specialist, says it is “a simplification” since the migration movement is hard to attribute directly to climate impacts.

Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs):
Groups who have been forced or obliged to flee because of, or to avoid, armed conflict, situations of generalized violence, human rights violations, or natural or human-made disasters, but have not crossed an internationally recognized border.

Environmental Refugees:
IOM deemed this term “off limits” as it could damage the prospects of political asylum seekers, who might face death or torture if not granted refugee status. However, some argue environmental migrants might also face death without relocation.

An umbrella term, according to IOM, not defined under international law which describes movement within or across international borders for a variety of reasons. The UNHCR claims migrants choose to move, mainly to improve their lives by finding work.

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