Climate refugees pictured in a makeshift camp in Bentiu, South Sudan, after historic flooding forced an estimated 200,000 people from their homes in 2021, the third consecutive year of serious flooding in the country. (Image credit: U.N. MISS/Flickr)
Major storms struck the opposite coasts of North America over the weekend. Hurricane Fiona made landfall in Puerto Rico on Sunday, killing at least two people and leaving millions without power before battering islands across the Caribbean including Turks and Caicos and the Dominican Republic. Meanwhile remote villages in Alaska are taking stock of the damages from Typhoon Merbok, which affected more than 1,000 miles of coastline. As the global community watches the frequency and intensity of extreme weather events increase before their eyes, experts warn that up to 1.2 billion people could become climate refugees by 2050.
On the sidelines of Climate Week and the U.N. General Assembly, a group of leaders formed a new expert council to address climate-driven migration and put the case of climate refugees on the agenda at the U.N. climate talks this fall.
Launched on Monday, the Climate Migration Council includes chef and humanitarian activist José Andrés, former U.S. cabinet secretaries, and current and former mayors and presidents from around the world. All members signed a Climate Migration Declaration and "committed to press leaders and multilateral organizations on this growing issue."
The storms that battered Alaska and the Caribbean came after historic flooding killed more than 1,500 people in Pakistan last month and left an estimated 7.6 million others displaced. Meanwhile the Horn of Africa is facing one of its worst droughts on record, with nearly 8 million people driven from their homes in Somalia and Ethiopia alone.
The pace and intensity of climate-related disasters mean people will continue to be displaced, and countries that have avoided or evaded meaningful immigration policy reform for decades, such as the United States, are doing themselves no favors by keeping their heads in the sand.
The Climate Migration Council — launched by Laurene Powell Jobs and her Emerson Collective — looks to combine the influence of policymakers, academics and business leaders to push the issue onto the global agenda.
"We know that the climate crisis acts as a powerful accelerant to migration patterns, and we need legal pathways, clear institutional leadership and new integrated strategies at all levels of governance that anticipate and safely accommodate the increasing numbers of people affected by the climate crisis," the Climate Migration Declaration reads.
Ed O'Keefe, senior White House and political correspondent for CBS News, published an exclusive on the council on Monday and spoke with Marshall Fitz, managing director of immigration for the Emerson Collective, who will help run the new group. "This is not a topic that governments like to entertain because they want to preserve the sovereignty of their borders," Fitz told him. "It's a hard conversation to have, but it's one that if we're going to be responsible about how we manage this large-scale flow of people, we need to get on top of it."
Notably, the council includes Michael Chertoff and Janet Napolitano, two former homeland security secretaries who oversaw U.S. immigration policy, as well as former leaders of the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), former presidents of Costa Rica and Colombia, and members of the Mayors Migration Council, a global mayor-led coalition to accelerate action on migration and displacement.
These leaders agreed to four specific action items by signing the declaration — among them financing locally-driven climate adaptation and resilience strategies to "address the root causes of climate-induced migration" and partnering with governments to ensure people who have already been displaced by disasters "have access to humanitarian assistance that meets their essential needs with full respect for their rights wherever they are."
In the short term, that means putting the plight of climate refugees on the agenda at the U.N. climate talks (COP27) in Sharm El Sheikh, Egypt, in November, O'Keefe reported.
"We can no longer treat climate mitigation, climate adaptation, and climate-related migration as separate challenges," the Declaration reads. This would represent a policy departure from past U.N. climate talks, where world leaders made modest moves on financing adaptation and mitigation in developing countries but continued to skirt the issues of climate migration and climate-induced loss and damage, which refers to the fallout from extreme weather events.
At the most recent COP26 talks in Glasgow, leaders pledged more adaptation and mitigation financing for developing countries but failed to establish a dedicated new loss and damage fund after pushback from rich nations like the U.S.
Failing to help vulnerable countries cover the cost of disaster recovery means more displaced people, who will have to wait even longer before returning to their homes — if they ever can.
Michelin-starred chef José Andrés founded World Central Kitchen after the 2010 earthquake in Haiti to bring chefs and volunteers together to provide meals immediately following natural disasters and other crises.
The team at World Central Kitchen has moved swiftly to the epicenter of virtually every major disaster since — from Puerto Rico following Hurricane Maria in 2017 to Mozambique after Cyclone Idai two years later. More recently, World Central Kitchen has become the largest food relief organization in war-torn Ukraine, and it's currently on the ground in Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic and Alaska giving those affected by Fiona and Merbok the comfort of a hot meal.
They'll head to Bermuda, Turks and Caicos and other Caribbean islands affected by Fiona in the coming days. "The experience of the past and the work in many islands around the Caribbean is giving us this know-how in making sure we adapt to the situation," Andrés said in a video message posted to Twitter on Monday.
His expertise in addressing the immediate fallout of natural disasters and speaking to climate refugees and other displaced people will surely be invaluable for the new council. But although the council is billed as "a group of government, business, national security, academic and advocacy experts," Andrés seems to be the only business leader on the member list so far.
Considering that sustainable business coalitions like BSR already identify climate-driven migration as a material issue, business leaders looking to support climate refugees now have a clear avenue to do so in the form of the new council.
"Businesses can act by ensuring people — and the issues that affect our communities — are integrated into climate strategies and net-zero commitments," Eileen Gallagher, associate director of climate and sustainability at BSR, said in a statement. "This includes listening and understanding people most affected by climate change and co-creating solutions with underserved communities, pushing for policy change, protecting human rights, and building resilience to climate change across their value chains."
But the question remains: Will business leaders take the opportunity?
Mary Mazzoni has reported on sustainability in business for over a decade and now serves as managing editor of TriplePundit. She is also the general manager of TriplePundit's Brand Studio, which has worked with dozens of brands and organizations on sustainability storytelling. Along with 3p, Mary's recent work can be found in publications like Conscious Company, Salon and Vice's Motherboard. She also works with nonprofits on media projects, including the women's entrepreneurship coaching organization Street Business School. She is an alumna of Temple University in Philadelphia and lives in the city with her partner and two spoiled dogs.