When your town is continually threatened by floods or your village's fields become too dry to grow crops, there are two options: move on, or stick around and at try to make things work. At the Paris climate talks, there's a swell of opinion to encourage the latter.
In a session at the Conference of Parties in Paris today, Marine Franck from the UN's Advisory Group on Climate Change and Human Mobility said that, on average, 22.5 million people have been displaced each year between 2008 and 2014 as a result of sudden-onset weather-related hazards — floods, cyclones, earthquakes and the like. The number that have moved because of slower-onset problems, such as drought, remains poorly understood, but is also likely to be significant.
Communities may choose to stay put in the face of such changes, and must adapt to their new situation, by building storm resistant housing, say, or buying seed for drought resistant crops. But adaptation costs money, and many countries most threatened by climate change, such as Bangladesh, Haiti, or the Pacific island nations, are also some of the poorest.
The other option is to move. That may often be within the same country — heading further inland from a flood, or to a nearby town that avoided a hurricane's path. But flooding and drought have already forced African citizens to cross borders, while landslides and earthquakes have pushed South Americans from one country to another.
The outlook is often bleak for migrants. The 1951 Refugee Convention, which defines the rights of those who move and the obligations of the states involved, only accounts for those that flee conflict or persecution, not the effects of climate change.
The choice is tough: huge expense on the one hand, and a potentially brutal struggle for the displaced on the other. The Prime Minister of the Cook Islands — one of the Pacific island nations at the front line in terms of threats from climate — put it starkly: "Can you put a dollar value on birthright, on nationhood?" he asked. "I suggest not."
There's already a move to help, in the shape of the Nansen Initiative. First launched in October 2012 and that was finally endorsed by governments around the world this October, the scheme is designed to protect displaced people "in the context of disasters and climate change."
And now there's a call to integrate these issues into the agreements that are made in Paris over the next few days. In recommendations made by the Advisory Group on Climate Change and Human Mobility earlier today, Franck said that "preventing and minimising displacement must be a priority" for any agreements.
Franck added that in cases where preventing displacement was impossible, people should be able to "migrate in dignity when crisis comes knocking at their door" — that is, they should be able to live a productive life in their new home.
There should be educational prospects and training available to keep them independent, so they're not reliant on the help of others. And when entire settlements need to be abandoned, there must be "careful planning with communities to move them to new homes in safer areas."
But how do you discern a refugee of true climate change from one uprooted by a freak weather event? That's something for politicians and climate scientists to wrangle over in the coming days.
We can be certain of this: the agreements made this week int Paris should do more than simply nod to the plight and future prospects of the displaced.
Image by AP