"We argue that the UNFCCC can and should recognize climate migrants," Chris Gibb of the University of Montreal told environmentalresearchweb. "Pursuing this policy option does not preclude taking action in other institutions or international frameworks at other scales, e.g. bilateral agreements between countries or regions. While imperfect, UNFCCC recognition is the best current option."

The Cancun Adaptation Framework agreed at the UNFCCC COP16 meeting in 2010 invites parties to undertake "measures to enhance understanding, co-ordination and co-operation with regard to climate-change induced displacement, migration and planned relocation, where appropriate". But the framework does not oblige signatories to take action, or specify how implementation should occur.

"To date, no international body has accepted responsibility for addressing the issue of climate migration, despite its importance as an emerging policy issue," said Gibb. "We designed [our] paper to provoke debate and to move the climate-migration issue forward in academic and policy circles, and in particular, examine what the recognition of climate migrants under the auspices of the UNFCCC can and cannot achieve."

Together with James Ford of McGill University, Gibb examined the complexity of defining climate migrants, assessed the potential for the UNFCCC to officially recognize such migrants and proposed a guiding framework showing how the UNFCCC could achieve recognition.

No single factor, event or process inevitably produces migration, Gibb and Ford argued, making it hard to differentiate between types of migrant. They said that the UN is the only truly global institution, migration is widely regarded as an adaptation to climate change and the UNFCCC has a mandate to address adaptation issues. What is more, ignoring climate migration could undermine other adaptation efforts while recognizing migration could prevent the most vulnerable countries from bearing the costs.

On the other hand, the effectiveness of the UNFCCC in enabling newer adaptation initiatives is largely untested, and its decision making is slow and tends to lead to political rather than legal commitments. If done incorrectly, UNFCCC recognition could result in further marginalization of climate migration, and increased attention to climate migrants could come at the expense of other displaced people.

"Previous works have examined various options for addressing climate migration, including the creation of a stand-alone convention or bilateral or multilateral agreements, and the re-opening of the Refugee Convention to revize the definition of a refugee to include climate migrants," said Gibb. "We add to these options the possibility of recognizing climate migrants under the auspices of the UNFCCC. We argue that recent developments within the UNFCCC indicate a willingness of the international community to address climate migration as an adaptation issue within the UNFCCC."

Gibb is currently studying a specific case of environmental migration in the Philippines, researching how vulnerable groups of people rebuild their livelihoods following a disaster. "The research will contribute to a growing body of case studies of the impacts of environmental migration, and more specifically climate migration," she said. "These field inputs are especially relevant to creating sound policy."

Gibb and Ford reported their study in Environmental Research Letters (ERL) as part of the ERL Focus on Environmental Risks and Migration: Causes and Consequences.